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Choosing a Supervisor

The Most Important Relationship of your Academic Career: Your Supervisor.

Choosing a Supervisor

Arguably, one of the most important decisions you will make as a graduate student is the choice of a supervisor. Sometimes this choice is beyond your control – the person you really want may retire or go on extended health leave, or your choice may be determined by funding structures or disciplinary requirements. However, in my case, I was able to choose a supervisor and I learned early on that it was important to choose wisely.

What is a supervisor?

In short, a supervisor is a faculty member who will guide you through the dissertation process. If you are a science student, this may mean that you will work for your supervisor, in their lab. In this case, both your funding and your research will be very much tied to your supervisor. If you are an arts student, your ties to your supervisor will be somewhat looser. Your supervisor will check in with you at set points throughout the dissertation writing process and will ultimately be responsible for allowing you to graduate. While the relationship between science graduate students and their supervisors is often collaborative, this is rarer in the arts.

How do I choose a supervisor?

In choosing a supervisor, you have to not only reflect on the faculty member and their area of expertise, but on yourself as a person and a scholar. What do you want out of this relationship? Do you want someone with a big name, whose clout will help you to navigate the very difficult job market? Or do you want someone who may have more time to devote to you and your project? Do you want to work with a professor whose research directly overlaps with your own, or someone who comes at your field more tangentially? Do you want to be left alone to write your dissertation, or do you need deadlines and meetings to keep on track? Selecting a supervisor is about understanding yourself as a graduate scholar.

Personally, I knew that I wanted a supervisor whose research was as close to my field as possible – so that I could pick her brain for sources and advice – and who would be able to devote a fair amount of time to me and my project. I find monthly meetings very helpful for my progress, so I looked for a supervisor who would be able to make this time commitment. Finally, in choosing a supervisor, I considered personality. This is a quality that many graduate students tend to overlook, but my best advice for new graduate students choosing a supervisor would be to choose someone who you get along with, who challenges you but also supports you. The dissertation writing process can be isolating and discouraging: it is important to have a supervisor who is on your team, someone you can turn to and communicate with when you need to. Your supervisor is going to be the most important person in your professional life for the next several years – choose carefully.

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