advice · grad school · supervision

How to Find a Supervisor

As I’ve been tracking graduate student progress through our degrees, it very often happens that students don’t secure a supervisor by the required date. Invariably, when I contact them to ask what’s going on, they admit to embarrassment and confusion about how, exactly, they’re supposed to get someone to agree to be their supervisor.

Hence this post.

Securing a supervisor is hard. And you have to do it on your own, taking charge of a process where you’re asking people, basically, to be in charge of you for a couple of years, but you’re in charge of asking them to do this and so it all feels weird. You may have the sense that you yourself are an unimportant worm. You may feel that profs are unapproachable gods who are too busy and remote to meet with you (some profs may cultivate this feeling, which doesn’t help). You may feel your project is underdeveloped and you have no right to talk to an expert about it since you will be revealed as a fraud. You may be afraid of rejection. You may be afraid of office hours. You may just generally be afraid.

I have a formula for you! Just follow the script and you will be favorably impressing everyone with your professionalism, and you won’t have to wonder if you’re doing it wrong!

Important things to remember:

  • You and the supervisor ultimately choose each other: you both have agency
  • A conversation is not a commitment
  • You will likely have to talk to several potential supervisors before choosing one
  • Begin as you mean to go on: be prepared, take feedback, meet deadlines
What you need to begin:
  • A one-page description of your proposed dissertation project
  • Access to the department web page
  • A dose of courage and self-efficacy
Choosing a supervisor is your first real act as a truly independent researcher: it takes courage to tell the world, or some small portion of your department’s tenured or tenure-track faculty, that you have a book length project to create and you would like their help with it. Acknowledge your nerves as natural, but don’t let them stop you. You will need the description of your project to share with prospective supervisors so that they can get a sense of what you want to do. Bonus: if you get nervous talking with authority figures, a document is a great thing to hold onto with your hands or to let speak on your behalf. You will need access to the department web page in order to scour profiles to drum up the maximum number of people to consider as potential supervisors.
Next, write some emails to ask for a meeting. Here is a template for that email:

Dear Prof. Morrison,

I am a first year PhD student, and I [took a graduate course with you / am taking a graduate course with you / read your profile on the department web page / know your research].  

I am in the process of looking for a dissertation supervisor, and I am trying to meet with faculty members whose research interest intersect with my own. I am proposing a dissertation on the use of fake mustaches as a pre-text for duck-face-making in Instagram selfies among 8-10 year old boys. Your own work on digital autobiography, particularly addressing methodology, seems relevant to my own work. I have attached a one-page description of my project (in very early stages!) if you would find it helpful to understand what kind of work I’m interested in. 

Might you be available to meet with me to discuss my project? 

Thank you in advance for your consideration of this request,
Full Name

Please note:
  • This email is short and direct and a little bit formal
  • You can write to profs you’ve already met, as well as those you haven’t
  • You want to be clear you’re not asking them to commit to being your supervisor by return email, but just asking if they’re willing to meet with you to discuss the possibility
  • You want to be specific enough in noting why you’re interested in meeting this professor that she doesn’t feel you’re just emailing everyone.
  • Don’t send more than one page of writing, because nobody has time for that.
I encourage you to write to several professors at the same time. It will take time to arrange meetings, so you just fritter away time meeting everyone sequentially. Do a blitz of all the likely candidates. When you meet with each of them, you should … oh hold on. I’ll make a list.
Discuss this at your meeting:
  • Are they interested in your project?
  • Would they be willing to take on any more students than they have?
  • What kind of working relationships do they tend to have with students? This means:
    • frequency of meeting
    • mentoring support for the degree
    • help with writing as well as research
  • Would they be willing to work with you, as a supervisor or as a committee member?
  • Can they suggest anyone else as a possible supervisor or a committee member?
After you’ve met all the faculty members on your list, as well as any suggested by any of the faculty members you’ve asked, you should have a good sense of who you click with and who you don’t, what their availability might be like, and if they’re willing to work with you. Then you can send another email to the faculty member you’d like to choose as your supervisor:

Dear Prof. Morrison, 

Thank you for meeting with me last week to discuss my proposed dissertation project. Your comments were very helpful. I feel like your expertise is a really good fit with what I want to do: would you be willing to be my supervisor? 

If yes, I have a form for you to sign, for my file. If no, thank you very much for your time in meeting with me. 

Best wishes,
Full Name

Please note: no one is going to be heartbroken if you meet with them, but choose a different supervisor. Many of us know very well when your project is a better fit with someone else. Many of us already have a ton of students and aren’t pinning all our dreams of supervisory fulfillment on you. Really, it’s totally okay. No one is going to take this personally. They will be impressed by your professionalism, and probably ready to serve as a committee member on down the line.

So there you go. It’s a formula, and it’s got form letters. Get used to being in charge: you’ve got a whole dissertation to write, that you’re going to have to take the lead on everyday. Securing a supervisor is the first step: put your best foot forward. You can do it!