Whether you’re applying for an advertised research-led PhD project or submitting your own research proposal in your area of interest, here are 5 key points to consider as you search for the right research degree supervisor.

Postgraduate Research degrees are a highly competitive landscape, and you’ll need to be ready to take on the challenge. 

To pursue your passion and make a truly original contribution to knowledge in a particular area of study, you’ll need a supervisor to match your ambition. But how do you find the perfect supervisor for your research? We’ve covered some of the key considerations here:

The key is to find a supervisor through the area of research or issue you’re most interested in. By shaping your selection around the topic you love, you will focus on a smaller number of relevant supervisors, and you can start looking closer at their research interests. If you’re interested in what they do, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to talk with them about this at length, and hence build a great rapport. You might find that your chosen shortlist of supervisors are already offering funded PhD studentships that directly fit your research interests and which you can apply directly to, or if there isn’t already an advertised project in your area of interest you can apply with a research proposal you have written yourself aligned with our Research Themes.

A real passion and belief in your work is one of the main drivers you’ll need to successfully see you through your research. But it’s not a lone journey, and you’ll want to find someone you find stimulating as part of your supervisory team. At the end of the day, you want a supervisor with whom you can discuss ideas, explore new avenues, and have a strong productive debate. The individual you choose will - if you’re successful - be there to lean on for support when things aren’t going well, but also there to challenge you when you get over-confident. A research supervisor is a pivotal figure to have in your life as you enter this chapter, so making sure you’re excited by them as an expert in their research field and a mentor is key.

If it is feasible, whilst you’re scoping out potential supervisors, try to meet them - either in-person or via video call. This way you can gain a sense of how well you’ll get on, and what affinity there is between you. Likewise, see if you can meet some of their current postgraduate researchers, as you’ll gain different perspectives and experiences that will help you make your final decision.

Some of the most eminent senior academics may have the prestigious expertise and the network to influence your research, but they might not have the time to get involved to the extent you’d like. More recently appointed academic supervisors, however, might not have extensive PhD supervision experience but will have more time to work with you on your chosen research topic. 

When seeking a supervisor, try to gauge how many PhD studentships they’re supervising, who else might be part of your supervisory team, as well as what research they themselves are leading; this will give you a clearer view of their prospective commitment to your own research project. Both your own and your supervisor’s organisational skills are key, you’ll both need clarity of each other’s expectations, agreed progression timelines, and contact hours for feedback and advice.

Institutions including UEA are seeing more and more multidisciplinary projects across Postgraduate Research areas. Depending on your research area you could be working with different groups at different times throughout your PhD. Research your supervisor’s network to find out how well connected they are, and look for evidence of their current research activity, recent publications, and citations. 

As you move through your degree, you’ll gain further perspectives, many of which may complement the work of others in your research network. It may seem early to do so, but when you’re choosing your supervisor, think about what you can contribute that others might not be able to. After all, your research proposal and the application process will be unique to you as an individual.

At the heart of postgraduate research is a willingness to work autonomously, and to trust in your own approach to your work. Your supervisor will be there to help you find your feet, and to support you as and when you need it, but it’s important you don’t rely wholly on their expertise. 

As you progress your PhD, you should reach a point where you know more than your supervisor about certain specific aspects of your research, so anticipate this when you’re finding the right person. You’ll need an individual who can give you the grounding you need, but who will also encourage you to surpass any limitations and excel on your own.

On a similar note, there’s likely never been a postgraduate who has seen eye-to-eye with their supervisor at every point of their study. As you grow into your research, you’ll develop a more equal relationship, in which critique and collaboration interplay to great effect. This is all part of the excitement of the research process!

Ready to Apply?

UEA offers a wide range of postgraduate research opportunities. Search all current PhDs and Research Studentships, or take a look at the full list of Research Themes where UEA specialises and submit your own research proposal. For further information on what to consider in the application process, access our guide and take the first step to achieving something incredible. Our Postgraduate Research team can also help with any queries you may have.

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Words of wisdom

“…It is important to highlight that the supervisor-supervisee relationship that develops as the project progresses, is equally significant for the successful completion of the project.” 
Kodili Chukwuma, PhD in Politics
“…Choose an area of research that would combine your passion in the area with practicality, and look out for research staff members whose research interests are similar to yours. They will have a plethora of experience in your chosen field and will share their knowledge with you.”
Natalia Balashova, PhD in Catchment Science and Environmental Hydrology
“…Identify the right person, the person you think is going to understand best your subject because of their publishing record, and then meet them, make sure you get along - this is really important!”
Hippolyta Paulusma, PhD in English