I’ve had a surprising number of hits on my first post on how to do your PhD in 15 minutes a day and it’s interesting the searches people have conducted to get there!  So I’ll carry on…

The Supervisor is both your biggest asset and your biggest liability

So you’ve gotten into your program and are ready to commit.  You’ve made the decision about whether or not to quit your job and the cost-benefit analysis of that decision.  Now you have to find your most important asset (after your supportive family of course):  your supervisor.

Some programs require that you line up a commitment from a supervisor before you even get into the program, and if you haven’t really done your research on this person, this is the time to do it.  Even if this person is the most genius, well known person in your field of interest, don’t miss this step.  You will have to triangulate your information to get the most accurate understanding of the person who can be the biggest contributor to your success.  Here are some steps:

1.  locate the graduate secretary or admin people in your department and be really nice to them (they are also a big asset during your studies).  Find out how many students the supervisor has, how many Masters and Phd’s they’ve graduated, how students have faired on the job market.

2. Do some googling and look at your supervisor’s publications and see whether they are co-authored, and whether the co-authors were their students.  Co-authored publications, especially with students, suggest the supervisor may be a collaborator who doesn’t need to hog the limelight.

3.  Arrange a meeting (interview) with the potential supervisor.  Ask yourself:

A.  How quickly was this person able to give you some time?  If you had to wait 3 weeks and they weren’t on sabbatical or at a conference this might be a flag since it may be indicative of how busy a prof is and how much timethey have available for students. My rule of thumb is that famous profs are busy profs, but good supervisors always have time for their students because they truly enjoy interacting with and helping their students.   The ability of your supervisor to make time for you is KEY to finishing a phd on time.

B.  could you see yourself working with this person for the next 3 years?  This can be hard to judge in only one meeting but you should have some sense.

In the meeting you will want to probe as best as you can the following:

1.  Do they have any sabbaticals or leaves planned time in  the timeframe of your phd and how much will they be available ( and how) to communicate with you?  What is the continuity plan when they are on leave and does that seem reasonable to you?

2.  Communicate your expectation of your timeframe and gauge the reaction. Watch  for any comments that suggest an attitude of disbelief or romanticism along the lines of  “you should enjoy the time to explore” or “You only get to be a phd student once”.   Remember, a phd project is project and not a right of passage and if you are seeking the latter you are probably not reading this blog post.

3. What is their expectation for how often you will meet with them? Once every 2 weeks is reasonable but once a month might not be.  What will the primary means of communication be?  Email, skype, phone and does it seem reasonable?

There are no doubt other important questions to ask but the key thing you should be able to answer is will this person be an important asset to my project or a liability?  Don’t sell yourself short and fall into the subservient doctoral student trap–you are in control of your project and you need to make decisions that will ensure its success. There is nothing romantic about that, folks!

Of course, this is one person’s observations and perspective, so tell me, what do you think of this advice?