Once you've got a good idea of the Doctoral research project you'd like to pursue, it's time to find the most important person in your academic future - your supervisor

Most PhD students' choice of university is heavily influenced by the opportunity to work alongside a particular academic, as they're the person who'll have the biggest impact on your studies. While it's possible to apply to an institution without contacting a potential supervisor beforehand, this approach can greatly diminish your chances of Doctorate success.

Candidates in many social sciences and arts and humanities subjects are encouraged to actively seek expert academics in their field prior to applying. However, some research projects - particularly those in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects that are tied to a PhD studentship - already have a supervisor allocated.

How do I find a PhD supervisor?

You should identify academics who are actively researching in your field by:

  • approaching lecturers working within your current or potential department, as these individuals may be able to recommend potential supervisors
  • browsing articles, publications and blogs relevant to your project, identifying the most commonly cited researchers
  • reading recently submitted PhD dissertations within your research area, noting the supervisor used.

Once you've compiled a shortlist of individuals, visit their online academic profiles - for example, their page on the university website or their own website/blog. You can also follow their social media activity on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. This will signpost you to the articles, blogs, books and reports they've contributed to, plus any exhibitions, public engagement work or PhD research they've participated in - allowing you to decide whether, academically-speaking, they're a suitable fit.

How do I approach a potential supervisor?

You can then approach your selected potential supervisor (or several, if you're still deciding) with a tailored, well-written and passionate email. Make a positive first impression by:

  • attaching your academic CV
  • avoiding overstatements or vague generalisations, while keeping your message clear and concise
  • conveying your skills and knowledge by introducing your academic background and the field you intend to research
  • referring to the academic by their correct title
  • showing your familiarity with and interest in the academic's work.

Conclude your message by asking whether you could visit them in person, or at the very least speak over the telephone or via Skype. If you receive no response within two weeks, send a follow-up email.

Don't take any rejection personally. The academic may simply be too busy, already supervising several PhD students, or unsure whether your project is suitable.

How do I make a good impression?

If an academic agrees to meet you, they'll be aiming to discover whether you have the passion, tenacity and academic potential to complete a PhD. This means that conveying your determination to complete such an arduous research project is an absolute necessity.

You can also display your enthusiasm by asking your supervisor relevant questions, such as:

  • How far do you see your responsibilities towards me extending?
  • How much time would you have for me, and how often would we meet?
  • What arrangements, if any, would be in place for a second supervisor?
  • What characteristics do you feel successful PhD students have?
  • What do you expect from the students you supervise?
  • What funding and additional support is available at this institution?
  • What is your opinion of my research topic and proposed methodology?
  • What things should I do to supplement my PhD?

What qualities does a good supervisor possess?

Before deciding which PhD supervisor is right for you and applying to your chosen institution, you should be certain that the individual is:

  • not intending to leave the institution permanently or go on sabbatical during your PhD
  • of a similar personality and working style to you
  • reliable and approachable, with a strong track record of supervising PhD students
  • someone you're inspired by and proud to associate with
  • sufficiently interested in and enthusiastic about your project to commit three or four years of their guidance, support and encouragement
  • up-to-date in their knowledge of the latest findings and publications within your field, and has strong connections within academia.

How do I develop a good relationship with my supervisor?

Your PhD supervisor will become your primary referee once you've graduated. Forging a strong relationship with them can greatly improve your chances of securing a postdoctoral job.

You can make a positive impression simply by performing many of the extra tasks expected of you - for example, teaching undergraduates, mentoring other postgraduates and representing the university at research conferences. The University of Leicester recommends that you also should:

  • be open and honest
  • display independence and an ability to manage problems
  • maintain regular contact
  • meet agreed deadlines
  • show a positive and professional attitude
  • understand your mutual responsibilities and expectations
  • use your supervisor's advice and feedback.

What can my PhD supervisor help me with?

Unlike at Bachelors and Masters degree level, your supervisor isn't necessarily an expert in your specific field of study. You'll quickly know more about your research topic than they do - so you must appreciate that they may not have the answer to all of your problems.

Indeed, your relationship with your supervisor will evolve as you become less dependent on their support. They will initially focus on helping you to produce quality research, but quickly shift their attention to reviewing your findings and assisting your professional development.

Can I change my supervisor?

Some supervisors dedicate far more time to students than they're required to, while some prefer not to become too involved in their students' research. However, you shouldn't stay silent if you feel like things aren't working out - especially if you're studying a STEM subject, where your supervisor is often effectively your research collaborator.

It's for this reason you should spend plenty of time finding the right academic before enrolling; changing your supervisor should be the last resort, unless your topic has significantly shifted in the initial months of study.