5 mins read 08 Oct 2020

Picking the right supervisor

One of the factors of success in any career for young researchers is having a good supervisor on board. Kat Ross looks at how you can find a suitable match for your situation.

At the end of my honours degree I was faced with the plethora of possibilities about where to go next. I knew I wanted to do research but on what? And more importantly, with who? 

Astronomy is amazing and the Universe is big. But for me, a supervisor can make or break even the most exciting and amazing projects. So how does someone even begin to choose a supervisor for you? 

Here is my step by step guide.

Set your mindset: You’re the one in charge

I had previously been approaching supervisors desperately wanting them to work with me, but why would they want to choose me? I kept believing I was up against so many other better candidates that the potential supervisors would rather work with (this largely comes from years of struggling with Imposter Syndrome in silence). 

This is not true. 

Academics want students. Supervisors are looking for students to take on projects and grow their research groups. THEY WANT YOU!  So start approaching it like you’re the important one and you’re the one in control, because you are.

Figure out what you want

What is important for you in a supervisor? Personally, I needed someone who was more hands-on rather than someone who would leave me to my own devices. I wanted someone I could work closely with, meet with regularly and talk to when I’m struggling rather than trying to solve problems alone. It was also really important to me to have someone who could understand or relate to my experience as a woman in STEM. 

Figure out what you don’t want

I can’t stand simulations. I’m sure they’re interesting to some people, but it’s not me. I have zero desire to spend a PhD researching a simulation. Regardless of the supervisor I just can’t see myself working in that area. 

Look around

Don’t be shy looking at universities you hadn’t considered. Talk to other students or staff about who they like working with to see if anyone seems interesting. I looked at multiple university/organisations’ web pages that had a list of all the projects on offer and then looked up individual supervisors to make my shortlist of supervisor candidates.

Meet with them

Interview your candidates! I met up with my current supervisor for a coffee while they were visiting Sydney. It was the perfect opportunity where I could ask about how they approach supervising and judge whether it aligned with what I was looking for. (Spoiler alert, it did). 

Also make sure you’re honest with your situation. I was really uncomfortable with my honours mark, which despite being First Class, wasn’t enough to land me a scholarship at the University of Sydney previously. Being clear about my situation meant I was able to have someone help me write my application so I had the best chance possible.

Kat Ross on her first day at the University of Sydney (supplied).

Background checks

This is a step often overlooked but is arguably the most important. Many academics can easily make themselves look great but past students have the experience of what it’s like working with them. Contact their current students (if they have any), past students, colleagues, people they’re on papers with, anyone you can. 

In particular, talk to women and people who are part of minorities to see how they are treated. Prioritise people who promote a healthy and supportive environment. Not only will you feel more welcome, you will be more productive, happy and enjoy your project more, regardless of what the project is. 

Make. It. Happen!

Check out the important dates for applications, keep your potential supervisor in the loop. Apply to multiple universities/programmes if you can’t decide! You are the one that’s important and you get to have the final say, you can always turn down opportunities later if you get multiple offers. 

Likewise, if it doesn’t happen at first, keep trying! I started a PhD and got 1 month in until I found out I had no funding. I decided to leave that programme and try again a couple years later (this time successfully). 

The Universe is big. To quote Douglas Adams, You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. You may think the university is big, but that’s just peanuts to the choices of supervisors. Finding the supervisor that works for you can be the difference between the universe being a terrifying place or an awe-inspiring place. 

Good luck!

Kathryn Ross

Growing up, Kat used to watch the International Space Station going overhead with her family. Until she learned people live inside it and she became forever terrified of poop falling on her head from space. Thankfully, today Kat’s skills at staring up into the Universe have improved significantly.

She is now a Ph.D. candidate at Curtin University studying the baby black holes in the centres of distant galaxies trying to understand galaxy evolution and the history of our Universe. Kat has a background in optical interferometry of red giant stars, dark matter content of galaxies and physics education research. She is an activist for Women In STEM and works as a science communicator when not staring at distant baby black holes or fleeing from space poop.

Twitter: @astro_katross