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Careers Café

On selecting a graduate supervisor


I’ve been following the discussion about Big Labs (Nicola Koper) and Small Labs (David Smith) with interest. I suspect many humanities and social science folks have skipped it altogether, assuming that it doesn’t apply to them. I encourage you to read those posts anyway. They raise some important points.

Is it a zero sum game?

One of the key issues in both pieces is the amount of time and attention your supervisor can give your project and your career development. While Nicola Koper makes a good case for economies of scale in terms of equipment, field work, and conference travel, this may be less relevant to those in fields where equipment and field work are not so central, whether in the humanities or more theoretical scientific fields.

Your supervisor does have a finite amount of time and energy. Supervision is but one of many responsibilities, to be balanced with teaching, their own research and publications, and their service commitments. This suggests a benefit to small programs/labs as David Smith points out.

What do other students contribute to your graduate education?

Sometimes the benefit of a big lab or a famous supervisor who attracts lots of students is as much in those other students as in the supervisor themselves.

Imagine being part of a group of students who are all excited by the same basic questions. Imagine having other students who are reading the same literature, working with similar concepts and theories, tackling questions that are linked to the one you are tackling.

The possibilities for peer support are considerable: reading groups, writing groups, friendly faces in the room when you present at conferences …

These things won’t necessarily happen. And you can’t wait around for someone else to organize them. However, in a big lab, or the humanities equivalent, you have the ability to organize this kind of thing.

There is no one right answer

Your own personality and preferred work environment is going to be a major factor in deciding whether to go with a supervisor with many students/big lab or one with few students/small lab. Your preference may change as you progress. Perhaps, as one commentor said, you would benefit from a smaller group when you are a masters or PhD student, and then look for a large group as a post-doctoral researcher.

Wherever you end up, keep in mind that you need to take responsibility for getting the work done.

If that means creating reading groups or writing groups for support, do that. Maybe there are enough people in your program. Maybe you will organize local in-person meetings with students from several nearby institutions. Or maybe you’ll find or create an online community.

Regardless of the size of the lab you are going to have to take responsibility for your own career. Your supervisor is only one piece of the support network that will help you achieve your career goals.

Jo VanEvery is a career coach who specializes in helping academics. Find her at
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