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Graduate Matters

Picking the right graduate supervisor

Guiding questions to facilitate your quest for a collaborative student-supervisor relationship.


So, you’ve decided that you want to go to grad school but don’t know where to start. You’ve come to the right place. Follow this step-by-step guide to find the right supervisor for you.

Step 1: determining your personal goals

Let’s start with a simple question: why are you going to grad school? The reasons for pursuing graduate studies might include broadening career prospects, coveting a few prestigious letters to add before or after your name, or even to bolster a resume for a medical, law, or veterinary school application. Keying in on the reason why you are attending grad school in the first place will help you to better understand what you want out of your supervisor and the skills you aim to develop.

What career do you aim to pursue? This can affect your choice of research field, the number of publications and presentations you will need to produce during your program, the desired prestige of the university and supervisor, and any specific training to obtain. It could be helpful to seek the mentorship of an individual with your desired career to determine what to prioritize in your training.

Step 2: choosing your university

Do you have a particular university or city in mind? Do you want to use this as an opportunity to travel and see the world by studying abroad, or would you rather live closer to home?

Disha Rajesh Achrekar, who is starting her master’s in computer science at the University of New Brunswick in the fall, has lived her entire life in India. She has been planning for a number of years to use her master’s degree to venture outside of her comfort zone and explore a new country.

Consider the reputation of the university. Is it a prestigious institution that is world-renowned in your field, or is it a less commonly known, smaller university? A prestigious, well-funded university might have more advanced instruments or services available to facilitate your research, but might also be a more competitive environment, making a work-life balance more challenging.

Disha specifically chose her program because of the relevance of assignments to real-life applications to give herself an edge in the workforce. “The reason I chose Canada was that the assignments, the practicals, the labs are very, very equal to what you actually do in the industry. And the professors, they’re so brilliant, they are so strict, but they have such difficult assignments, that you won’t ever forget that. And the practicals are so much like real life examples, so it is great. I’m happy to be here.”

Once you have settled on a university where you feel comfortable and envisage your success, consider the housing and transportation available to you, as well as the student services offered. The cost of living in conjunction with the salary offered to graduate students (if applicable) is another important factor to consider.

Step 3: meeting with prospective supervisors

Judy Shaqfah, who is moving from Ontario to begin her degree in neuroscience in the fall at McGill University, had a highly proactive approach to her search for supervision. “One thing I thought helped me was attending any Q&A, anything I got in my mail that was about finding a supervisor because that’s where I learned a lot and got answers to my questions from actual supervisors who deal with students.” In addition to attending these seminars, try to engage the professors present to help them put a face to your name. “Turn your camera on, and try asking a question or two with your mic, as opposed to in the chat function. If there was a supervisor there that I really liked, it’d be a good first impression.” Judy also shared the useful tip of searching for supervisors using Web of Science and filter by institution or research interests to find your ideal supervisor.

Judy suggests students to be proactive and to start their search early to make sure that prospective supervisors know that you are interested before their spaces fill up. When it comes to making contact, she says, “When you email a supervisor, you don’t want it to be a generic email, you want to personalize it, you want to read a few of their papers, critically analyze them, show them that you’re actually interested in their research.” Her general email format involved introducing herself, her interest in the supervisor’s research, her degree, and her relevant experiences as they relate to the supervisor’s research. Most importantly, she advises, “Don’t be scared to follow up. They get so many emails a day that yours could have easily gotten buried in their inbox. So it doesn’t hurt to shoot them a follow up.”

As with any interview, a prospective supervisor is interviewing you just as much as you are interviewing them during your first meeting. While you might have already browsed their publication history, it is also important to gauge the person behind those accomplishments. Notice the way that they interact with you and make sure that you trust this person to mold the beginning of your career.

A few rapid-fire questions to ask a prospective supervisor might include: What time commitment per week do they expect from you? If you do not have a scholarship or funding, would they have money to support your research? What are university or department rules for students to work part-time during your studies? Are you expected to perform teaching assistant duties? How long do current graduate students take to complete their degree (master’s or PhD) in the prospective supervisor’s research group or program? What are their research interests, and does this match with your personal goals? What opportunities can they offer in terms of internships, networking, teaching opportunities, foreign exchange, conferences, publications, etc.? Where do their students typically go after graduation, and in what job position do their students typically start?

During your graduate studies, your relationship with your supervisor ought to be mutually beneficial to one another’s careers, so make sure that you trust the person who will be teaming up with you on what will be a years-long group project.

Step 4: interviewing students in research groups

Before finalizing your decision, chat with current students in the program or research lab. Inquire about their interactions with their supervisor, the frequency of these encounters (both planned meetings and impromptu run-ins), and the quality of these exchanges. Ask about how soon and how often students publish and present their work, as well as the impact of their journal articles and the location of the conferences they attend (institutional, national, or international). It’s also very important to determine what the supervisor’s expectations are for their students in terms of time commitments and results, as well as arrangements for funding and vacation time.

As you meet with students, observe how invigorated they are about their research, and what kind of work-life balance they have managed to obtain. It is also worthwhile to note how the students interact with each other and if they have outings as a group, since you will be spending a great deal of time with these potential new colleagues.

Kelly Burchell-Reyes
Kelly Burchell-Reyes is a PhD candidate studying organofluorine chemistry at Université Laval.
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