Selecting your research supervisor … it’s your choice!

October 2014


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Dr CHRISTOPHER THEUNISSEN of Manukau Institute of Technology says selecting the right supervisor is an important decision for any research project.


The word ‘research’ causes angst for many a student, particularly those embarking on a postgraduate study journey that involves the writing of a thesis or dissertation. Horror stories abound about time commitment, poor supervision, and every other possible worst case scenario. Conversely, for some, rose-tinted glasses are the order of the day and the intended journey is one of idealism and opportunity.

The reality lies somewhere in-between the two poles. It’s a journey, like all others, exciting, with many possibilities and varied scenery, often coupled with the tiredness that comes with traversing what may come to resemble an academic version of endless steppes or a desert with little respite in sight. Yes, it is hard work, but also invigorating and pioneering as you quest for greater understanding and new knowledge.

So how do you make the journey a little easier and more enjoyable? The answer, like many others, lies at the very beginning. Planning at the start will provide you with a foundation for success so that you don’t end up drifting across the aforementioned endless landscape with no discernible end in sight.

The most important factor is not just the topic you intend researching but the crucial act of choosing your primary research supervisor. This may seem like a simple task, often where you may think ‘others know best’, but is actually one that will have an enormous impact on your study experience and chance of success.

When embarking on a hobbit-like quest to find a supervisor, one of the common mistakes made by postgraduate students is the assumption that they should limit their search to someone placed at the perceived ‘best’ or most ‘prestigious’ institution. Of course studying at a prestigious institution is advantageous where possible, but who is to say that the most suitable supervisor for you is based at such a place? Reputable is essential as far as institutional choice, but ‘prestigious’ may often be an exercise in vanity that is not always in your best interest. Although you may think that institutional affiliation is more important than your future supervisor, this is something of a fallacy not always borne out by reality.

Also, when looking for a potential supervisor it is important to be aware that not all institutions or academics are equal with respect to their respective ‘supervisory-teaching’ quality and/or expertise. Some may be the best in some or other exotic research field whereas another may have the better reputation for a different specialty area. From an institutional perspective alone, therefore, a certain amount of due diligence is required on the part of the prospective postgraduate student/researcher.

However, as previously mentioned, your choice of supervisor/s is far more important than institutional affiliation and will be key to both your success and how much you end up enjoying or conversely ‘enduring’ your study journey. Not all supervisors are equal. Some are academically brilliant and may be top researchers in their respective disciplines, but as supervisors, they may be questionable. What you need to look for is a competent researcher and subject discipline expert who excels at the task of supervision due to their ability to inspire and mentor. It is this type of person who makes the study journey one that ends in success for the student, while the former may create a climate where the student finds him or herself literally ‘calling it quits’ or changing supervisor with extreme time and emotional costs for themselves. So, how do you find a supervisor residing in this optimal ‘Goldilocks’ zone of supervisory and academic skill?

Once you’ve determined the specific research area wherein your interest lies, you need to ensure that you have sufficient information on who are the acknowledged experts in this particular field – i.e. well published and also whether or not they’re affiliated with an academic institution capable of supporting your research. As you can see, this approach differs from one where you look first for the institution and then try and find an academic supervisor working there. Once you’ve got an idea of the experts out there who are potentially able to supervise you, it is important that certain questions be asked in order to draft your own supervisor ‘short list’.

Is the institution with which they are affiliated local and reputable (if not local, do you have a plan to arrange meetings with your supervisor/s)?

Does the proposed supervisor/s have the necessary higher qualifications and expertise to supervise in your area of interest?
Would they be willing to supervise you and take on additional students?
What is the fundamental weltanschauung or ‘worldview’ that dominates the research approach of the proposed supervisor/s – i.e. is there a specific ideological or methodological bias dominating their work? This can often be ascertained by reading some of their research outputs.

Do they share your enthusiasm and passion for the research topic you’ve chosen and are they supportive of your research agenda (and not just how it fits into their own)?

Most importantly, have you met them and do you like and/or respect them – i.e. is there a working ‘chemistry’ that exists or is there a possibility of a personality clash in the future?

Essentially, when choosing a supervisor, you must ensure that the selected candidate is someone of your choosing with whom you feel comfortable. Meet them, or at the very least, engage in a discussion with them via Skype, telephone, or alternative medium. Ascertain whether they are the right person, both on an academic and personal level, to be your supervisor. Listen to your instincts and don’t let the potential supervisor’s academic brilliance and or reputation be the deciding factor.

Similarly, do not let yourself be pushed into either choosing a supervisor or a specific topic that you’re not comfortable with. Feel free to let yourself be ‘guided’ where necessary as this is only appropriate give the facilitation function of any supervisor, but, ultimately, you will be the one doing the research and writing up the findings and have to be comfortable with the direction you’re taking.

The biggest danger that new research students face is being overwhelmed when faced with supervisors who may appear larger than life due to academic reputation and consequently allow themselves to be guided by what is ‘best’ for the supervisor but not necessarily best for themselves!

Therefore, take ownership, both of your work and of the initial choice around supervisor selection as at the end of the day you are the architect of your own research journey and eventual success. 

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