Research Guide – Choosing a research supervisor

By Dr Julian Quinn, The SERT Institute, RNSH.

The project supervisor plays a central role in a successful project. This includes mentoring and guiding the student, teaching good research practice, making sure that the student makes proper progress, helping resolve issues and guiding the report writing. The supervisor also has to deal with official paperwork and assessments. If that sounds like a lot, it is; he or she has many complex tasks to do for a project to be successfully completed, which is why a good choice of supervisor is so important. Indeed, having a bad supervisor is almost as disastrous as being a bad student. The supervisor’s interests need to align with the proposed project and the interests of the student but, beyond that, it is not always clear how to choose a supervisor. Here are some thoughts and general principles that may help in considering potential supervisors. 

Supervisors for degree subjects undergo University accreditation 

In the bad old days supervisors just had to be experts in the field, but over the decades Universities and colleges recognised the need for proper oversight and training to avoid commonly recurring problems. Thus, supervisors need appropriate higher degrees and experience but also have to undertake short training courses to become accredited. While this training is not extensive (arguably it doesn’t need to be), supervisors are well aware of standards and demands expected by the system and, more importantly, have been through it themselves as students or trainees. 

Supervisors may come in multiples 

A project may have two or more supervisors, and as long as they work well together this can be a good idea, particularly if one supervisor is often absent. A second, senior supervisor often has to be approved to provide oversight when a more junior supervisor does not have a long track record in supervision, and that is always a good thing if they work together well. If they don’t, it isn’t. 

Don’t choose a very busy person as a sole supervisor 

One of the worst supervision problems is having a supervisor who is too occupied with other things to provide input or to read drafts in a timely manner. This can happen due to teaching, administration or surgical work overload. If this is the case it is best to have a second supervisor to help, or failing that have some other mentor who is available and willing to assist. 

Clarify how the project deadlines suit the supervisor 

This is particularly important for time-delimited projects where the supervisor needs to be available prior to key milestone dates. Time-delimited projects, such as Honours projects, revolve around milestones and submission deadlines so this is important. If the supervisor cannot do this well the student must act quickly to get the relevant institutional committee to enact provisions to help with this. Degrees such as PhDs that end when a benchmark standard is attained (rather than a deadline) are less prone to such problems but even these must be carefully handled to avoid delays. 

Be clear that the supervisor has expertise in all the areas of the project 

If not, make sure there is support in the areas outside the supervisor expertise, or an additional supervisor/mentor. This may include getting access to expert statistical support. 

Work on the project aims and research questions with the supervisor 

These need to be very carefully thought through, but can be quite treacherous territory. It must be clear that a supervisor-to-be can do this and takes this task seriously. Make sure the aims are non-trivial, and easy to describe. Ask other (uninvolved) experts what they think about the project aims and project questions. 

Make sure the project is feasible, and actively explore how to ensure this with the supervisor  

Project feasibility is usually difficult for a student to determine without the help of a mentor but is absolutely crucial. At issue is how well the work can be done with the time and resources available. Assessing that requires experience the student may not have. There are many possible issues: are the clinical data already available, with HREC approval? Is the equipment available? Funding? What could cause critical delays? The list is often long, but a good supervisor should easily deal with this. 

Make sure the project has at least some work where results are guaranteed in the short term 

Having some guaranteed early results is a great way to ensure project feasibility and is an important point to ask a prospective supervisor about. Some results should be easy to obtain early on to give breathing space for training. These early results may be from a dull part of the project but it is valuable to have some progress to write about early on. The project should of course contain some more difficult aspects, which are usually the interesting bits. 

If things are not working out 

Either the supervision or the project may not work out well. Either way, once a problem has become evident it is important to try and resolve this with the supervisor(s) themselves. If this cannot give resolution then getting informal advice from other mentors, tutors, colleagues and University research offices is usually the next best step. Beyond that, the student needs to take things to the relevant overseeing committee, usually termed a Higher Degrees by Research (HDR) committee at the hosting institution. If the matter is serious it will be necessary to consult the formal codes of the institution to determine the procedures and actions relevant to the situation. It is important to understand that student/trainee problems are taken very seriously there are always support and advice from individuals, committees and administrative processes to provide oversight and flag where there are problems. 

For more discussion see Julian on YouTube.

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