Perhaps one of the most daunting aspects of applying for a PhD is reaching out to potential supervisors. I personally reached out to quite a few before I managed to find one (and one of my supervisors changed anyway!) and, not going to lie, some of the responses I received initially were not promising! That’s why I’ve put together this guide for how to find a PhD Supervisor (UK guide—I’m not really sure how it works elsewhere, sorry!) and actually get them to supervise you.
Now, I did a whole article about how to find a PhD in the UK and some of those tips also apply here.
One of the best ways to find a PhD supervisor is by finding a funded, existing PhD project. You can do this via Google, FindAPhD.com, on university websites, or on social media sites like Twitter. If you choose a set project, chances are the funding, supervisor, and project all come as one package. This makes things easier in some respects (less research on supervisors for you!) but has the disadvantage of precluding you from choosing your own supervisor.
You can also follow academics in your field you might be interested in working with on social media (primarily Twitter) and see if they are taking on new PhD students.
Another way to find a supervisor is to do research on your chosen subject and see who’s publishing a lot on this topic on Google Scholar. Then, you have the added advantage of already being familiar with their work before you contact them.
Finally, if you know the department / programme you want to apply to, you can scour departmental faculty profiles for individuals who match your research interests.
Initially, I looked at faculty bios on the websites for the universities to which I planned to apply. I even reached out to a few potential supervisors that way. (Though, did not receive a particularly warm response, I must admit!)
Then, I found the project for which I initially applied. It was more of a general topic than a defined project and came with two potential supervisors and funding.
Now comes the tricky part: contacting PhD supervisors. I must admit, I wasn’t quite sure myself how to approach a potential PhD supervisor. I even got rejected a couple of times! Ultimately, though, I’m glad I did because I ended up with two great supervisors!
This is important. Don’t reach out to potential supervisors without a research proposal. I made the mistake of reaching out to a couple of supervisors and asking if it was okay if I sent through my proposal and didn’t get a good reception. Don’t waste their time until you’ve fully thought out your research plan.
Make sure you’re familiar with their work and specifically mention how your research interests fit with theirs. Check out their website and see what kinds of projects they’re working on. Make sure to tailor your email to THAT SUPERVISOR specifically. Otherwise, it seems like you’re mass-emailing and wasting their time.
Academics (and everyone else!) get LOTS of emails every day, particularly from potential students. Make sure your covering email contains—an enticing introduction to your background, a snappy summary of your proposed project, and some specific details about how you can contribute to their wider research (and how their skills will help you).
You may have misjudged someone’s research interests (or availability for supervision) and that’s okay! Chances are, they’ll be able to point you to someone else in the department who's willing to take you on.
Generally, you need to list a potential supervisor (or supervisors) on your application to a PhD programme. The university sends your application directly to them. So, it’s really important that you make sure they’re definitely okay (in principle) with having you on their research team. Otherwise, you’re just wasting your application.
Now, academics are NOTORIOUSLY bad at replying to emails. If they don’t get back to you (particularly if it’s summertime—a lot of academics disappear then!), don’t be afraid to follow up! At some point, you will need to cut your losses if they don't reply, but don’t be discouraged just because they haven’t replied for a few days after you’ve sent your email.
Once your potential supervisors agree to be listed on your application, you can formally apply to the PhD programme. If they like you, you’ll likely be invited for an interview, which will be attended (and probably run) by your potential supervisors.
The interview is as much of an opportunity for you to get to know them as it is for them to get to know you. Ask questions about their working style and availability, particularly as they pertain to interactions with supervisees. You’re going to be working with them closely for 3+ years, so you need to make sure you’re compatible!
It’s also a good idea to reach out to other students supervised by your potential supervisor to get a sense of what working with them is like. You should be able to find out who your supervisor is supervising on their academic website, the university website, or on LinkedIn. Students are likely to be fairly honest about their experiences as they know you just want to make the best decision possible for yourself.
Some students need constant contact with their supervisor, while others prefer to work independently. One isn’t better than the other necessarily, but you do need a supervisor who works well with your chosen style!
This is an important one. If you aren’t getting what you need out of a supervisory relationship, you’re allowed to switch supervisors! A lot of universities these days require you to have two supervisors from the get-go for this reason.
Particularly if you speak to a supervisor during the application process and you’re just not meshing, it’s okay to change to another one. I didn’t have my supervision team set until just after I started my PhD (due to some availability issues) and it worked out fine!
I hope this article gave you the tools to develop a plan for finding a PhD supervisor in the UK. Are you applying for a PhD soon? Let me know in the comments below!