Questions to ask a potential supervisor before starting your PhD

When you apply for a PhD position, it’s likely that your main concern is whether or not they accept you, but you must also think about whether the supervisor is right for you.

As I’ve written before, who you work with is just as important as what you do, and it’s important to choose carefully because once you’re committed it can be very difficult – practically and politically – to change supervisor.

Although there’s no way to know for certain before you start how your relationship with your supervisor will turn out, here are a few questions to ask them so you can get an idea.

What would you expect from me as a student, and what could I expect from you as a supervisor?

Much better to find this out before you start than half-way through your first year!

How many students do you supervise, and how often do you see them?

A meeting every 6 months is not enough. What is the point of having an experienced academic as a supervisor if you never get to benefit from that experience? I would say speaking to your supervisor once a month would be an absolute minimum.

It’s also worth finding out how many other students they have, and what kind of interaction there is between students (are there research group meetings, for example). A good supervisor would encourage interaction among their students.

Is there funding available for conferences, publications and other research expenses?

Research is expensive, and if you have to fund everything yourself then it will severely limit what you are able to do (publishing a paper in a peer-reviewed journal, for example, can cost thousands of pounds). Different PhD programmes have different amounts of funding for different purposes, and again it’s good to find out what the situation is before you start.

Ask if you can speak to some of their current students

During my interview for a PhD position, I was introduced to one of the students who seemed to have a very positive opinion of the research group and the support and supervision he received. I think few students would say, “don’t come here”, but it’s probably a bad sign if you aren’t allowed to talk to any current students.

What’s the best thing about being an academic?

You want to find out if they actually like their job. If they don’t seem enthusiastic about their own work, they aren’t likely to be enthusiastic about yours. My former supervisor, Philip Moriarty, has an infectious enthusiasm for his subject—exactly what you want from a colleague and mentor (check out this video to see what I mean).

Other tips

Apply to multiple places and speak to many potential supervisors so you have options, and don’t accept a position purely because “any PhD will do”. Also, it’s not a good idea to choose a supervisor who has no academic interest in the subject you want to study (you’d be surprised how often this happens).

Another potential problem is when supervisors leave or retire. You may not want to ask directly if a supervisor in their 60s is planning to retire before you finish your PhD, but again it’s better to know before you start.

See also
Who you work with is just as important as what you do

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27 thoughts on “Questions to ask a potential supervisor before starting your PhD

  1. You can then also ask the same question for other jobs they’ve had. Can you walk us through how you managed a recent large project, something where others were doing the work but you were overseeing it?

  2. They asked me questions about my experience and how I would treat staff. Later, I was told by many in the organization that the person before me basically came in with the degree but with no experience and maybe even worse, had treated the staff as low-lives and insignificant, playing favorites etc.

  3. I had two supervisors leave the uni before I finished, my third retired. The uni requires at least two. So I asked my fourth & fifth if they were going anywhere. No they said. Cue massive uni restructuring and yet another change.

    SO glad my current supervisor is the dept head and at least 10 years off retirement. Good to check what happens if they move, do you go with them?

  4. Not questions for the advisor for those around him/her that you feel comfortable asking: is this person okay to work with? is he or she approachable? will he or she be negative in critiques, or helpful?

  5. One thing I would suggest is to try and work with your potential supervisor for a period of time (maybe as a Research Assistant or summer vacation scholarhip etc.) before signing the dotted line for a PhD. Granted this option may not be available/feasible to everyone but I found that it’s a good way for both parties to get to know each other and have a feel for how a longer term professional relationship might work out.

  6. It was hard enough to get a place in a PhD program for me but I wish I could have been more picky with my supervisors. In the end I have just had to have people putting their names down as my supervisor although they have only made it harder for me to complete. I would love to have asked at the outset:
    1) how many PhDs have you successfully supervised to completion? How many unsuccessfully? What are those people doing now?
    2) what is it about my proposed topic that interests you?
    3) what do you think the benefits and the challenges are of doing a PhD in this department?

    • The procedure differs from place to place. I am not sure what you mean by, “good supervisors with good track record will be very much in demand and doing a lot of things rather than pay full attention to all his/her students”, but a good supervisor will pay attention to their students and take at least some responsibility for their progress.

  7. Related to the expectations I would have asked my supervisor subtly if s/he only prefers to be updated/involved only as and when developments occur in the research process (ad hoc) or on a more consistent, regular bases (with or without much progress). This would have been my way of finding if s/he prefers to be deeply involved or has a hands-off , leave you to figure things out approach. I came to the realization half-way through my PhD that I work best with hands-on supervisors… a little to late…

        • They are human beings with different personalities. I wouldn’t know how to reduce the decision to key indicators- you have to talk to them and see what they are like to interact with.

  8. I would have asked my supervisor a lot more questions about my area of interests so that I would be informed as to how much they knew about the topic. It makes it harder when you and your supervisor are not on the same page and you end up not having their support.

  9. I would ask whether the supervisor is interested in the student’s experience of the PhD process and development as a fledgeling researcher, or whether their focus is finishing on time as the highest priority (and therefore sets their own aim for you at the bare minimum of number and quality of papers, and discourages anything that may interfere with a timely completion including discussion of theories, publishing, conferences, courses, communication with researchers in the field…). All supervisors should say that a timely completion is important, but if the highest level of priority is given, it might be a red flag.

    Knowing your potential supervisor is very important. Sometimes it’s just not a good match. Other times, it’s more sinister. But it is important to know that things can go wrong, very wrong, and managing the problems once you’ve committed is very hard. In my experience, harder than the PhD itself. Prevention is much, much better than cure.

  10. Absolutely important questions but most of us had no this valuable knowledge before. It is hard to work with someone who has no interest at all in what you’re doing as his or her Phd student. It is like living with uncured disease, everyday is a miracle until you find courage to from the fact that many who are not sick die everyday and put yourself in a luck side or you die! Also I encourage a thankful heart if a supervisor say NO I AM FULL MAY BE NEXT YEAR. That probably is a good supervisor compared to the one who say simply YOU ARE WELCOME! And the game starts.

  11. Not a question I could have asked, as it was none of my business & she couldn’t have known for sure. But I do wish I’d known my Supervisor was going to be away on mat leave (twice!) during the course of my degree. That said, it all turned out very well. Just – in retrospect – I would have done things differently.

  12. Hi James, have one question in this post. What is it about writing a piece for a peer reviewed paper that costs thousands of pounds. That’s really worrying. Would you fill me in on what those expenses are?
    Thank you
    Philippa

    • Philippa, just to add to James’ comment, depending on your field, there are many journals that don’t ask for a fee to publish. They will get payment for the article through subscriptions to the journal or individual purchase of the article. Paying to publish (open access) has the benefit of making your article available to a wider audience including the general public.

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