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Picking A Supervisor and Other Concerns

One of the crucial factors in graduate school success is a good supervisor. While some faculties mandate that you come in with an identified supervisor, others let you start your program and identify a supervisor several months into your degree. Picking a supervisor is a very difficult decision and one that shouldn’t be made lightly.

Sometimes there is an obvious person; especially if you have a defined research interests in mind. However, if you don’t really know, or you have a multitude of interests, your options are quite broad. At that point the question is not “what would you like to study” but “who will give you the best environment to study in.”

I’ll highlight what I think is important to talk about with your potential supervisor, or to at least consider, before you make any decisions. However, everyone has different perspectives, and I encourage you to give your opinions in the comments section below. I’ve also discussed this issue on my other blog (Mr Epidemiology) and I encourage you to take a read of that.

Your Working Philosophy

Some people like a supervisor who is very hands-on and will give them small, direct goals that they can manage and accomplish by themselves; others prefer somebody who gives them broad objectives with little direction. Which do you prefer? In the same vein, what is expectation for attendance? Do they expect you to work every day from 9 to 5 in the office, or do they only expect to see you when you have questions? If you prefer to work in coffee shops or at home this may this may be an important issue for you.

Clarifying these expectations upfront avoids any surprises later. Knowing the kind of support that you expect from your supervisor and whether or not that is the kind of supervisory style they employ will go along way to making your grad school experience a positive and enjoyable one.

The Research Group

I strongly recommend that when you are meeting with prospective supervisors you also talk to their existing students and, if possible, sit in on a lab meeting (if they have them). This serves two purposes: 1) it gives you an idea of the kind of project you can expect to work on, and 2) it lets you know the dynamic of the lab.

The students you work with will form an important support network. When you have a technical problem, or even want to bounce ideas off others, your officemates form a great sounding board. Talking to those in the lab when you’re considering supervisors will give you an idea of how they interact and whether you think you would be a good fit. And, of course, if you like to keep to yourself, this is also something to consider. Or invest in noise-cancelling headphones.

Their Completion Rates and Time To Completion

Basically, how quickly do supervisors get their students out. You don’t want to be stuck in your degree after your funding runs out, for obvious reasons. Especially in a two-year masters you want to be done within two years. With PhD’s it becomes even bigger as a four year PhD can turn into six, even eight quite easily. Knowing their track record can help you either avoid this pitfall or plan for it.

Future Prospects

Talk to supervisors about what their previous students have gone on to do. It will let you know what kinds of jobs you can expect, and also give you a light at the end of the tunnel.


Queen’s only mandates that PhD students have minimum guaranteed funding. At the Masters level, you should have received information about your funding with your letter of offer, but you can clarify with your supervisor if opportunities exist to earn more money and if financial support exists to go to conferences. This does vary across the university however, so you need to talk to your department to find out exactly how it works in your situation. It may not be appropriate to talk about this on your first meeting (unless they bring it up), but it’s good to chat about formally.

Finally, even if you don’t end up working with the person that you want to for your degree you can still collaborate with them. There can be a number of reasons why they can’t supervise you: they may be unavailable due to being on sabbatical etc, they don’t have space, or they don’t have funding for you. This doesn’t rule out their involvement entirely; if they’re available and interested, they may be able to act as an advisor on your project or be one of your committee members. I’ve had some wonderful professors give me feedback at the outline and proposal stage of my thesis, and their opinion is incredibly valuable and insightful.


So what do you think? What else should students consider when picking a potential supervisor? Fire away below!!

Posted in New Students, Thesis Tagged with: , , ,
One comment on “Picking A Supervisor and Other Concerns
  1. Colette says:

    Great topic Atif. Apart from the above, the School of Graduate Studies (SGS) in conjunction with the Health Counselling and Disability Services (HCDS), will be hosting a workshop on “Effective Communication with your Supervisor”. This workshop provides some tips on how to nurture an effective supervisory-student relationship. Full details and how to register, for the workshop (part of the Expanding Horizons workshop series), can be found on the SGS website at: http://www.queensu.ca/sgs/exphor/themes/comint.html#supervisor

    The SGPS (your student government) also will be holding a session to help you too.

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  1. […] as 1) an audition, and 2) to determine if your interests align. But don’t forget to consider the intangibles: Are your working philosophies compatible? Will you integrate seamlessly in the lab/research group? […]

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