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How to Choose a Supervisor Wisely

This week I’m following up on Dustin’s post about (net)working smart, not hard, by reflecting on what it means to make a good or a bad choice on the core of your network: your supervisor.

Last week Dustin used the phrase “strengthening your core.” He had been watching a lot of BroScience videos on YouTube that week, but what he actually meant by “core” was your supervisor. His advice, looking back on six years of graduate training, was to explicitly ask your supervisor if they could introduce you to their colleagues so that you might get thought of for collaborations or get name recognition once you go to apply for jobs. Which works, if a.) you and your supervisor work in the same area and b.) if your supervisor is professionally active and well connected.

When I was preparing to apply to grad school, I remember that professors and current graduate students told me that you want a supportive supervisor. But nobody ever told me what it meant to choose a supervisor well. By that, I mean both: a.) what criteria I should use to make the decision and b.) what would be the consequences of making a good or a bad choice.

I should say right here that those of you reading this will fall into a few different camps:

  • some of you will be applying to your first graduate degree and actively involved in this choice for the first time;
  • some of you will be expecting to change schools and/or supervisors between your Masters and Doctoral degrees;
  • some of you will already be in a degree and looking to change supervisors within your program;
  • and some of you will be thrilled with your supervisor and/or at a point in your graduate training where this is no longer directly relevant to you, but it may be valuable for your mentorship of your own students (or other mentees) in the future.

So let me return to the two criteria (which could surely be expanded into a longer list) that a.) you and your supervisor work in the same area and b.) that your supervisor is professionally active and well connected. This might seem not only obvious, but inevitable for some of you in disciplines where the norm is to do your thesis work on an existing project of your supervisor’s, and where you are admitted into a specific lab as well as a program. But this can be far from obvious especially for students of interdisciplinary programs anchored in the humanities and social sciences.

I used to figure “as long as someone is a sharp critical thinker, surely they could support a project that’s not on exactly their same topic?” True, if we all just produced variations on precisely the same theme, scholarship wouldn’t grow. It’s neither necessary nor desirable to work on exactly the same thing as your supervisor. But what I didn’t realize until years after I began grad school was that a lot of your ability to get your work out there and to work with people has to do with being able to situate yourself in a field. That is, you need to be able to show where your work belongs by being able to say what motivates it and what is new about it. This requires knowing what has come before you. And with the mountains of research being produced these days, knowing this isn’t easy. The terrain of the literature review has become complex with the rise of inter/multi/anti-disciplinary research. Like, I’m not even sure if it’s Euclidean anymore.


A computer rendering of a twisty 3D lattice-like structure in white, golden yellow, and orangey red.

I’ve taken some license to repurpose this rendering of a quantum lattice to suggest the complexities of grasping a “field” in the multiverse of interdisciplinary research.


You want the benefit of the long view perspective of someone who’s been doing this for more years than you.

Which brings us to the second criterion, which is clearly related to the first.

There are stacks of new journals popping up every month. Are there particular ones that you should be reading regularly and trying to publish in? Same with conferences. Listservs are positively clotted with CFPs (calls for papers) – and first of all, are you on the right listservs? And are you showing up to that one conference that the major players attend every year? Who are the major players right now, and whose ideas have gone out of vogue? These are the kinds of insider understandings that aren’t necessarily written anywhere. They come from having a sense of the field, an impression distilled from a large set of different experiences. And that sense will be one that’s out of date if your supervisor isn’t currently very active, or perhaps absent if they’re not part of the circle you want to run with.



“Why would it matter whether my supervisor is a marginal or major figure in my field?” wondered a younger me dimly, when friends would talk of moving plane rides away to work with someone in particular.

I, for one, thought much more in terms of a good-sounding program in a location that didn’t require me to abandon or forcibly relocate my loved ones. These are difficult decisions where the demands of intimate relationships and economics often intersect in painful ways.

My purpose here isn’t to advocate one or another way of dealing with that. Rather, it’s just to say that it’s the work you do and the connections you make on the path throughout your degree that will transition you into your career, not the fact of your degree. And your supervisor is sort of like a flashlight that lights the way on that path.

The black silhouette of a person standing on a beach facing away toward the horizon. The sun has almost set and stars are visible above the treeline on the right and above the waterline on the left. The person appears to be shining a bluish light into the sky.

The stars represent the universe of knowledge. It’s a visual metaphor.

Posted in Conferences, Jobs and Careers, New Students, Professional Development, Publications Tagged with: , ,
One comment on “How to Choose a Supervisor Wisely
  1. Colette says:

    love your visual metaphores

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