What to look for in a supervisor?

woman shaking hands with a man while sitting across from each other at a desk

Searching for a supervisor can seem like a really daunting process at the start. Our supervisor often becomes an integral part of daily life, meaning your day-to-day can be strongly influenced by their leadership and the work environment they create. To some, this can be a major make-or-break moment for a PhD student or starting a new job.

Personally, I’ve found that the relationship you develop with your supervisor can be crucial to succeed both in the short term and long term. Knowing yourself and considering all the factors can be key to making these important decisions.

What is their work style?

In my opinion, this can be one of the biggest factors when it comes to your success but also depends on how well you can identify your own work style. For example, I’m happier and produce better work when I have strict deadlines to meet, while some people really thrive when they have the freedom to work on their own time.

Consider asking them about their work style. I’ve had supervisors that constantly micromanage and I’ve had supervisors that only check in once a month – it just depends on the person. And for me, one of these scenarios works better than the other. It’s good to know your own work style and what you personally would need from a supervisor to succeed.

Are they supportive?

Sometimes, things happen that you can’t predict, like health emergencies and family deaths. If something like this happens and your supervisor doesn’t understand or isn’t compassionate towards the situation, things can become very hard. While no one expects these kinds of things to happen, it’s important to remember the possibility and how your supervisor might respond to that.

Support doesn’t always need to be personal or emotional, but also in terms of career goals. If you know that you want to get out of academia and go into industry, make sure your supervisor knows this and is willing to support that goal, even if it’s outside their personal field of interest.

What’s the work environment like?

Part of this is the other people you’ll be working with – you can have the best supervisor in the world, but if the people you’re working alongside drive you crazy then you’re going to have a rough time. Your supervisor and coworkers’ organizational style will also impact the work environment. Even if your supervisor seems organized, their lab reagents and paperwork might be in a state of constant chaos.

What will you actually be doing?

This boils down to what you’ll actually be working on under the guidance of your supervisor. Often, it seems like this can be the most important factor, but in my opinion, it’s not. You’re better off finding somewhere you love to be, and I promise you will learn to love the work.

Are they well connected?

Sometimes, your supervisor’s connections can end up greatly benefiting you. However, it’s important to also develop your own network, and not solely rely on your supervisor. But if you’re trying to get into industry and they happen to know a lot of people working in that area, they might be able to help out.

Your relationship with your supervisor can have a huge impact on your studies and your career. Despite this, it’s important to remember that no one is perfect, and your supervisor might not be able to meet all your criteria. Difficult situations are bound to arise, but asking the right questions beforehand can prepare you and help you navigate through these conversations.

For me, it took unpleasant experiences to find what I truly needed out of a supervisor, and my hope is that maybe you won’t have to go through the same.