How Not to Suck at Finding a Match with a Supervisor (or PI)

As always, I acknowledge that there are many ways to find a good supervisor. The culture of matching with a supervisor also varies across fields of study and universities. However, these are my experiences and what I have learned in trying to find the best possible graduate student and supervisor match.

The quality of the relationship between student and supervisor is probably the best predictor of graduate school satisfaction and success. Therefore, the decision concerning matching with your supervisor is the most important graduate school decision that you make. The basics of finding a supervisor are fairly simple and well known: identify supervisors at the same time that you are exploring universities for graduate school; contact potential supervisors as soon as possible; determine the style of supervision that the potential supervisor uses; find out graduation and success rates of students working with this supervisor; interview current and past students who are or have worked with this supervisor; find out if most of the supervisor’s publications are with students and if students have the opportunity to be first authors on papers; and interview trusted people in the field. Obviously, there are the other criteria that are important as well such as, acceptance to the program and university, financial package, quality of life, mobility, and such. The biggest mistake that students make is that they pursue potential supervisors who study in a specific field of interest or are major leaders in the field. Although these are important factors, I would argue that matching supervision style and how the supervisor treats students is far more important.

The most valuable information that students can gather is from current and former students. Any potential supervisor should make current grad students and graduates available to be interviewed. Refusal to do so is a major red flag. Phrases such as task master, high expectations, demanding, and even slave driver are not really bad things. Harsh and extremely demanding supervisors are often most effective. Look for evidence of unavailability, unfairness, or general lack of respect for students. As a prospective student, how professors treat you in this interview process will tell you how they will function as a supervisor.

Anyone looking for a supervisor also must know their own needs. Do you need someone who is more nurturing and supportive? Someone who will leave you alone to do your work? Someone who makes frequent deadlines and continuous oversight? Do you want to be a member of a team or have a more individual relationship with your supervisor? The style that professors use to supervise students varies more than teaching quality, research productivity, and other more easily identifiable traits.

The other part of the equation concerns what potential supervisors are looking for in a graduate student. After all, a match must work for both parties. Again, I am only speaking for myself. The nature of McGill graduate programs is that we have an extensive system of fellowships at the provincial and national level. When students win these awards, then there is no pressure on the supervisor to provide grant or other funding. I look for people who have a record that makes them competitive for fellowships. I am also looking for folks who will produce and work well as a team mate. For me, the best method is to make a follow-up phone call to research supervisors and others who write letters of recommendation. Few people put their reservations to paper, but will discuss them with an interested colleague. The next method I use is to encourage prospective supervisees to talk with my current students, and then I ask my students what they think of the potential student. Students are honest. And they know that I trust and count on their opinion. Letting my students help to select their colleagues is a good way for me to find a solid match.

Although I supervise many students, I do not mentor all of them. Some students do their research and graduate, but I do not have a close personal relationship nor do I give a lot of career advice. That is fine. One cannot force a mentorship relationship upon students or supervisors. The best supervision situation is to have students who are protégés. They become trusted colleagues and research partners. It is with these students that we have the most productive and rewarding relationships. With these students I argue, share, create, and develop partnerships that will last for a long time. I look for students with potential to be protégés. Therefore, I am looking for leadership, initiative, work habits, toughness, confidence, drive, and energy. Passive students do not tend to work for me. In my lab, we have “stupid question time.” This is where students develop their most weird and assumption-challenging questions and comments. The expectation is that people will take chances, be creative, and trust their colleagues not to tease or mock out-of-the-box ideas. I want people who are creative thinkers, are always prepared, and can contribute to stupid question time. In addition, toughness and persistence are enormous factors. Few, if any, graduate students go through an entire graduate program without challenges or rough times. Is there any evidence that they have a drive to complete their goals and can overcome difficult situations? I do not want followers or minions. I want partners and butt kickers. Sometimes I think a student has potential to be a butt kicker, but they do not see it yet. Ultimately, my question is: what can this student bring to my lab? I look for skills or interests that will add to the lab, not duplicate what we already have. Diversity of ideas and background keep the ideas of the lab creative and dynamic. Any evidence of interpersonal problems, arrogance, potential divisiveness in the lab, or lack of work ethic will exclude the student from joining my lab and being under my supervision. Not everyone will be a protégé, yet I am always searching for people with potential to take on that role.

Finding a supervisor is a major life decision. There are so many stories of graduate supervisors abusing, neglecting, or otherwise providing poor supervision as to be cliché. Students can prevent some of these problems by vetting potential supervisors, knowing their own needs concerning supervision style, and determine if they have the skills and temperament to meet the needs of the supervisor in this essential partnership.

Steven R. Shaw


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