Choosing a potential institution and supervisor for your doctorate

Let’s assume you have identified your potential research field. Before you get as far as making a formal application, you need to select one or two institutions where you might want to do the doctorate and potential supervisors with whom to work.

Finding the right institution

Choosing your supervisor

Finding the right institution

It is important to select a potential institution which has a department or unit that undertakes research in your proposed area, and has current staff engaged in that type of research (ideally with recent publications and profile).

UK universities receive a lot of unsolicited applications, mainly from outside the UK, for doctoral research in subject areas that they do not even work in. The second most common reason for a university to reject an idea or applicant for doctoral research is that they don’t have the capacity to supervise either because they don’t have a sufficiently expert supervisor, or they are already supervising too many researchers. A little research could prevent you from wasting effort on an application like that.

You should try to learn about what it would be like to undertake doctoral research in a particular department and institution. Could you handle going to work there every day for three or four years?! Here are some potential questions to ask:

  • Is there just one person working in the field that interests you, or is there an active group?
  • Would there be other doctoral researchers working in similar fields?
  • What support will you be given; would you have an induction, and how would they monitor your progress? Would they appoint a second supervisor, or provide you with a mentor?
  • How many of their researchers complete their PhD and what is the average completion time for recent doctoral graduates?
  • What development opportunities would there be such as travel to conferences and events, training, exchanges, coaching programmes etc?

The best way to ask and get answers to questions like these is to arrange to visit the university or institute, to try to see where doctoral researchers work, relevant lab or technical facilities, the library and accommodation. Seeing when and where researchers meet for coffee or lunch can be quite revealing about the culture within a department. 

Choosing your supervisor

Your supervisor is likely to be the most important person in your academic life as a doctoral researcher - so choose wisely. First, identify a potential supervisor on the basis of their previous or current research, which should ideally be in the specific area you want to study or close to it. You can see this from their online profiles, stated research interests and publication lists on institution and department web pages.

You will also want to find out:

  • What is their experience of supervising doctoral researchers? 
  • Are they actually interested in supervising somebody working in your area?
  • How many doctoral candidates are they supervising now?
  • How much time would they have for you?   

Ideally, try to talk to doctoral researchers they are currently supervising. It is also worth knowing whether there are other supervisors in the department working in your area. If you find later that you don’t get along with your intended supervisor, you might need to find another one. Or if your supervisor moves mid-way through your programme, you might need a replacement.

Once you have selected a potential supervisor, it would be well worth talking to them in some detail about your ideas and the opportunities available, before you apply formally. They may know of funded programmes or university scholarships that you could apply for, or they can advise if you should apply first and then pursue possible funding sources with them afterwards. If they are not enthusiastic about your possible project, you’ve probably got the wrong person.