How to Choose a Supervisor

Choosing your supervisor is one of the most important decisions that you will make as a graduate student.  Personally, I have been very fortunate with regards to supervisors.   I have worked with excellent scholars who have been supportive and kind, yet pushed and challenged me to learn and improve.

As a graduate student, the importance of having a good relationship with your supervisor cannot be under-emphasized.   I started looking for my doctoral supervisor two years before I applied for the PhD program and was fortunate to be able to work with my prospective supervisor as a research assistant during that time.  This gave me direct experience working with her and helped us develop a positive working relationship.  I knew going into my program that she was someone who I wanted to continue working with and vice-versa.  I primarily choose Western because she is an expert in her field and I enjoy working with her.  I lucked out because Western is also an amazing university with one of the best nursing programs in Canada.

I’m not sure that there are any truly bad supervisors out there but I have heard horror stories from friends in other disciplines.  I think it’s also important to consider that two people may be fantastic but have difficulty working together if it’s not the right fit.   If you are in the process of trying to choose a supervisor, here are some suggestions to help you get started.

1. First and foremost, do your research interests align?

You may really like someone but if they are an expert in something that doesn’t really interest you, it is probably best that you don’t work with them.  Investing your time and energy into something that you don’t enjoy is only going to make you miserable and potentially put strain on your relationship.

2. Clarify expectations on both sides. 

What do you expect from your supervisor and what do they expect of you?  Sounds pretty basic but you’d be surprised how many people don’t know what they should expect or look for in a supervisor, or on the flip side are unclear about what they are expected to do as a graduate student.

Start by thinking about what you want to learn through your graduate studies.  What skills and expertise are you aiming to acquire?  Graduate school should be about more than just getting a piece of paper!  This is an exciting opportunity to learn so take advantage of it.  (If you don’t feel this way, perhaps you should reconsider your decision or engage in some personal reflection about your approach to learning).  What do you need from your supervisor to help you be successful in achieving your goals?   Regular meetings?  Constructive feedback?   Opportunities to work on research projects?  High fives?

Ask potential supervisors what they expect of their students.  What GPA do they expect you to maintain?  Which courses do they expect you to take?   How long does it generally take their students to complete their degrees?   What is the expected timeline?   Do they want you to attend certain conferences or work for them as a research assistant?

Being up front about expectations can help you both decide if this will be a mutually beneficial relationship and eliminate a lot of frustration and misunderstanding down the line.

3. Talk to a current or former student.  

Having a coffee with someone who has worked with your prospective supervisor is a great way to get a sense of what they are like to work with.  It can also give you some insight into other aspects of the program such as coursework, other faculty members, and most importantly, its culture.  Is it competitive or cooperative?  Are most students working full-time as nurses, managers, and educators or are they full-time students who spend time together regularly?   Try to get a feel for what the experience has to offer and how that aligns with what you are looking to learn and accomplish as a grad student.

Final Thoughts:

I’m sure there are other questions that you will come up with, but I hope this is helpful in getting the gears going!  I am a strong advocate of nursing graduate education and I think that we need to do a better job of encouraging and supporting nurses who are interested in furthering their knowledge and expertise in this way.   Positive relationships within the academic environment are just as important as those in the health care setting so I encourage you to seek out a supervisor who will offer you their best and who will bring out the best in you.

Have a great day!



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