Once you get to grad school, the choice of primary academic supervisor to guide your research and writing is critical to your success.
Students who lack a supportive supervisor often fail to thrive, while those with strong supervision and support have an undeniable advantage.
Very often for a master’s degree, but certainly for a PhD, you will need to contact your potential supervisor, or interesting professors, long before you even apply to grad school.
Your supervisor will be your intellectual mentor, your first access point for issues and problems at grad school, and hopefully your biggest cheerleader (and reference writer) once you’ve completed your studies.
Finding that super supervisor, however, requires pro-activity, research, planning, and strategy.
Very often for a master’s degree but certainly for a PhD you will need to contact your potential supervisor, or interesting professors, long before you even apply to grad school.
Establish email contact early and, if possible, meet him or her to discuss your goals at grad school and your research interests. Find common areas of interest and places where your work might overlap. Your supervisor will ideally also be a great networking and work contact throughout your graduate studies.
When I was in the process of selecting PhD programs, I learned that the professor I was most interested in working with was attending a conference in Portland, Oregon. I was living in Vancouver.
So, I contacted her, set up a meeting, and drove to Portland to have breakfast with her. It solidified my interest in working with her, and proved to her I was dedicated and proactive. I ended up working with her for five great years at the University of California.
I was fortunate in both my masters and PhD to have amazing supervisors. But I have friends who left programs because of bad fits with supervisors, or had to change to other, more supportive professors mid-program.
Avoid this situation by planning early and making strong connections. Changing supervisors, while not uncommon, can be disruptive to both your degree and your confidence.
But if you discover that you just can’t work with your supervisor, don’t be afraid to discuss it with colleagues or other trusted professors. Keep the conversation professional, but open a dialogue about other options if necessary.
Ultimately, you are in control of your own success, and pro-actively choosing the right people to work with is your responsibility. Finding a super supervisor will set you up for a super grad school experience as well.
Photo credit: Shaking General Clark’s Hand by TreyDanger (Flickr)