Identifying a supervisor

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This information is adapted from the 'It's All Academic' module provided by INCEPT - an online learning portal for clinical academics. The resource is reproduced under a Creative Commons License.

The 3 Ps

When getting started in research you will often hear about "the 3Ps" that typically determine the success of a piece of research. These are:

  • Person e.g. your previous experience, your interests, your motivation, etc. 
  • Project e.g. what you'll be working on - is it novel, interesting, and achievable?
  • Place e.g. the research environment - your supervisor, the wider research team, and their resources

Together these make a winning combination to achieve the objectives of your proposed research. Keep these in mind when you are considering starting a piece of research.

Identifying potential supervisors

Ultimately it is the supervisor that will usually make or break a project, so it is worth investing time in deciding who to approach upfront. 

1. Define your area of interest:

This can often be the hardest part, particularly for those starting out in research. You should consider not just which clinical specialities you are interested in, but also what forms of research might appeal to you. Depending on the opportunities available you may have to decide between the two. 

2. Identify potential supervisor(s):

Once you have narrowed down the scope of your search to a smaller number of areas of interest, you will need to find someone who can help you explore it. This can be from several sources:

  • University lists of supervisors 
  • Online profiles of departmental staff (every university will have a list of clinical-academic staff and their research profiles)
  • Academic networking websites like ResearchGate (look for people at your university)
  • Presentations on their work (maybe they did a lecture or you saw them present at a conference)
  • Directly publicised student involvement 
  • Word of mouth (e.g. previous students)

Approaching potential supervisors

Once you have identified your area and some potential supervisors, you will need to decide who you are going to approach. It is worth considering who you most want to work with and it is fine (and even expected) that you will be approaching several supervisors at once.

The best supervisor might not be the most “distinguished” 

  • While it is not a rule, frequently professors will have a huge amount of competing demands on their time and may not be in a good position to directly supervise a student starting out.
  • Consider approaching a clinical research fellow, MD or PhD student, or a clinical lecturer in the department. However you may still wish to contact a professor as they may be able to suggest other academics who can help. 

How active have they been in recent years? 

  • Search the potential supervisor's name on PubMed (or look at their university profile) and see how much they have published.
  • Generally, limited published material may mean they are not an appropriate supervisor (however there can be alternate explanations such as being an early career researcher, parental leave, or other life events).
  • If they are (semi) regularly publishing in good journals in their field, it generally means they will know how best to guide you in creating a clinically relevant piece of work.

Have they successfully supervised students before? 

  • Being academically brilliant is not the same as being a good mentor/teacher. Try to find students who they have supervised before and ask their experience. Were they supported throughout their project?
  • If their work has been published, have students been one of the first few authors on the paper? (This is less realistic for basic science or collaborative projects which often involve large groups all contributing to a body of work).

Recommendations on how to approach supervisors

Approaching potential supervisors (particularly when you have not met them before) can be intimidating for many people, and it can be challenging to know exactly how to do this. Make sure you include the below when contacting potential supervisors.

  •  Briefly introduce yourself and state what your interests are
  •  Outline the reason for contacting them
  •  Outline your aims and experience

Final Tips for approaching supervisors

Do not overthink your approach 

  • Supervisors rarely want to read a wall of text in the initial email - keep it clear and to the point.
  • Do not take a 'no' personally. Sometimes it could be due to external reasons reasons, eg they may not be in a position to supervise. 

Make sure your CV is up-to-date

Send a reminder if you do not hear back

  • If you do not hear back from them, give them some time (some supervisors will get hundreds of emails per day). Generally, a week is an appropriate timeframe after which to send a polite reminder email. 

If you still do not hear a response it may be worth contacting a different supervisor - it is generally a sign that they are too busy to reply. If they are someone you are committed to working with, there is no harm in contacting again in a few months when they might be better able to consider. 

Making a decision

Always have a conversation (in person or virtual) with the potential supervisor before you make any decisions to go ahead with a project. It is important to remember that you need to consider the supervisor as well as the project itself to make sure you are making the right decision for you.