In an ideal world, you find your passion and get a scholarship to study it with a leading expert in the field. I had friends who did unexciting PhDs and then switched to their passion, and never looked back. A PhD is foremost, training in science. Keeping this in mind, you need to make a decision based on your personal ambitions and circumstances and best options at the time.
My suggestions in looking for a supervisor
- Know what you want and need. Have some idea of the field of study that interests you, and know why. Why do you want to do a PhD, and what might you do afterwards?
- Seek supervisors with expertise in the general area. Ask other researchers for advice on who to study with, not just because of a person’s expertise but the likelihood of being a good supervisor and mentor. If you can, consult their graduate students. See who is publishing in the study area recently. Are they well published and still publishing? If not, then likely they are not on top of the field, unwell, or doing something else with their time. Are they well connected and likely to be a well-respected reference for jobs after the PhD?
- Have they supervised other graduates to completion? If not, maybe they do not like doing so or are too busy on other work. Do their students publish papers, including as lead authors?
- Have some communication with the potential supervisor before enrolling, in writing and if possible in person. Are they responsive (within a week) and interested? If not, do not waste your time pursuing it. Will you be able to communicate comfortably?
- Money matters. How will you cover your living costs? Are the proposed research costs covered by the supervisor’s grants or university?
What I think you need
Support – academically, but also perhaps pastoral care if you run into challenges that may affect your studies.
Timeliness – better to get some good if brief feedback quickly than wait weeks for detailed feedback.
The best people to work with are those who are busy and productive. They either do things now, or say when they can, or cannot. So be wary of unproductive people. Do not avoid working with supervisors because they may have many other students and work underway.
Every person is different and most are human. Some are sociable and extrovert, others not. Celebrate diversity but do not expect your supervisor to be some ideal. Consider that they may be over-occupied with personal or work challenges, family pressures (even love lives or the absence of), struggle with health problems, none of which you may ever be aware of. Their ability to support you may vary over time. If they cannot support you adequately do not stress out. Discuss it with them, seek advice from co-supervisors, and diplomatically build on the support you have. Do not burn your bridges and do not be afraid to build new ones. Remember it is your MSc/PhD. You have to take responsibility for it.
Supervisors may be ideas or details people, pedantic or obtuse, visionary or orthodox, organised or chaotic, radicals or conformists. Like you they are individuals, and you need to work with your strengths and theirs. For a PhD in particular, you should learn to work independently and not have a micromanaging supervisor.
What matters in a Ph.D. adviser? Here’s what the research says
The PhD journey: how to choose a good supervisor
How to Pick a Graduate Advisor
What makes a great PhD supervisor (for recommender-systems and machine-learning research)?
What are the qualities of a good supervisor?
How to get the most from your PhD supervisor
How to Choose Your Supervisor and Sail Happily Through Your PhD
How To Choose A PhD Supervisor
What can your PhD supervisor do for you?
How to choose your next research project
Tips from the journal Nature with regard to starting and finishing a PhD
In Norway the role of a PhD supervisor is fairly typical defined as follows:
The candidate and academic supervisors should have regular contact. The supervisor is responsible for following up the candidate’s academic development. The frequency of contact between the parties should be stated in the annual progress report. The supervisors are required to stay informed of the progress of the candidate’s work and to assess it in relation to the progress plan in the project description.
The supervisors are required to follow up academic-related factors that may cause a delay in the candidate’s progress so that the candidate can complete the training within the stipulated time period.
The supervisors are to give advice on formulating and delimiting the thematic area and research questions, discuss and assess hypotheses and methodology, discuss the results and the interpretation of these, discuss the structure and implementation of the thesis, including the outline, choice of language, documentation, etc., and provide guidance on the academic literature and data available in libraries, archives, etc. The supervisors must also advise the candidate on the issue of research ethics related to the thesis.