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.