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How to find the right research supervisor

This article appears in: Study tips
CDU researcher and supervisor outdoors

If you’re considering a Higher Degree by Research (HDR), know this: Choosing the right research supervisor and forging a strong and mutually respectful working relationship is critical to your success. Here, CDU’s Dr Simon Moss, provides his top tips for knowing when you’ve found the right research supervisor

Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of working with many research supervisors and their students. I’ve seen time and again how important it is to have an effective research supervisor. Your research supervisor will help you define your project outline, tackle your research systematically and effectively, and provide support and encouragement to help you finish your degree on time.

From my experience, an effective supervisor will:

Make suggestions that accommodate your specific needs and circumstances

Effective supervisors don’t follow a ‘one size fits all’ approach. Instead, they accommodate each student’s unique obstacles, concerns, limitations and circumstances.  Look for these signs early. During initial emails, they’ll ask questions about your personal circumstances, including your family responsibilities, financial position or skills.  In return, they’ll offer advice that is sensitive to your answers.

Be responsive and take the time to explain

Effective supervisors explain their actions clearly.  If their responses are delayed they’ll explain why. If they suggest you initiate an action they’ll explain why. This is a sign that their behaviour and working style is predictable rather than erratic. 

Suggest alternative courses of action

Effective supervisors know there is more than one path to success. From the outset, they’ll offer you a few alternative project ideas or approaches rather than just one specific course of action. They may ask you whether you’d prefer to approach your research using qualitative design, quantitative design or mixed-method design. They’ll talk to about whether to start your literature review before or after you enrol. 

Be humble

A good supervisor will acknowledge their limitations without denigrating themselves. They’ll be passionate about learning and developing their knowledge and expertise about a specific topic[1].  They may even hope to learn from interactions with you—and they’ll certainly be receptive to your suggestions and perspectives. 

Attach significant value to their life outside work

Most supervisors appreciate that family responsibilities compete with work, but effective supervisors tend to prioritise their family. Look for the signs: they’ll be concerned with the needs of your family. If you need to relocate interstate, they may suggest schools for your children or employment opportunities for your partner.

Having creative pursuits outside of work may also be a sign of an effective supervisor. They tend to be more refreshed and relaxed at work, improving their mood, performance and creativity[2].

Have realistic future hopes and goals—and your work could be relevant to these aspirations

Effective supervisors will often contemplate realistic future roles and activities they would like to undertake, for example, participating in certain research programs. It means they’re more likely to behave altruistically[3]

Be compassionate

Compassionate supervisors tend to be more resilient, patient and accepting.  Compassion can surface in many ways. Your supervisor may be motivated to help their community or address injustice. Or they may be particularly empathetic when you express concerns. 

Be good at time management – and won’t seem rushed

Effective supervisors know that being responsive is important and can manage their responsibilities. You’ll find their emails are detailed and well thought through (rather than rushed and curt) and they don’t complain about their workload. 

You may be tempted to assume a rushed supervisor could mean they’re successful and, therefore, could help you in the future. But in reality, rushed supervisors aren’t as motivated to develop knowledge. They’re probably less likely to be receptive to new and different ideas and less focused on developing your skills.

If you’re considering a Higher Degree by Research, find your supervisor at CDU. You’ll join a research community that delivers real-world and measurable impact in northern Australia and the Asia Pacific and be supported by committed and professional supervisors.

[1] Owens, M. P., Johnson, M.D., & Mitchell, T. R. (2013). Expressed humility in organizations: implications for performance, teams, and leadership. Organization Science, 24(5), 1517-1538.

[2] Eschleman, Madsen, Alarcon, & Barelka, 2014) 

[3] Yi  et al., 2016

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