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10 Ways to Impress a PhD Supervisor

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How to impress a PhD supervisor

So you want to find out how to impress a PhD supervisor? Maybe you’re about to contact them about a potential project, perhaps you already have a meeting scheduled with them, or maybe you’re already one of their PhD students but you want to leave a lasting impression. Whatever your reasons, learning the correct way to impress a PhD supervisor can do wonders for building a great relationship and increasing your chances of success not only in your project but also in opening doors for your future career development.

Based on my own experiences, I’m going to share 10 of the best ways to impress a supervisor – 5 for before they agree to take you on, and 5 for when you become one of their PhD students.

5 Ways to Impress a PhD Supervisor Before They Agree to Supervise You

1. Communicate Clearly

PhD supervisors are busy people, they receive countless emails every day from panicked students, colleagues chasing up peer-reviews, and potential PhD candidates like yourself. When you first contact a potential supervisor, stick to sending them a brief email. Note the brief there. Specify who you are, your educational background, that you are interested in their project, why you are interested in their project, and include a copy of your resume.

You can find a good breakdown of how to structure your first email here – How to Email a Potential PhD Supervisor. Whichever approach you take, the key is to keep it concise.

2. Be Knowledgeable About Your Field

All supervisors want a research student who’s knowledgeable and well-read in their field, as they tend to produce higher-quality work and encounter fewer problems. Although no one expects you to be an expert, make sure you have at least read three of the most popular journal publications in your chosen research area.

3. Research Them

Looking up the supervisor will give you an insight into their research interests, what topics they’re currently researching, and whether they’ve made any notable contributions, be it a publication, a book or a talk at a leading conference. Your goal isn’t to flatter them, but to be able to clearly explain how your project applies to them and why you would like them to be your supervisor. For example, you might pick up on the fact that the supervisor has recently published several papers or attended a number of conferences on a particular subject. Proposing a project closely linked to this area is likely to attract their attention more than a project in a subject which they haven’t published on for several years.

4. Have a Long-Term Plan

Know what you want to research, why you want to research it, and what you want to do after having completed your research.

A PhD is an enormous commitment – it can take up to 8 years, be financially challenging and mentally exhausting. A supervisor will want to reassure themselves that you genuinely believe a PhD is for you, as having a student struggle the entire way through, or worse, drop out altogether, isn’t good for any involved. Spend some time reading up on the common challenges you can expect as a PhD student and determining what your career goals are. Being able to demonstrate an awareness for both of these will help convince the supervisor that your consideration for doing a PhD is a rational one.

Project Plan for creating a good PhD supervisor relationship

5. Have a Project Plan

If you have the opportunity to discuss a project in more detail with a supervisor, keep in mind that not all first interactions will be simple introductory meetings.

Some supervisors like to jump straight in and discuss your proposed project, your methodology, how you plan to collect data, what kinds of challenges you think you may encounter, etc. Answering these questions in detail will show you’re serious about the project. You don’t necessarily need to have all the right answers here but it’s more about showing that you’ve thought about these aspects and do so from a logical standpoint. In contrast, not having well-thought-out answers will give a poor impression of your level of commitment and/or ability.

If you’ve been asked to submit a research proposal as part of your application, you can almost guarantee a large part of your meeting is going to focus on the technical aspects of the project.

5 Ways to Impress a PhD Supervisor After They Agree to Supervise You

It’s natural to want to impress your supervisor, but remember, if they’ve already agreed to supervise you, they’re already impressed with your academic background and research potential. In truth, most supervisors are never more impressed with their students than on the day they receive their doctorate, with all the years of independent research, publications, and hard word work paying off.

If you still want to take a few extra steps to impress your supervisor, here are 5 things you can do during your PhD studies that will get noticed:

6. Be Proactive

Plan your work, commit to your agreed schedule, and fulfil all your obligations. Nothing makes a supervisor happier than an active student taking full responsibility for his or her project. Being proactive assures your supervisor that your project will advance in the right direction, and when you do need support, it’s for genuine issues that warrant their time.

Being a talented researcher isn’t only about being able to conduct research, but also about being able to do so independently. Showing them that you’re capable of this won’t only keep them looking forward to their next meeting, but it will also give them a high level of confidence in your long-term potential.

7. Document, document, document

It happens occasionally – you get a little complacent, or you’re unusually tired that day – and you don’t label your samples or record your results with a high level of care. No matter the excuse, that’s poor practice and will make it harder for yourself when writing up your thesis, or for your supervisor when trying to discuss your results with them.

One of the simplest ways to impress your supervisor (or any fellow researcher for that matter) is to document everything clearly and systematically. This can range from creating a detailed spreadsheet to keeping a frequently updated LATEX file.

Regardless of how you document your work, stick to a single system and make it so detailed that anyone can pick up and continue your research without having to ask for clarification.

How do you impress a potential PhD supervisor

8. Network and Promote Your Research

For creating opportunities in the world of research, nothing is more influential than your reputation. Networking with other researchers within and outside of your university and promoting your work through conferences, events and journal publications improves not only your reputation but also that of your supervisors as a likely co-author. This will help them increase the reach of their work, secure new research grants and be considered for future collaborations.

However, it should be stressed that you mustn’t overstep your bounds – especially when it comes to unfinished work or areas of new potential research. Sharing something your supervisor hasn’t yet wanted to make public is the quickest way to go from impressing to annoying them.

9. Help Them

Supervisors are busy individuals, with a schedule full of lectures, lab sessions, department meetings, plus their own research.

You can earn the gratitude of your supervisor by helping them with some of their tasks, such as offering to host a tutorial on their behalf or setting up the lab for their next demonstration. You can also extend your help to new PhD students who join your research group by acting as a mentor and guiding them through the early challenges of doctoral studies, such as explaining how to order equipment or who to talk to for certain lab requirements.

Supervisors appreciate this type of action as it creates a friendly and collaborative environment for the research group for which they are ultimately responsible for.

10. Clean up After Yourself

You shouldn’t need to be told about this, but it’s surprising how many research students fail to clean up after themselves after having completed laboratory work. This not only goes against laboratory policy, but it gives a poor impression of your research group, which is especially important when you consider the fact you are likely sharing the facilities with staff members who are colleagues of your supervisor.

Cleaning up after yourself shows you respect your colleagues and your workplace and suggests that you have a high personal standard which is always commendable in the eyes of a supervisor. Besides, it’s not that difficult to discard your samples, wipe down your surfaces and record all perishable items that need to be refilled at the end of each day.

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So there you have it, 10 ways to build a good working relationship with your supervisor.

In the same way that a supervisor takes you on as a student, you’re also taking them on as a supervisor, so the relationship must work both ways for it to be successful. I strongly encourage you, in your first meetings with a potential supervisor, to get a sense of whether your personalities are complementary or whether you think there’s a clash. Try to find out what kind of character your supervisor has before joining their research group (e.g. whether they’re a hands-on supervisor or whether they’re a laid back one); if you do this right, most of my tips will fall into place naturally without you having to try.

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