Dal grad students publish simple 10‑step guide for choosing a PhD supervisor

- November 3, 2021

Dal Biology doctoral candidate Loay Jabre and colleagues are seeking to help prospective PhD students make the right choice. (Provided photo)
Dal Biology doctoral candidate Loay Jabre and colleagues are seeking to help prospective PhD students make the right choice. (Provided photo)

With most doctoral programs taking at least five years to complete, having a positive relationship with a PhD supervisor is a primary concern for any prospective PhD student. In fact, the relationship is a key driver of success in determining a student’s satisfaction with their program and their ability to complete it.

Finding a supervisor can be a daunting experience. First, students need to identify prospective supervisors whose research aligns with their interests. Then they need to find one that has the capacity and funding to take them on. It can feel like a process of trial and error. And then, once the list is narrowed to a few possibilities, the student needs to ask: “Will this person be a good fit, both personally and professionally?”

With the goal of helping prospective doctoral students answer this question, Dalhousie Biology PhD students Loay Jabre, Catherine Bannon, Scott McCain and Yana Eglit jointly wrote the article, “Ten simple rules for choosing a PhD supervisor” for the open-access journal PLOS Computational Biology. And with over 17,000 views to date, their advice has clearly struck a chord with its target audience.

Jabre and his collaborators came about the idea of writing a guide for prospective PhD students when the quartet got to talking about how they found their respective supervisors and realized there seemed to be a lack of formal guidance for grad students.

“We spoke with fellow grad students in the biology department and around Dal,” says Jabre. “They all shared sentiments on how difficult it was to choose a supervisor, and how they wish they could have done some things differently, or how they wished someone gave them some advice and mentorship on how to choose a supervisor.

“We saw this as an opportunity to share our experiences with the broader community at Dal and elsewhere in the hopes of helping students who don’t know what to look for in a PhD supervisor.”

The group arrived at the following 10 rules to support students in the process:

1.     Align research interests

2.     Seek trusted sources

3.     Expectations, expectations, expectations

4.     It takes two to tango

5.     Workstyle compatibility

6.     Be sure to meet current students

7.     But also try to meet past students

8.     Consider the entire experience

9.     Trust your gut

10.  Wash, rinse, repeat

To get the full details, the group’s article can be read for free in the PLOS Computational Biology journal.

Forging a strong relationship

Now in the fourth year of his Biology PhD program, Jabre feels fortunate to have an “incredible relationship” with his supervisor, Erin Bertrand, though he admits that it was largely a “gut feeling” that led them to come together.

“I just searched for professors who were doing the kind of work I’m interested in (phytoplankton research) and reached out to a few of them,” says Jabre, recalling the early days of his quest. “I didn’t know what kind of important questions to ask, what to look for, what to avoid. Luckily, the supervisor I chose is phenomenal, but I know many people who didn’t end up with the right supervisor for them.”

Thanks to Jabre and his colleagues, prospective PhD students now have a guide to follow as they start their search to find a supervisor.


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