Finding a Supervisor for Graduate Studies

By Marie-Pierre Renaud

This post is the second of a series of two about defining a master’s degree research project and finding a supervisor. Read the first part about initial steps to follow here. Also have a look at Melissa Venable’s Should You Get a Master’s Degree? to learn about other important elements to consider.

When deciding to obtain a master’s degree, one has to 1. clarify the research project to be undertaken and 2. find a supervisor. This supervisor is a professor who will guide the student through the 2 or 3 years process, ensure that the project respects certain quality standards and will oversee the evaluation procedures.

Generally speaking, if you want to find out about the people who specialize in a topic you are interested in, the best way to proceed is to find a few academic papers on the topic and check the bibliography to find out who writes about it. Then, see if you can find their CV,  their website and their other publications. They may be members of associations or participate in conferences that could be of interest to you.

Professors choose you…

Professors might be more impressed with you if you know what research has already been conducted and if you have a clear idea of the areas left to explore and of what you’d like to study. Your project will necessarily become clearer as it progresses, but it’s good have as clear an idea a possible of your goals to being with. Plus, your chances of being admitted to a university are much higher if you investigate something new.

The professors you contact might know what topics they wish to see explored. They may even already have grants to that effect. Contact them to let them know you’ve read their research and are interested in knowing if they accept students. Share your initial ideas about a project and if they suggest something else take the time to discuss it with them.

Have your CV and a short description of your project ready in case they ask for it. A description of 1 to 2 pages with a bibliography and your contact information can suffice for first contact.

And you can choose them too!

Learn more about the department professors work in: is it active? Do members publish regularly? What do they work on? What classes and seminars are given? Are good scholarships offered to students? Do some professors have grants? Is there a research center you could integrate?

When considering professors as a master’s supervisor, look beyond your common interests as well. How many students do they supervise? Will they be too busy for you? How do they supervise students? What is their work methodology and their theoretical orientations? Some students need supervisors that provide more structure and follow them more closely. Others might need more independence and flexibility.

In the end, even if you communicate with 10 professors and only collaborate with one, you’ll have created professional contacts: they may remember you when they organize a symposium or edit a publication.

Also note that some professors may simply never answer as they are extremely busy, and it’s not a bad idea to initiate contact early or send a message more than once to eventually get an answer. Try to find the fine line between insisting and harassing them.

Know that it’s possible to be supervised by two professors, in certain cases. It can come in handy but not all universities, departments or professors allow it.

Good luck in your endeavors!

About Marie-Pierre Renaud

I am an anthropologist living in Quebec city, Canada. I specialize in native studies and anthropology of health. I am a geek. I founded and now co-manage The Geek Anthropologist blog. I am working on transforming my memoir into a book and journal articles. I like to knit while watching Star Trek. Reach out to me for collaborations!

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