Are you thinking about doing a PhD? It is a laudable aim. A PhD will sharpen your thinking and teach you the mechanics of research. It will help you establish credibility in your chosen area. It may be a first step in an academic career, or alternatively, enhance your job prospects in industry through the knowledge and skills you acquire.
Many students unfortunately take the wrong approach to approaching a potential supervisor. If you have been directed to this article, you have probably approached an academic without really considering their expertise or research strategy. How can you have a more productive dialogue with a potential supervisor?
What a PhD is
The broad aim of a PhD is to make an original contribution to knowledge through a program of research. That means building on work that has already been accomplished in a field. It means addressing a question that has yet remained unanswered.
Choosing the right research question is critical. To understand what questions are truly innovative, you need to have a great deal of content knowledge about your chosen research domain. This is why most new PhD students spend at least the first few months coming to grips with the academic literature.
To be an effective mentor, a supervisor also needs to have substantial knowledge in this research domain. They also need to have a good understanding of the methods and conventions that are appropriate for undertaking research in a domain.
An academic would be remiss if they accepted a PhD student but lacked the expert content knowledge to supervise their thesis. Beyond basic grammar and research mechanics, that academic would find it very difficult to guide that student in a sensible direction and offer meaningful feedback on their work.
What Role Does an Academic Play?
Academics are typically sub-specialists within a broader field. For example, I work within the broader field of business and management. As described on my university profile page, my more specific research interests include employee learning, expertise and innovation.
Academics are highly motivated to build an international profile in a research area. To succeed in academic, you need to be the guy (not necessarily a male) who is known for something. The creativity and innovation guy. The diversity and inclusion guy. The customer experience guy.
Having a strong reputation is beneficial, as reputable academics are approached by industry and other researchers to work on collaborative projects. Securing grants and funding is far easier if you have an established track record in an area. To reach the senior ranks of academia (anything with Professor in the title), we need to be a recognised expert.
Academics are naturally cautious about taking on new PhD students. A PhD is usually at least a three-year commitment, and as such, a positive working relationship is essential. Believe it or not, it is actually very difficult for an academic to “break up” with a student at many universities. Nobody wants to be stuck in a bad relationship that is not working for either party.
Thus, for an academic to take on a new student, they need to be confident that both parties have the capabilities to successfully finish the PhD, and that the PhD will serve their long-term research strategy.
What Should You Do Instead?
The first thing you should do is to choose a research domain that you find broadly interesting. It can be beneficial if you have had some direct experience with the topic. Alternatively, you could choose an area that is in high demand in industry, such as how to manage diversity, how to reduce employee stress, how to build more effective leaders, or how to build more effective supply chains.
You should then locate potential supervisors with expertise in this area. One approach is to contact authors of relevant academic journal articles, books, or book chapters. You could also look to academics who have published in media outlets, such as The Conversation. If location was important, you could search through the profile pages of academics at specific universities.
You should then initiate an open dialogue with an academic about potential supervision. You should express interest in the academic’s research area and willingness to contribute to it. Academics are even more impressed when you have read something they have published. I once stopped corresponding with a potential student when it became clear he lacked the information literacy skills to retrieve one of my articles from an electronic database.
I would recommend against sending an unsolicited research proposal. It signals that you have made an intellectual investment in pursuing a research program that may not be of interest to a supervisor. A research topic is usually the product of negotiation between the academic and student. A supervisor is likely to be far more invested in a project they have had a hand in shaping.
Provide potential supervisors with evidence of relevant experience, such as time in industry or previous research work. If you wanted to provide evidence of your academic writing ability, provide a link to a piece you have authored (e.g., an Honours thesis). You should make potential supervisors aware of potential opportunities, such as access to a rich dataset, funding or professional networks, but do not frame your intentions too narrowly. Ensure that your writing is impeccable and free of spelling and grammatical errors.
If a supervisor appears interested, you should also do your due diligence on them. Ensure that the academic has actually published in the area in which they claim to have expertise. If a researcher is new to an institution, ensure that what previously made them successful (e.g., access to local business networks) still applies to their new situation.
At a personal level, find out about their supervision style. Speak with other past and current supervisees to understand that academic’s approach to supervision. Understand the expectations that you have of each other. You may even consider asking your supervisor to undertake the Role Expectations Survey to understand their approach to supervision.
A PhD is a long journey that is often fraught with uncertainty and frustrations. Do yourself a favour and choose the best travelling companion you can find.