How to choose a uni and supervisors?

It’s the fellowship season (read ‘panic’) again. I get at least an email per day asking for advice. This year much of the emails’ content has been about how to choose the host university and supervisors.These are, in my view, the two most important and trickiest tasks of developing a fellowship application, and I am glad to see people are giving these questions due consideration. The problem is – I don’t have the time to talk everyone through this. So I’ve put some thoughts in a post here, for open viewing.

My approach is something like this:

1) Identify the best supervisor for you and check that their organisation is good enough.

2) Ask if that supervisor is willing to supervise you.

3) Work with the agreed supervisor to prepare your application, including choosing your wider team and collaborators.

Seems simple, eh? Maybe so. But in my experience a lot of people spend a lot of time (I mean years) stuck in a limbo trying to navigate these three steps. Equally many do these steps badly and end up with wrong supervisors or host. Often it is because the fellowship candidate does not have any real understanding of how to navigate these steps effectively. So let’s work through each step.

1) Identify the best supervisor for you and check that their organisation is good enough

In choosing your #1 supervisor (and by default their university as your host), I always say make sure that between the host university and the supervisor: (i) they have previously hosted/supervised fellowships from your proposed funder, (ii) they have the specific expertise you will need for your project – and that their expertise is of top quality (for PhD fellowships at least nationally leading and for post-docs internationally leading, check league tables and leading publications in your topic), and (iii) they will treat you fairly – in terms of respecting your ideas, authorship and salary (e.g. for a fellowship, they should not ask you to go down onto a pre-PhD salary grade for the duration of PhD fellowship but pay at your current grade with the appropriate increments).

In addition, I advise (iv) to avoid host organisations and supervisors who are too keen to have you. Yes you want them to be interested and positive, and ideally excited about your project or you as a person – but I am very wary of organisations and supervisors ‘pocketing’ promising fellowship candidates (who then become owned and stiffled by these hosts and supervisors rather than being enabled to grow). Most externally funded fellowships are prestigious, and everyone wants to host and supervise them. But just because someone wants to do it does not mean they will do a good job of it, or that it is in the advantage of the candidate.

In my experience of supporting a lot of people through this process, fellowship candidates often have a very limited or superficial understanding of the research in their topic, and the leading lights in that topic. It means they don’t really know what they are looking for and how to make comparisons (they are like a person who knows nothing about cars trying to buy a car – entirely on the mercy of the sales persons and glossy brochures).

So what to do?

I would say the single best thing is to look and ask around, speak to people. Speak to as many clinical academic people in your topic as you can. People at all levels, in different organisations. Ask their thoughts on who are the good eggs, who are the strong thinkers, who are the good mentors, who are the up and coming. And a picture will emerge. Then speak to those people that feature on your short list – speak to them at conferences, or ask to meet them. You can say that you are looking for a supervisor and wonder if their organisation would be a good place – and could you come for a visit to discuss. You don’t need to commit straight away (if they try to make you then to me that is a warning signal – a good supervisor wants to meet you first and see if you make a good match).

If it was me, I would give myself at least a year, probably two, to do this. This may seem an awfully long time – but doing this well will likely make all the difference for the rest of your career trajectory.

At this point many people say to me: “I can’t wait another year – I think I’m just going to go with the host and supervisor I sort of have in mind already…”. Fine. It’s your call. But I can also tell you, based on my experience, that many of these people end up back at my door 2-3 years down the line because they have not made progress. It is damn difficult to succeed even with the right host and supervisor – not to mention with a wrong one.

So, have scouted around, sniffed the people on the short list, and ready to make the move to secure your first choice?

2) Ask if that supervisor is willing to supervise you

It really is that simple. You don’t need to kneel down (I suspect most of us strongly prefer you don’t!) but you do need to ask. “I’d be really interested in working on this with you, and I wonder if you’d supervise this?” is just fine.

It can feel strange, and in my experience a lot of people feel nervous and shy about it. But I believe it is an important part of the process, because the role of the supervisors is to challenge the candidate and to have constructive debates with (and against!) them. And it tends to be more productive where the candidate explicitly creates the permission for this by asking the other person to take this role on.

Put simply. If you don’t ask them then how are they to know that you want them to tear your work apart and help you put it together again?

Some people say to me they only want supervisors who will really passionately want to be on their project, and that therefore they won’t ask anyone – they will wait for people to volunteer. I’ll never be that supervisor. I respect it as your project, and I see it as your right to choose who you want on it, and for you to invite those people to work with you. Also, I have never met a good supervisor who would be short of supervisees – good supervisors don’t need to go around asking to get on to projects (but bad ones do).

One further word on nailing down your supervisor. Doing this is also an act of not choosing the other people on your short list. This means stopping to lean on them, as with supervision goes not only the glory but also the burden. It is the job for the supervisors to help the candidate, and those who are not chosen as supervisors (and so will not get the glory) will need to be released from the burden. If you still like the others on the short list, you can of course ask them to be collaborators – see below.

3) Work with the agreed supervisor to prepare your application, including choosing your wider team and collaborators

Once you have the host and the lead supervisor, then you need to work with them for everything else. They should advice you on what your CV should look like to be competitive, how to make your clinical and academic experience and vision as strong as possible, which funding streams and deadlines to go for, how to shape your project so that it is the best and as cutting edge as it can be. They should help you to identify who to seek to collaborate with, and be in position to introduce you to the other national and international leaders in your topic.

It’s this overall guidance role that makes the first task, identifying the right supervisor and host, so important. The overall advice you will get to develop your proposal will only be as good as your host organisation and supervisors – and the better these are the better your application.

It’s like Formula 1. It’s a race (you with your team against a lot of other strong candidates with strong teams). The team you compete for makes more of a difference than you the driver (or here the candidate) because it’s the team that has the cumulative know-how on building the best car (here the fellowship package), selecting the winning strategy, and working with the driver to maximise their potential. One may be the best driver but in a wrong team the chances of doing well are very low.

Most of the people who email me to ask about fellowships are asking generic questions of the kind that they really need to work through with their supervisors. Some say that their host and supervisor don’t have the answers. To this I say: if they can’t help you through these basics then I would be concerned they are not the right host for your award. If they cannot help you get the fellowship then why are you working with them?

Yes, by all means approach your wider group of named collaborators for specific inputs and expertise. But it is not their job to help you to build the whole proposal and the package.

Put simply: To have the best chances you need to identify the best team, i.e. the one that has the know-how on your topic, and then work your socks off with them. It’s always also wise to make use of expertise from a further selected pool of teams. But keep in mind no team is there to service the whole of Formula 1 – even the most generous and collegiate will have to prioritise their own cars and drivers. So make sure the one servicing yours is up for the job.

Disclaimer: Obviously – read this as my thoughts only, and do refer to your funder’s guidance. And, people do these steps differently. Not everyone will do them the way I describe here, and still end up with good outcomes. But if you don’t know how to do them then the way I describe here should certainly see you past the biggest pot holes.

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