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Why you shouldn’t choose a ‘star academic’ to supervise your PhD

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For PhD candidates, no one has more influence in their lives than their projects supervisor. Who you pick could determine whether or not you succeed.

There are many factors to consider when choosing your supervisor: experience (are they established, mid-career or young?), area of study, connections they have, other commitments, etc.

A new study has explored the impact of choosing one based on reputation. The survey of 409 doctoral candidates from 20 countries sought to see whether having a ‘star’ academic as supervisor benefited PhD candidates.

The answer? Negative. It didn’t make them any happier.

What’s more important is the level of support candidates receive, as well as the academic characteristics of their departments, according to research published in Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education. To study how PhD student satisfaction is influenced by their supervisor, department and peer-group, researchers looked at data from PhD candidates across the sciences, social sciences and humanities in 63 universities across 20 countries.

Choosing a ‘star’ academic was found to be “less advantageous than equivalent efforts at cultivating more broadly collegial but capable faculties”.

“…supervisors are the largest contributors to PhD student satisfaction, but this is driven solely through their supportiveness and not academic qualities”.


The well-being of PhD candidates has been getting more attention lately. A 2018 study in Nature Biotechnology – which surveyed mostly PhD candidates (90 percent), representing 26 countries and 234 institutions – warns of a mental health “crisis” in graduate education: “Our results show that graduate students are more than six times as likely to experience depression and anxiety as compared to the general population.”

It urged for “strong and validated” interventions that academia will be able to provide help for those who are traveling through the bioscience “workforce pipeline.”

In the UK, the pressures of academia, coupled with job insecurity and the marketisation of higher education are contributing to the rise in mental health problems among academics.

The latest research provides vital information in understanding the crisis. Co-author and senior lecturer in the School of the Built Environment at Oxford Brookes University Gerald Dericks told Times Higher Education:

“PhD students have historically had about a 50 per cent dropout rate. Better understanding the determinants of PhD student satisfaction may help reduce student attrition and improve the overall experience of PhD students who do complete, which is often poor.”

Te findings show that the academic qualities of the overall department matter more than individual supervisors, suggesting that departments and supervisors should work together as supervisory teams, instead of single supervisors.

PhD supervisors and their departments should “perhaps seek to work jointly, and perhaps more closely, than many currently do”, the paper concludes.

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