How to Contact & Meet Potential Supervisors

Picture

With appropriate planning and a carefully constructed email, you will be surprised on the number of prestigious academics who will be interest to take you on for research opportunities.

Why Contact A Supervisor And How Can I Do It?

Undergraduate and postgraduate students alike may be very keen on research and hungry to take up opportunities benefitting them in future on their paths to become academic clinicians, surgeons and beyond. To acquire the email addresses of some of the countries top lecturers and academics, all that is required is to go onto their respective university websites. It is customary to email these potential supervisors for research opportunities: be it for summer research, a future BSc project or a prospective PhD.

Planning

There are several considerations one should make before contacting these academics. It is important to carefully plan both the people you contact and the emails you send:

  • Firstly, identify your own interests. What are you aiming to achieve with your research e.g.: are you looking to contact supervisors because you would like to undertake your BSc Project on Deep Brain Stimulation? Or perhaps a PhD in neural tube defects?
  • Identify academics within your institution relevant to your chosen interest. Your university may have a research portal that you can use to find researchers within particular fields. An example is University College London’s (UCL) IRIS Research Portal, which makes it really easy to draw up a list of potential supervisors for research you aspire to undertake.
  • Draw up a list of potential supervisors and read up on each one. Sometimes researchers can have their own websites in which you can find more details about their work and research interests. It may also be wise to read some of their latest publications accessible via PubMed; not only does this give you a better idea as to their specialty of work, but it also shows commitment if you do choose to contact them.

Is it okay to contact multiple potential supervisors at once?

Yes! Generally supervisors are understanding and appreciate that, during this early stage in your career, you will still be exploring interests and will therefore want to discuss supervision with several researchers. However when emailing and meeting the supervisors you should make it clear that you are contacting multiple supervisors to avoid exclusivity potentially giving rise to future discrepancy.

How To Approach The First Email

Think of the first email to the supervisor as a cover letter. The email should demonstrate why you are a suitable student for the chosen research, and why the supervisor should take you on as a research student. Here, structure is vital:

  • Email etiquette is imperative. Start the email with Dear and end it with Kind Regards etc. Spelling and grammar errors are to be avoided.
  • Introduction
    • State who are and what you do / what you intend to do: “My name is Dan, I am a 2nd year medical student looking to undertake a BSc in Surgical Sciences next academic year”
    • It might be beneficial to state how you came to hear about the supervisor i.e.: did you attend one of his / her lectures and find it particularly interesting?
    • It is useful to set an ultimatum or an objective e.g.: if you are thinking of applying for a BSc Prize / Scholarship or aspire to present your work at a particular conference then it is worth mentioning this.
  • Body
    • The main part of the email is the most important. Here, as with any cover letter, you should sell yourself to be a strong candidate for research in the supervisors’ lab. It is very useful to attach a CV with the email, however you should use the body of the email to sell yourself.
    • Highlight the most important points of your CV such as research experience and commitment to research. Previous presentations and publications are useful as proving your track record as a strong candidate for their lab.
    • Here it is useful to mention your interest in the supervisor’s field, and why you want to undertake research in their lab. Mention any publications of theirs you have read.
  • Rounding It Off
    • The end of the message should reinforce or summarise why you think you are suitable for the research role. You may even wish to request a meeting with said supervisor to discuss the projects he will have available for you.
    • It would be worth mentioning support you have received i.e.: if your department has nominated you for an award it would very much strengthen your claim.
    • Ideas and aspirations for the future are useful to add here to reinforce your claims i.e.: I hope to develop into an academic neurosurgeon with a focus on deep brain stimulation.

Why Haven’t I Got A Reply?

Response rates from supervisors are variable as many students underestimate the importance of the first email in impressing themselves as viable candidates for research. Many supervisors are extremely busy and have other commitments outside their academia.

The Meeting

Very often potential supervisors will offer a meeting with themselves or their colleagues to further discuss your interests and aspirations for your research. If the supervisors are particularly busy, they may request that you organize a meeting with one of their postdoctoral students instead. This is both an opportunity to learn more about the department and its research and to learn more about the potential supervisor and whether they are the right choice for you.

  • Before the Meeting
    • Though it is not always necessary, it is useful to read some of the publications that your supervisor has contributed to. It sounds impressive in a meeting if you already have knowledge in the subject field and it leaves more time in the meeting to discuss topics of your particular interest rather than having to explain previous work to you to put the research in context
    • Reread your email. Your potential supervisor may ask you some questions regarding things you have mentioned… i.e.: how did you develop your interest of deep brain stimulation?
  • During the Meeting
    • The meeting is a great way to assess your potential supervisor and whether they are the right choice for you. Assess how engaging the meeting is, whether the topic is really what you thought it would be and whether it has scope for a project you want to undertake.
    • You should also be considering other aspects of the supervisor – Are they listening to you? How much are they interested in you as a prospective student? Though these seem like minor points, you should be considering these particularly if the research is part of a BSc, MSc or PhD considering you will spend a substantial amount of time under their supervision.
    • How much time is the supervisor willing to put into your development? Many of the top supervisors, though excellent, will be extremely busy and will not be able to contribute a significant amount of time to your development as a researcher. The best supervisors will be reputable in their field but still be able to dedicate time to teaching you the appropriate research techniques, arranging meeting with you regularly to monitor progress, teaching you how to write a dissertation and so on.
    • Consider further opportunities that your supervisor may offer you – will your supervisor allow you to assist with the drafting of some of their pending publications? Will he allow you to take further research and subprojects within their lab?
    • If possible and relevant, it may be appropriate to ask the supervisor if you can look around the lab and meet the postdoctoral students, as it is likely that a majority of your time spent in the laboratory, the majority of the ‘hands-on’ supervision will be by these postdoctoral students.
  • After the Meeting
    • A recommended technique is to write all the information you gathered from the meeting down onto a table such that when you after you have met several supervisors with several available projects you contrast and compare each to select one for your research intentions.
    • If possible, it is worth determining the ability of your contacts as supervisors from other sources. If several postdoctoral students and previous students particularly recommend a particular supervisor then it is a very good sign.

Selecting Your Supervisors:

The selection of a supervisor is very personal and should be considered carefully, taking the aforementioned points into account and weighing them up. The decision is even more critical if you are electing to spend a longer amount of time for the research, such as for an MSc or PhD. Choose carefully! Once you have selected, it is courteous to email the other supervisors you have met to inform them you have made them a decision and to thank them for their time.

Summary

  • Contacting potential supervisors is a time consuming process that requires a great deal of organisation
  • Be proactive in your approach
  • The first email is very important, as is the meeting that may follow
  • Choose carefully and take a holistic approach to choosing your supervisor to ensure you have the best possible research experience