How to Find the Right Social Science DPhil Supervisor?

By Amirah Kaca Sumarto

Everyone says the most important key to a successful and happy DPhil is the supervisor. Then how do you find the right supervisor? I put together a list of important criteria to consider from all the advice that I received when I was applying for my DPhil. Although I used the list to apply to doctoral programmes in public policy and political science, it should be applicable to other social science programmes as well.

Area of Research Interests

If you already have a research topic in mind, then you can start searching for academics who do exciting work in that area. Other than trying to find a supervisor who matches the specific topic you plan to do, it's also useful to match based on a broader area of research interests. This is because many people often change their research topic, and you want a supervisor who can help you explore other possible research topics. My personal research interests consist of political economy and governance (distributive politics, electoral and party politics, public sector reform, and policy innovation). I have two DPhil supervisors. One of my supervisors is a development economist who does research a lot of research on electoral politics and clientelism in the Philippines. The other supervisor has a PhD in political science and does research on public management/administration in African countries. And, if I’m being honest, I can't think of a better combination of supervisors for me.

Research Methods

You also need to find a supervisor who is proficient in the research methods that you plan to use for your thesis (quantitative, qualitative, or mixed-method). One of my supervisors does highly quantitative work and the other focuses on mixed methods. I ended up doing a book-style mixed method thesis and I can get guidance on both the quantitative and qualitative parts of my research. However, a chapter of my thesis will use quantitative text analysis, something that neither of my supervisors have done. Nevertheless, I continue to receive useful feedback from them on how to frame the research questions, etc. You can always look for advice from other people too if you also ended up using a method that your supervisors aren't familiar with.

Regional Expertise

Ideally, you want to find someone who also works in the same or similar region as you because they will understand the contexts and settings of your research. They can refer you to relevant datasets and contacts, especially if you are not familiar with the region yet. Nevertheless, I find this point to be not as important, especially if you are already familiar with the region yourself. However, having supervisors who at least work within the same developed/developing country context will be very helpful. I am doing my research on Indonesia and neither of my supervisors have worked there, yet both can still give relevant advice on data collection, working with research stakeholders, and solving the typical research obstacles.

Personal Qualities

This is probably the most important thing to consider but is often overlooked. I searched for information on how my supervisors are as people (are they kind, caring, considerate?) and their style in supervising (how do they give feedback, what are their expectations for students, are they responsive, etc). How well connected are they? What do their DPhil students think of them? It's always a good idea to contact and get in touch with former or current DPhil students. If your prospective supervisor's students are happy and feeling supported in their DPhil journey, then that’s a major green flag and you’re onto the right supervisor.