A group of attendees at #BISA2023 having a discussion

How to approach a PhD supervisor

This article was written by Professor Simon Rushton (Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Sheffield)
This article was published on

Over the next few months we'll be bringing you a series of articles and interviews on applying for and starting your PhD in the UK. In this first article, Professor Simon Rushton discusses approaching a supervisor. Look out for further articles on making your application and scholarships/funding. We'll also be bringing you interviews with current and former PhD students who came to the UK to study so you can find out more about their experiences.

Finding the right supervisor is one of the most important steps in the PhD journey. You’ll work closely with this person over a number of years - in some cases long after your PhD has been successfully completed. It’s really important to find someone who is the ‘right fit’ for both you and your project.

The first step in finding the right supervisor is the initial approach. Like most academics, I receive a large number of requests for PhD supervision every year – far more than the number of students I could possibly take on. 

Here, I set out some advice and tips based on the good (and the less good) approaches I’ve received over the years. This will hopefully be useful for anyone thinking about embarking on a PhD in international studies, but it is aimed particularly at students coming from outside the UK Higher Education system who, naturally, may have less familiarity with its peculiar bureaucratic and cultural norms.

How a UK PhD in international studies works

Occasionally, you will see PhD opportunities on particular topics advertised, usually as part of large-scale funded projects that include provision for one or more PhD studentships. Applying to those opportunities is in many ways like applying for a job: you’ll likely need to show your ability to work on a specified project, and to demonstrate that you meet the criteria that they’re looking for.

But the vast majority of UK PhDs in international studies don’t work that way. Usually, you will be expected to devise your own project, use your initiative to find a supervisor with the expertise and willingness to work with you, and try to secure the necessary funding to cover both your tuition fees and your living expenses (look out for a future article on funding/scholarships on this website).

I often get approached by students who have misunderstood this, wrongly assuming that international studies PhDs work like those in the natural sciences. They’ll say things like “I am really interested in [x] and wondered if you have any opportunities for me to work on a PhD in your research group”. That’s unlikely to work. I don’t have any money available to fund PhD students. And anyway, I want to see your idea for a project, and I want to be excited by it. More of which below.

Finally, it’s useful to know that, for the most part, academics in the UK are not under pressure to take large numbers of PhD students, and they usually (at least on an individual level) don’t have a certain number of PhD places they’re looking to fill. That’s important to understand because, given the time and effort that goes into PhD supervision, they’re only likely to take you on if they’re really interested in you and your project.

Who to approach?

It’s not easy to know who to approach – especially if you are coming from outside the UK system. Be prepared for the fact that it will likely take some time and persistence to find the right supervisor.

The ideal, of course, is to find a leading scholar in precisely the field in which you want to work; someone whose research you admire and whose approach you like. Start there, and come up with a list of potential names. Think about:

  • What books or articles about your topic have made a particular impression on you?
  • Whose work are you citing in your research proposal?
  • Will you need support in particular areas of your project (e.g. theory, methods, or empirics)? If so, who has the necessary expertise to provide it?

Other considerations might also be important to you:

  • Does geography matter (e.g. do you need to be based in a particular city or region)?
  • What kind of department would you feel ‘at home’ in?
  • What are the funding opportunities available in different institutions?

It is perfectly acceptable to approach more than one potential supervisor. But don’t send out emails to large numbers of people indiscriminately. I would definitely advise against sending a blanket email to all academics in a particular department, for example. We get these often, and the vast majority of those emails will get zero, or at best a very limited, response. Instead, read on about making your approach.

"It’s really important to find someone who is the ‘right fit’ for both you and your project."
Simon Rushton

How to make an approach 

Email is by far the best way to approach potential supervisors in the first instance. Academics are busy, juggling multiple different commitments to teaching, research and administration. An email allows them to respond at a time that suits them. It also gives you a chance to think carefully about how to frame your approach, and to get it right before clicking ‘send’.

First, how should you address your prospective supervisor? Academics in the UK vary in how formal they expect communications from students to be. In general, we are less formal than our colleagues in the US, for example. It’s not uncommon for students in the UK to call their teachers/supervisors by their first name (all of mine do). But for the initial approach, it is probably wise to play it safe and start with “Dear Professor/Dr. x”. If they reply using their first name only, you’ll be fine to go with that in subsequent correspondence.

There are a number of things that I need to know when considering a supervision request. Make sure your email is concise and to the point, but try to make sure that it covers these things:

  • Who are you and what is your background (academically, and where relevant, your professional experience)?
  • What are you doing now? 
  • Why do you want to do a PhD with me? (This is important: do you know about my published work and/or current research? Are there particular things that you think I can offer as a supervisor? I’m not looking for flattery here: I want to understand why you’ve approached me, and to see that we have shared interests).
  • What is your project about? (Give me a brief summary of the idea. If I’m interested, I’m much more likely to put in the time to read a full proposal).
  • Why do you want to do a PhD? How does this fit with your future career plans?
  • What is your funding position? Would you need to find funding? If so, have you thought about potential places you could apply (either here in the UK, or in your own country)? (We all understand that getting funding is perhaps the most difficult part of the PhD application process. We won’t expect you to have the funding in place already, and certainly not that you will have the resources to fund yourself. But it will help if you can show that you’ve thought realistically about how you might cover the costs of your PhD studies).
  • What is your timeframe? When would you ideally want to start?

You might also choose to attach a CV and a copy of your research proposal (more on research proposals coming to this website soon). But if you don’t, that’s fine: the potential supervisor can always ask you to send those over if they’re interested in finding out more.

What if you don’t hear back?

Most academics are over-worked and, unfortunately, the reality is that your email will likely be relatively low on their list of priorities. If you haven’t heard back in, say, two weeks then it’s fine to send a polite follow-up. But if that doesn’t elicit any response either, it’s probably time to move on. After all, do you really want a supervisor who doesn’t reply to your emails?

"It’s not uncommon for students in the UK to call their teachers/supervisors by their first name (all of mine do). But for the initial approach, it is probably wise to play it safe and start with “Dear Professor/Dr. x”. If they reply using their first name only, you’ll be fine to go with that in subsequent correspondence."
Simon Rushton

Meeting a potential supervisor

If the person you have approached is potentially interested in supervising your PhD project, set up a meeting so you can get to know each other a little bit. If you are currently based in another country, or not local, it’s fine to ask for this to be online. 

This meeting is an important part of the process for both the supervisor and the student: in a way, you’re informally ‘interviewing’ each other here. 

From your side, this is a chance for you to find out more about some very important things:

  • Do you like this person? Can you imagine working closely with them for the next three or four years?
  • Do they seem genuinely interested in your ideas?
  • Do they have good suggestions or advice about how you could improve your proposal?
  • Do you like the way they deliver that feedback and advice: will that work for you?
  • What is their approach to supervision? How many PhD students do they currently have? How often do they meet with them? 
  • How does PhD supervision work in their department? Would you have two supervisors (this is usually the case in the UK system)? What is the size of the overall PhD cohort? What other training or support is available – and what is compulsory?
  • What do they know about funding possibilities? Are they keen to support you in finding funding?
  • Assuming you are both keen to go ahead, what are the next steps in the process? (Usually this will involve some kind of more formal application to the institution for admittance to the PhD programme, as well as applications for funding where that is relevant).

Applying for a PhD is not like applying for any other kind of degree. It’s a much more personalised experience, and you will need a certain amount of luck to find the right supervisor who is available at the right time. But the tips above should, at least, help you get off to a good start. Good luck!