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How to choose a supervisor and project

How to choose your supervisor and project when your an ACF/CL

The importance of finding a department, supervisor and project which are right for you cannot be emphasized enough, sometimes even before the interview stage. Start by discussing ideas with group leaders in the department where you would like to work. Your academic supervisor does not necessarily need to be a clinician as there is full support throughout the programme for both supervisors and trainees.

Your supervisor

Selecting your supervisor is one of the most important things you will do in your academic career, so you need to take your time and do your homework! Finding a supervisor is not hard, but many excellent supervisors will not be immediately obvious and you should carefully research each potential supervisor as well as meet with them, and most importantly with the members of their research group. Ask around, use the UCL website and PubMed to draw up a short list.

You can approach anyone on your short list easily; all supervisors receive many potential applications by email and so an email out of the blue is completely normal. Make sure you write a short but compelling email summarising your current position, your specific interest in a PhD with potential starting times, thoughts about potential funding sources (if you know of any) and attach a CV. If the supervisor is interested in meeting with you then they will set up a short meeting. Don't panic - you are not being interviewed and this is generally a friendly chat to establish interest. You should have some ideas about what you might like to do, but do not need a fully developed project at this stage.

Remember three golden rules that should guide your search for a supervisor:

  1. Track record: Your potential research supervisor should have a track record of internationally competitive research, with high quality publications commensurate with their career to date. Look at their PubMed entry and check that you can discern a clear theme to their research and/or methodology; check their research group website for further details of associated publications and citations. You want to be able to work in the research group of a world leader, or potential world leader.
  2. Meet potential supervisors: Regardless of your potential supervisor's publication track record and/or general fame in the field, you must meet them before making any decisions. The professional relationship between supervisor and supervisee will last several years, and for many people this will be the longest they have ever spent in one place. So you should meet with your potential supervisor, chat and get an idea about what sort of a supervisor they will be and whether you like them.
  3. Meeting students in the research group: Gut feelings are very important here; you need to be able to get on with your supervisor, but also be inspired and guided by them. When you meet your potential supervisor, you should also meet existing students in the research group. If there aren't any, this is generally a bad sign. Even research groups starting off usually have one or two members, although they may not be clinical fellows but basic scientists. That doesn't matter; the purpose of meeting the research group members is to find out what the research group is like and how the group leader (your potential supervisor) treats them. It goes without saying that you need such a meeting to take place without the group leader being present, so you can get an honest opinion!

Your project

Generally the project you choose is not set in stone and you can change it at later stages, but you should discuss this with your academic supervisor. Most projects will evolve during the course of the programme, (often changing substantially before submission for external funding). It is likely that you will use some of your research block(s) to collect preliminary data to support an external funding application, and this should be planned carefully with your academic supervisor. It may also be useful to get in touch with other ACF/CLs or PhD students already working at the unit you are going to be joining.