You should choose your PhD supervisor carefully. They will be one of the most influential people in your academic life, playing the role of mentor, confidant, and advisor throughout your degree. Here are some potential red flags you should keep an eye out for so that you can choose a good advisor.
They’re not publishing
Publications help a professor get grants, earn tenure, and build their career. If a potential supervisor hasn’t published a lot relative to where they are in their career, this could be a red flag that impacts your ability to publish during your PhD.
Their students aren’t publishing
A supervisor should be helping their students publish, so you should be cautious if you see that a significant number of a potential supervisor’s current students don’t have any publications--especially their more senior students.
Their current students aren’t happy
Talking to current students gives you a better picture of what it would be like to work for this particular person. Ask them things like how many hours a week they work, what the supervisor’s expectations of them are, and what opportunities they’ve had. If the current students are unenthusiastic about the supervisor or seem overworked, this could be a red flag.
They don’t let you talk to current or past students
It’s common practice to talk to a potential supervisor’s current or past students as part of an on-campus interview or as part of your research into the supervisor. Current students often give you more honest insights into what it’s actually like to work in this particular lab. If a potential supervisor explicitly tells you not to contact their current students (or if they are all “conveniently” absent on the day of your visit), this should be a big red flag.
Very few of their students have graduated
When considering a potential supervisor, check how many students they have graduated. How long did it take the supervisor’s past students to graduate compared to the departmental average? If one supervisor’s students all seem to have a longer time to degree, or if they have graduated very few students, you might consider choosing a different supervisor.
They’re hard to get ahold of
If a potential supervisor is difficult to contact or very slow to respond to emails, this is another potential red flag. Communication is an essential part of the supervisor-student relationship. If the person you’re considering as your supervisor seems like they’re always too busy to meet with you or like they’re avoiding your emails, they may not be a good choice.
Other people say only negative things
Talk to students in other labs or departments who have interacted with your potential supervisor to find out what their experience with your potential supervisor was like. If their experiences have been overwhelmingly negative, this could be a red flag.
You don’t get on during the interview
You should choose your supervisor for their expertise and their personality. They should be someone you get along with and can see yourself having a professional relationship with them. Someone who seems disinterested in you or your ideas, or is openly hostile towards you isn’t the person you want as your mentor during your doctorate.
They don’t talk specifics about funding
Before committing to a PhD supervisor or project, you should have a very clear understanding of what kind of funding comes with the offer. This means knowing exactly what your stipend would be, how much you would have for research funds, and if summer funding is included. You and a potential supervisor may have the same research goals and similar personalities, but if they can’t pay you or continually avoid the topic of funding, you should consider another supervisor.
On its own, none of these behaviours is a guarantee that a supervisor will be a bad choice. However, if a potential supervisor displays several of these behaviours, you should do some more research before saying yes to their offer.