Perfect PhD supervision match? How to find your academic sweetheart


Choosing a PhD supervisor is like looking for a perfect romantic match. From feeling like your met your soulmate after a cautious ‘getting to know you’ to a flirty, frenzied hookup in a bar…how do you find the right one for you? How many boxes do you have to tick? Like love, is the adage ‘commit in haste and repent at leisure’ true of academic supervision?

If you are about to commit to postgraduate study and are desperately seeking academic supervision, are there matchmakers who can help? Is there some scientific process of selecting your academic sweetheart? How do you choose your perfect supervision match?

As Australia is coming up to the cut off time for applying for doctoral programs for 2015, I am again asked by potential candidates just how they find their perfect match. I have had my own experience, and I have of course talked to others. What I have discovered is that potential academic supervisors are much like potential lovers. And trying to find enduring academic supervision is a lot like wading into the dating scene.

Don’t believe me? One potential doctoral candidate looking for supervision complained that her potential interest had ‘cooled’ after an initial burst of enthusiasm. It was like being dumped.

And it’s not just the supervisor that needs to be considered in this quest for academic love. There are other factors that are important. Where might you have the most chance of getting a scholarship? And for those embarking on the creative writing PhD, there is the balance of creative and academic work to consider. Some universities split the workload 50/50 – others weigh it heavily towards the creative component.

Often a writer can have years of publishing, teaching and accolades in the ‘real world’ before deciding on postgraduate study. That might mean they don’t have the academic track record of a typical literature PhD candidate, despite a string of fiction books to their credit. So, they have to find a supervisor who will guide them down the academic path and into the world of academic language. For these candidates, motivation time management and the ability to produce 100,000 words on a topic is rarely going to be an issue. Rather, the goal is finding a trusted supervisor who can guide them through the labyrinth of the academy, the torture of referencing and the rigid requirements of a thesis. Not always an easy task.

How do you find the supervisor who hits the sweet spot? How do you select the creative writing PhD program that gives you the right balance of creative and academic? Not too strong perhaps on the thesis – and not too light on the creative? How do you find that perfect confection?


I have been interrogated in forensic detail on academics I might know, and how they might fare as potential supervisors.  Academics – be aware of this. You are constantly being judged on your performance, and the report cards are critical in whether you get people queuing up for your favours or not.

Typically, I am asked about academics:

Are they a ‘cheater’ – taking too many students and never giving each candidate enough time?

Did they ‘ghost’ and fade out after an initial enthusiastic burst of delight?

Were they too tired to indulge in lengthy sessions – of research interaction?

Did they always want to be on top – when it came to author order on papers?

As similar questions are asked of potential lovers, I wonder if the search for academic supervisor and doctoral candidate shouldn’t be conducted like an old fashioned matchmaking service. Just like the prospects for love, there are two parties who both want a liaison that will provide mutual benefits, but each wants due diligence conducted on the other so they will know the possible pitfalls of a relationship.

Academia, as in love, works best when there is equal reciprocity. The candidate will finish on time, publish with the supervisor and make the supervisor look good. The supervisor will guide, assist and mentor the candidate to a successful completion, opening doors and having enough confidence and a strong enough publication record not to be threatened by their candidate’s burgeoning success. Can you hear the church bells, see the flock of white doves, and  want to throw the confetti all over the happy couple? How sweet this fantasy is….


Alas, we know the other side of the story, don’t we? Cross words, missed calls, betrayals, candidates who refuse to do the work, supervisors who abscond their duties. An inability to hear each other. Backstabbing, fighting, and finally – a supervisory divorce.  I’ve known candidates who have bolted from a university and a supervisor mid PhD. And equally, I have heard other people praise the very same supervisor who has brought such misery to another’s life. Just as in marriage, it’s a case of ‘he said, she said’, and a realisation that sometimes, two people can bring out the worst in each other, or have so little in common it was only that initial research attraction that brought them together.

Just like love, research lust is that glorious spark of academic desire when it seems you are both speaking the same language but are really just getting a sexy dopamine rush from new ideas. It doesn’t last. There needs to be more than sexual attraction between two people to make any relationship last a distance. Same with academic supervision. Oh yes, there needs to be some mutual respect between the supervisor and the candidate for sparks to fly in the academic house of love.


But what if the warm and fuzzy feeling you have with someone who seems to be your academic soulmate turns out to be interstate – or overseas? Should you dismiss the potential supervision – and indeed, university – because of the problem of distance?

I have had friends who have had successful long distance relationships with doctoral supervisors. When my own MA supervisor spent a year interstate, she gave me the option of finding someone else. But when you feel you share so much in common – similar interests, opinions and a sense of humor and that strong sense of having met someone who should be in your life, you are as loathe to give them up in academia as in love, so we had a long distance supervision relationship.

How does long distance supervision work? The same as with love. Regular contact via email, skype, phone calls, and as many meetings face to face as you can both manage. But caution – it may not work for you. After all, out of sight can be out of mind. And when you, the candidate, are the one being dumped and duped long distance, the ramifications are great as the stakes are so high.


Then again, you could get lucky.

In the age of the internet, with so much support and information online, having access to a university data base means that you only need to be enrolled to take advantage of this and not in the same city as the campus. The computer doesn’t know if you are logging in from a few suburbs away or across the country. And Skype is free and convenient. It’s only a time zone, day and night problem if you are in different hemispheres, after all.

As I suggested to a fellow writer asking for advice, if you have kids, take them with you on a long weekend trip interstate and they can be part of the doctoral journey as well. I have known several people who have had great experiences with long distance academic supervision. 

Indeed, I kept my relationship with my MA supervisor together by emailing and skyping regularly. I would send my work to her each fortnight and she would send it back with comments. When she was down in Melbourne we would meet face to face. In fact, so highly did I regard her and her writing and teaching ability (for the record, the brilliant Alison Goodman) that when it was suggested I convert my MA to a PhD I refused as it would mean losing her as a supervisor. Like love again, meaningful academic supervision, when it works, should be jealously and carefully protected – I knew that I would learn more from Alison in my creative writing and how important that was as opposed to galloping through a doctorate for the sheer desire to have the ‘piece of paper’.

I do not regret my choice for a minute and hear Alison Goodman in my head every time I become lazy with my narrative, every time I lapse into tell not show, every time I miss a set up and pay off in the plot. Like true romantic love, brilliant academic supervision is a thing to be cherished and remembered forever.


So, with location out of the way, how do you go about finding your perfect match?

How can you avoid becoming the victim of an academic narcissist? How do you avoid the cheaters, the lazy and the inept? And even worse, the leaches who will drain you for their own glory? If only there was an Academic Tinder App, where you could swipe the winners from the losers. But just as you have to venture beyond the surface when looking for love, to pays to ask some probing questions of your potential supervisor:

* what’s their track record? How many PhD students have they supervised successfully?

* Have they taken on too many candidates at once? Beware the academic slut who just wants the numbers!

* What’s their publication record? How recent is it? Are they keeping up with the latest in their field?

* Are they approachable? Do they reply to your overtures? Or are they not that into you?

* If you are offered joint supervision, are both academics willing to put in equal half time?

If you meet someone and it clicks, the list does tend to get thrown out of the window. In life and academic love however, passion isn’t the best way forward. If you have firm ground rules and expectations, you will hopefully avoid being swept along by infatuation and promises, only to be left broken hearted when it all goes pear shaped a year before you are supposed to hand in. In other words, the ideal place to start is for both you and your supervisor to be on the same page to begin with. I am all in favour of an ‘academic pre-nup’ where you produce a document outlining your expectations.

A contract now can save heartache later. As it stands, universities often make you sign one in what feels like your own blood, but you have a right to expect your pound of flesh from them – and your supervisor – as well. Remember, you represent MONEY to them. You, potential candidate, are a little gold mine. So don’t sell yourself short with shoddy supervision.  



One final thought. You know how there are many fish in the ocean when it comes to finding love? The same applies to academic supervision. Don’t imagine that the world will end if that one true academic love turns you down. If they turn out to be pushy, lazy or lacking in motivation…Have faith in yourself and your own worth, and if they don’t want you, it’s their great loss. Take your talent and energy elsewhere and make then rue the day they cast you aside. Your success, in academia as in love, is the best revenge after all.