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PhD - Finding a supervisor

  • 29-07-2013 3:16pm
    Registered Users Posts: 247 ✭✭

    I have just completed a Masters course in History and I would like to do a PhD in the same subject. I have one or two ideas for a topic but I am faced with a chicken-and-egg dilemma that perhaps others have been able to resolve.

    Based on my experience at undergrad and postgrad levels, it is very important to find an academic that I can work well with. What I mean is, someone who really understands the topic and is encouraging and enthusiastic in their support. Having experienced life in two universities I have come across a few lecturers who fit the bill, but none of them deal with the subject areas I am interested in pursuing. There are a couple of other universities with expertise in the relevant areas but I have no idea what the individuals concerned are like to work with.

    So my question is this. How does a prospective PhD student find a good match in his or her supervisor? I know that sounds a bit like dating, and maybe that is not a bad analogy. I just think personal chemistry is important if you are going to be working with someone for three or four years.


  • Moderators, Category Moderators, Music Moderators Posts: 3,635 CMod ✭✭✭✭Ravelleman

    You should contact the Director of Research in the School or Department that interests you and begin from there.

    Out of curiostity, what exactly is your period of interest?

  • Registered Users Posts: 247 ✭✭Sanguine Fan

    Ravelleman wrote: »

    Out of curiostity, what exactly is your period of interest?

    I have a few ideas but the one I am most interested in is in the area of 18th-century Irish history. Apart from the supervisor issue, a lot will depend on the availability of sources and that is something I have to check out over the next few weeks.

  • Registered Users Posts: 984 ✭✭✭gutenberg

    Often, choosing a supervisor is a bit of a lottery if you're applying to a new university, or to work with someone you've never worked with before. Sometimes it works brilliantly, sometimes it doesn't, it's the chance you take, and it's something a lot of PhD students have to deal with. I was lucky in that I continued to PhD with my Masters supervisor, but before I started the Masters I had never even met him, never mind worked with him. Masters are less of a commitment of course, but it's still a year of your life.

    I would start by identifying the potential supervisors in your area, maybe going off the kinds of secondary literature you read: is there an academic whose work you like & who works in the same field who could potentially be interested in your project? Often that's where people start if they don't already know someone from their previous studies. In Irish history I imagine you're quite lucky in that a lot of the relevant academics will be based in Ireland: if you were interested in America, say, it might be trickier! After that, you should get in contact with anyone you've identified as a potential supervisor, but before you do this be sure that you have a somewhat cogent project in mind, rather than just a few vague ideas - it helps make a better first impression. If you can, you should arrange to meet them face-to-face and that could help you in judging the 'chemistry'. I'd also try & get in contact with some of their other research students, if they have any, to ask their opinion of what kind of supervisor they are, etc. And don't forget that while you may get on very well with someone personally, they can actually still turn out to be a rather bad supervisor! You can never really be 100% sure unfortunately, in my experience.

  • Registered Users Posts: 247 ✭✭Sanguine Fan

    gutenberg wrote: »
    And don't forget that while you may get on very well with someone personally, they can actually still turn out to be a rather bad supervisor! You can never really be 100% sure unfortunately, in my experience.

    Many thanks for these very helpful comments. At present I am talking to fellow students to pick up what insights I can from the grapevine. I am happy to wait until the autumn of 2014 to start if it takes that long to work up my proposal and find the right person. The academic community in Ireland is so small, especially when it comes to my specific area of interest, that there are literally only a handful of academics who could fit the bill. And as you say, personal chemistry is not much use if the person is no good as a supervisor.

    Thanks again.

  • Registered Users Posts: 5 History Student

    Hi there,

    I am interested in doing a Phd in History after I finish my MA. How hard is it to get funding? Do you plan on working in your spare time? Do history Phd students generally struggle to make ends meet?

    Basically, is it worth 3 or 4 years of study and no real income? There seems to be very few jobs at the end of it.

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  • Registered Users Posts: 984 ✭✭✭gutenberg

    History Student, I presume you are talking about doing a PhD at an Irish university?

    If so, then the main source of funding is the Irish Research Council (there's a whole thread on it in this forum). It is hard to get, yes. I think the year I got it (back when it was still the IRCHSS, they've now merged with the hard sciences council to form one organization), they gave 100 awards & had maybe 600-800 applications? I can't remember the exact number of applications, but the success rate was low.
    The other source you could investigate would be money that your university offers. Some will offer a handful of full studentships a year, and there may be partial bursaries as well, sometimes tied to teaching for them.

    If you are successful in securing funding, then I would say you shouldn't struggle. Ok it's not a lot of money by any means, but it's enough if you live relatively modestly. I'm on equivalent funding in the UK, and I would say I have enough, though of course it depends on your lifestyle. It will also depend on whether your university (or the IRC) offers additional money for things like conference attendance, research abroad etc as that can eat into your money. If you are self-funding, then it's a totally different ball game. Most self-funders I know did struggle, they usually did work alongside their studies (sometimes going part-time with the PhD), unless they had extremely generous parents/substantial savings. It's tough to self-fund, definitely, and I'm not sure I would recommend it.

    As regards whether it's worth it, only you can really decide that. Yes, academic jobs are scarce and I wouldn't count on getting one at the end of your PhD. If you get funding, then it can ease the financial side of things, but ultimately you have to weigh up the pros & cons of everything, and think about why you want a PhD, and how it fits with your future plans.