Choosing a student: ‘Likes long walks on the beach’

This post, exploring the importance of student-supervisior personality and working style alignment, is by Kirsty Nash (@NasherK). Kirsty is originally from the UK, but moved to  Townsville in 2002 and completed a MAppSci in Tropical Marine Ecology at James Cook University. She taught marine biology and oceanography in the Caribbean, doing field research with Seychelles Marine Park Authority. She returned to Australia in 2009, completing a PhD at JCU on the scales at which fish function on the reef and how this contributes to resilience.  Her current research interests are data poor fisheries and the spatial ecology of reef fishes. She is currently a research fellow in the Centre for Marine Socioecology at the University of Tasmania exploring the interface between ecosystem function and human wellbeing.

Supervisors often do not actively engage with choosing students: if we are lucky, we get more interest from prospective candidates than we can possibly accept and simply screen   for academic / research skills. In this post, I argue that we need to put more thought and effort into the potential working relationship… considerations that might help avoid some of those tricky student-supervisor conflicts.

So how should you choose your student?

I propose a three step process. 

STEP 1: Research the academics 

Most people review transcripts, get information about their academic standing and might ask for references from previous tutors or supervisors. This is an essential step, but it is just step 1 because it tells you nothing about how the student will fit into your research environment or whether your personalities match. You might be wondering why your personalities need to match – you are about to start a long-term, in-depth, occasionally stressful relationship with another human being. Aligning your personalities and working styles is an important process in easing your supervisory journey – but how can you  determine if you and the potential student are likely to mesh?

STEP 2: Research the person

If possible, meet the person in person – this will give you at least a preliminary impression of your likelihood of ‘getting on’. But don’t rely on first impressions; below I list some key questions to ask of either the potential student or their referees. 

  • How do they work? Do they respond better to a hands on or hands off supervisory style?  Some students will want more regular meetings and input, others will be more laissez-faire  – both approaches work, but whether their needs will click with how you organise supervisory interactions is person dependent.
  • How much experience do they have – how much experience do you have? If you are a young early career researcher, having a mature student with plenty of professional experience behind them can be challenging for your confidence – or it could be a blessing, because you can find your supervisory feet with a more capable, independent student.
  •  Are they a carrot or a stick type of student? This question may be hard to determine – it is reliant on an honest response to a somewhat loaded question (from both the student & yourself). I prefer to guide with the carrot and so work best with students who respond to positive reinforcement. But this doesn’t work for everyone. Think very carefully about whether your style is likely to bring out the best in them.
  • How do they work on a day to day basis? There are a range of factors here that need to be considered: (i) Do they like to draft or plan? (ii) Do they have a regimented work style or a free flowing one? (iii) Do you expect them to write as they go or wait till the end to write their thesis – and does this fit with how they prefer to work? None of these work styles are right or wrong, but the degree of alignment between you and your student will affect your interactions.


STEP 3: Have a student strategy


Finally, it is important to consider whether a particular student fits with your overall goals and plans. There are three key factors to think about – time,  strategic research directions and your research environment.

Time Commitments – As a supervisor you definitely have the balance of power in a student-supervisor relationship. As a result you have a clear obligation to carefully consider if you have enough time to take on another student. Saying yes to a student when you don’t have sufficient time is stressful for you and unfair to them.

Research directions – Yes, this new applicant is academically excellent and likely to produce a kick-ass thesis, but do their research and thesis interests align with the direction of your research portfolio? Although, it is great to have a diversity of work going on in your group, if the research is too piecemeal it may detract from your ability to build a profile of expertise in a particular area.

Research environment –  It is important to be upfront with interested applicants about the atmosphere, resources and conditions, so they can decide whether this will be a good fit for them. At the same time, you need to decide if they will mesh with your research group (which might have an active collegial atmosphere or be more  low-key and individualistic). Specific things to think about and discuss:

  • Do you provide regular lab / research team meetings? These are great opportunities for student networking and to gain support, but  require buy-in and interest from students. Is the potential student likely to be an active, enthusiastic participant?
  • Will they be sitting with other PhD students? Sitting with a group of students can really help move things along with their thesis, particularly when you are very busy. Instead of waiting for days to get an appointment for help , their peers may be able to point them in the right direction or assist with that analytical question bugging them all week. However, sitting with other students can be distracting, giving too many opportunities to chat and too little time to concentrate.
  • Are research funds available for equipment, conference trips or fieldwork? They may have a grand plan for their thesis but the availability of funding will impact on what they can do – discuss whether  your budgetary constraints meets their thesis vision.


So, you have found your ideal student – you are a match made in heaven. Great!

But – to ensure everyone is on the same page – please take the time to discuss clear expectations with your student when they begin. Putting in the ground work when choosing your students empowers you right from the start of your relationship.


FOOTNOTE:  What happens if you have done your research and found that the student you are interested in working with has a totally different style to you? Or, over time, things are deteriorating?  These issues deserve a separate post, but I recommend that you be very  realistic about how things are going to work. If your personalities don’t match, then you need to have very clear discussions with the potential student about your expectations and theirs. Then you need to come up with a workable plan to ensure that the stressful PhD journey is not made even more stressful by personality or working style clashes.

(Photo is of a man walking on beach) 


One comment

  1. […] Unfortunately, that didn’t go well, but she feels she was left with a legacy of pursuing being an excellent supervisor herself. Maybe one of the most important skills of supervison, though, is perceiving from the outset who you are likely to, or not likely to form a responsive and productive relationship with. Maybe sometimes the best supervisor is the one who knows when to say ‘no’, especially when there are institutional pressures to take on students. This link to a post by Kirsty Nash, on Inger Mewburn and Evonne Miller’s new Supervision Whisperers blog flips it over and describes how to choose a student: https://thesupervisionwhisperers: Choosing a student: Likes long walks on the beach […]


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