Finding a supervisor

Finding a supervisor


What is a research supervisor?

Your supervisor is an academic staff member who guides you throughout your research, acting as your primary academic adviser and mentor. A supervisor may work with:

  • Undergraduate students pursuing research projects, including special projects or a summer research project
  • Honours students
  • Postgraduate coursework students: Master (Coursework) students doing a research project in a course or Master (Advanced) students working on a thesis

What does a research supervisor do?

Your supervisor is your primary contact for your research project. The supervisor will also assist you with advice, guidance and criticism, and can help you to define and achieve your personal academic goals.  Your supervisor will:

  • Assist you in selecting and defining the scope of a suitable project topic or problem.
  • Assist you in devising a schedule for the project work.
  • Guide you in the selection and application of appropriate data collection and analysis procedures and advise on the solution of any difficulties that arise.
  • Advise on matters of thesis or report content, organisation and writing, including the timely provision of comments, written and oral, on drafts or portions of the written work.
  • Meet frequently with you to discuss and evaluate each stage of the project.
  • Monitor your progress and advise you when progress is unsatisfactory.
  • Assist you in gaining clearance from the ethics committee, if required.

Who can be a research supervisor?

Research supervisors are experienced researchers who have the skills to guide a student's project.  A supervisor may be the leader of research group or laboratory; for example, in the Research School of Biology, research groups are listed on the website. The leader's last name is used is used to identify the research group. Typically, a research group leader is a professor.

Students may also be supervised by:

  • a post-doctoral fellow, post-doc for short, who has a PhD works for 2+ years in a research group to get more experience
  • a staff researcher, who has a PhD and a permanent position in a research group

In addition, an undergraduate student or honours student may be formally supervised by a professor but work with a post-graduate student on a daily basis.

When should I start looking for a research supervisor?

In general, the timing of when you should look for a research supervisor depends on what type of research experience you are looking for and what research school you want to work in. Our sample research projects can give you an idea of what types of projects students work on. These lists are a helpful source of information but may not be current.

Below is more information for:

  • Undergraduate students - are advised to approach potential supervisors the semester before beginning a research project. Yet, it is never too early to start learning about what research is being done in your field. You may become fascinated with a topic or type of research that is completely new to you!  Take every opportunity you have to ask academic staff and students about their research. You can talk to your friends who are doing research, your instructors, course demonstrators and tutors, and any post-graduate students you interact with.
  • Honours students - Before you apply for Honours, you can talk to your friends who are doing research, instructors, course demonstrators and tutors, and any post-graduate students you interact with to learn more about their research.  You can review the research being done at the research school, see what is interesting to you, and what opportunities are available.  Once you begin, you should talk to your school's Honours Convenor as soon as you begin to consider Honours to find out the details for your program.
  • Coursework (Advanced) students - Before you apply and during your first year, you can review the research being done at the research school, see what is interesting to you, and what opportunities are available. Once you begin your courses, you can talk to your friends who are doing research, instructors, and any other post-graduate students you interact with to learn more about their research. Attending seminars is also a helpful way to see what research is interesting to you.

Selected content from the Honours Handbook.

Do I need to have a research proposal before I contact potential supervisors?

As an undergraduate, honours, or postgraduate coursework student, it is not necessary for you to have a complete research proposal before contacting a researcher. You do, however, need to do your background research and be familiar with what topics the researcher works on.

What are my responsibilities when I have a supervisor?

Your responsibilities are to:

  • Communicate regularly and clearly with your supervisor.
  • If you are not sure what your supervisor is trying to communicate, ask questions!
  • Plan your research program and budget with your supervisor(s).
  • Participate in regular meetings and/or research group activities.
  • Prepare in advance for consultations or meetings.
  • Take responsibility for the final results of your work. Your supervisor can and will guide you, but you must take ownership of the project.

What do all these titles mean?

The different titles can be quite confusing!  The titles tell you something, though, about your potential supervisor's career path. In Australia, a science researcher or professor's career path could look like this:

  • Undergraduate degree (3 years of coursework and possibly independent research or research-based courses)
  • Honours degree (1 year of research following on after the 3 year undergraduate degree)
  • Master degree (1-2 years coursework and/or research)
  • PhD (Doctor of Philosophy; 3+ years of research)
  • Post-doctoral fellow/researcher (Post-doc; 2+ years of research)
  • Staff or senior researcher/Lecturer/Senior Lecturer
  • Assistant Professor (A/Professor)
  • Associate Professor (Assoc. Professor)
  • Professor

Please note: anyone with a “Dr.” before a surname has a PhD but might not be a professor.  You can find more information at the Wikipedia page Academic Ranks (Australia and New Zealand).

How to find a supervisor

Step 1. Think about your interests, preferences, and goals

It is fine if you don’t have answers to these questions, but take some time to reflect.

  • What topics, classes, seminars or professors have caught your interest?
  • Why do you want to do research?
  • What are your short and long-term goals and how does doing research fit in with those goals?
  • Do you prefer to work independently or in a group?
  • Do you think you’d prefer working in a small research group, or in a large one? 

Step 2. Explore current research at ANU

You need to know what topics or projects might interest you.

  • Read through schools’ websites: check the priority research areas and look for research opportunities on the sample research projects page.
  • Network with course convenors, honours convenors, master convenors, students, tutors, demonstrators, and friends. Ask for advice on who is doing work in your area of interest and experiences other people have had that you might learn from.

Step 3. Prepare to contact potential supervisors

  • Look at research groups’ websites. Is it a big research group or a small one?
  • Read several papers from the research group. To find the most recent papers, do an online search, as well as looking at the information and papers on the ANU website, since the ANU sites may not be current.
  • Prepare a list of questions you have about the group and the research.
  • If possible, talk to other students to learn more about the supervisor’s expectations for students and style of supervision.  Would this style work for you?

Step 4. Contact 2-3 potential supervisors

If you choose to approach a potential supervisor after a class meeting or seminar, you should still do your background preparation.

If you email a potential supervisor, don’t take it personally if they don't respond immediately.

  • Use your ANU email address. By policy, ANU academic and professional staff can only communicate with ANU students through an ANU email address.
  • Sign the email using your legal name, as well as any name a convenor may know you by.
  • Attach a CV and your Statement of Results (from ISIS).

See How to email a potential supervisor or Emailing professors.

Step 5. Meet with potential supervisors

You may want to ask about the researcher’s:

  • Research interests
  • Plans for the project you are interested in
  • Preferred supervisory style (How often do they like to meet? Exactly how independent do they expect a student to be? Does this match with your preferences?)
  • Expectations for a student
  • Experience working with undergraduate, Honours or postgraduate coursework students
  • Meetings with their research students (lab meeting or research group meeting) and if you could attend one (going to a research group meeting can show you what the group's culture is like).

The potential supervisor may ask you about your:

  • Academic interests (this is another opportunity to show that you read the researcher's website, as well as a few papers)
  • Preparation (how you did in relevant courses, any research experience, technical skills)
  • Education and career goals.

Step 6. After the meeting

Send a brief, formal email thanking the potential supervisor for the meeting.

Once you decide on a project with a supervisor if you have discussed projects with other supervisors, as a courtesy, please let the other potential supervisor know that you are working with another researcher.