Selecting a research supervisor is a very important decision, and can make all the difference as to whether you flourish or not. Above all, start by reading research articles published by the potential supervisor. Remember that research is often written in very compact form, so it may be challenging to understand, but you do not need to understand every word and detail. Rather, get a feel for the approach the lab takes to research, the kinds of questions they ask, the way they design and carry out research, and try to imagine yourself contributing to some line of research. Check out this running list of potential projects, in case someone has a project that suits you, waiting for a person just like you to take on. Below you will find information based on feedback from past honours students that may be useful in helping you make the best decision for yourself.
What should I ask possible supervisors?
- Are you taking any new students? If the supervisor is not willing to take any additional students (e.g., if they are on sabbatical), you will need to reach out to someone else.
- Do you have any special projects or experiments planned for next year? May I see your lab? Ask for and read any reprints that describe the basis for ongoing projects. Check out the space and ambiance. Talk to other students in the lab.
- How many students are you taking on? This may affect how much time the professor can devote to you.
- How much time do you expect of me? Make sure to get an approximate time commitment, and consider that, to bring a project from start to finish (submit for publication) demands a lot of extra time at critical points in the project. That extra push is worthwhile, to see the project through and share your findings with the world.
- Will I be able to schedule a specific time each week to discuss my project with you?
- If I choose you, what will be my duties and responsibilities? It is a good idea to find out exactly what is expected of you ahead of time.
- How soon can I get started working on a research project? The earlier you get your hands dirty, the better: more time to develop a feel and intuition for how research progresses. The earlier you can start your thesis project, the better, as most projects require a lot of time from start (conception, design) to completion (submission to a research journal).
- What financial costs (if any) will I be responsible for? You should discuss financial expectations about research materials before you choose your supervisor.
- How will I be graded? Don't expect to automatically get top marks. Different supervisors will use different methods of grading.
- How accurately does the departmental information describe your research interests? For many professors, research interests change from year to year. Find out what your prospective supervisor is interested in.
- Will I be participating in a reading group or lab meetings? These can be particularly enriching, and give you more practice explaning and presenting your research in talk formats.
- Are you currently working with any other students (i.e., graduate students)? Graduate students, in particular, can be excellent mentors.
- Is there a possibility that you will be leaving on sabbatical in the next two (or three) years? An absent professor may pose a problem to your own research plans. It may also leave you without any guidance for a year.
- Are you open to new or alternative ways of working? To be asked if you are prepared with a plan or design of your own.
What should I ask other students?
- What kind of work style can you expect? For example, some supervisors check over every detail, whereas others expect a check-in once a semester). There is no "right" style, but a good match betewen you and your supervisor is important. Some people find it motivating to know someone is continuously checking in, whereas other people find it more motivating to be given more independence.
- Was this professor helpful with your research proposal and thesis? A research proposal and thesis are big projects. You should know ahead of time whether you'll get the guidance you need.
- Is this professor easy to get along with? Bright people can disagree.
- What were the expectations for achieving a top mark?
- Were you able to do a project that reflected your own ideas and wishes?
- What sort of time and work were involved?
How to initiate contact with possible supervisors?
- Be sure to have scouted out the potential supervisor's research (including published articles) and to have something specific to say about the kind of project you would like to work on (topic, technique, etc.).
- Prepare a "mini portfolio", including your resume (feel free to get help from CAPS if you need it), a copy of your transcript(s), and a sample of your writing (i.e. an essay you are proud of).
- Prepare this "mini portfolio" before arranging to meet with a potential research supervisor and offer the portfolio to the professor during your meeting.
Some other things to keep in mind.
- Do your homework!
- Identify what about psychology you're most interested in (you will be thinking about it for two straight years, so you'd better be interested!)
- We recommend that you read up and talk with other students about possible supervisors before you go to talk to them. Know about the research record and current interests of your potential supervisor.
- Don't be discouraged if there aren't any professors that are conducting research in your area of interest. If you plan to join the honours programme, chances are your interests run broad as well as deep. Some of the most compelling research is not obvious, and you may only appreciate it once you find out about it. Have a look at the research that people in our department are doing, and try to appreciate why they are excited about the research they do; chances are, something unexpected will click and lead you on an unexpected journey.
- Make sure your supervisor is going to take you seriously. In your interview ask questions that show that you have thought about your goals and priorities.
- Once you begin, don't forget that lab work can be very time consuming. Schedule your time carefully.
- Talk with the honours advisors.
- Your psychology instructors may have good advice; tell them what about psychology you are interested in and ask for suggestions for potential supervisors.
- ASK QUESTIONS. Never be afraid to ask questions. You'll never know until you ask.
- Avoid procrastination. Your supervisor should help you set reasonable milestones for your project.