Applying — Finding a Supervisor

Finding a supervisor is an important step in the grad school application process.  Many programs require that a student is supported by a Professor before they can be admitted to the program.  So finding a supervisor can be the tipping point that gets you into a grad program.

So how do you find a grad supervisor?

Well, you should already have a few suggestions from the Professors that you’ve talked to about your interests in grad school.   Start by doing a bit of research on those Professors.  Look at their website and learn about their research.

But sometimes Professors are slow to update their webpages so you have to do a bit more work.  In my field, neuroscience, you can go onto the Society for Neuroscience website and look at the abstracts from the Professor’s lab that were presented at the annual meeting.  This will give you information about current projects in the lab.

You can also use Pubmed to look at their publications.

Now that you’ve done some reading about the Professor’s research you are ready to contact them.  Write a short, but informative email to enquire about graduate opportunities in the Professor’s lab.

The email needs to convey a range of information. Such as:

  • who recommended that you contact them,
  • your name
  • where you are doing your undergrad degree,
  • your undergrad major,
  • your research experience
  • your goals for grad studies
  • why you are interested in their research,

All of this needs to be written in 8-12 sentences.  If it is too long the Professor may not have time to read it.  If it is too short it might not have enough information to catch the Professor’s attention.  You are trying to engage their attention and start a communication with the Professor.

You’ll notice that the first thing I listed is who recommended the Professor and last is why you are interested in their research.  These are very important to Professors’ decisions to take a look at an applicant.

What do you do if no one recommended the Professor?  In this situation you’ll need to convey why you are contacting the Professor.  It may because you’ve read one of their papers, you know a student in their lab, you heard them give a talk, etc.  Whatever it is be sure to say it in your email.

By now you’ve probably figured out that you’ll need to write personalized emails to each Professor.  I strong discourage the bulk email method.  I immediately delete emails that are generic enquires about if I have space in my lab.  Those emails look like the student is taking the fishing trip approach to finding a grad supervisor.  This will not get you into the best labs with the best supervisors.

Finally, you need to be both patient and persistent.  Professors are often busy and may not respond right away to your email.  Wait a week and then contact them again.  If you still get no response don’t give up just yet.  Contact the program and ask them for help, indicate who you are trying to contact and ask if they have any suggestions.  Some Professors prefer to wait until the complete application package is in before they respond to students.

The next post will talk more about finding the right supervisor, lab, and program for you.


33 responses to “Applying — Finding a Supervisor

  1. Maria A. Parekh

    Wow ! This really helps 🙂

    Thank you.

  2. Maria A. Parekh

    Dear Murphy,

    What are the chances of acceptance and induction into the MiNDS graduate program for an international student?

    I would be most obliged if you could also identify and address the most suitable scholarships for foreign students.

    Thanks a million

    • The opportunities for international students are improved if the student has a scholarship. Most of those scholarships come from the government of the student’s home country so you need to check what is available from your country.

  3. Hi – just a brief note to say kudos for this article. Very informative.

  4. Cary

    This is a really useful quick guide for potential students. I’d also add that students shouldn’t phrase their email as if they fully expect to be admitted into the program. A bombastic attitude isn’t going to do you any favors and almost guarantees your email is heading to the trash folder.

  5. Delicia Moore

    Thank you very much for this information, will definitely put it to good use.

    This system is quite different from the one at home (Trinidad and Tobago) where acceptence is followed by allocating a supervisor in most cases. As a result, I am very grateful.

  6. Khurram Shahzad

    Dear Friends, I need a supervisor for my graduate study in the field of geophysics or petroleum geo sciences. Please Help me!

    • Hi Khurram, There are lots of suggestion on the blog to help you find a supervisors. Probably the best is to talk to your professors and ask them for help.

    • Oluwaseun Raji

      Hi!! My name is Olu. I am looking to pursue a Phd Research degree in Geophysics or Petroleum Geosciences. Looks like we have the same interests which is why I am contacting you. I have a BSc degree in Geophysics and a MSc degree in Applied Petroleum Geoscience. What do you think about the University?Are there potential supervisors you would recommend I contact? Are there research areas in the field of 3D, 4D seismic survey and Electromagnetic survey?

      Please kindly give your advice. My email is

      Thank you very much and I look forward to hearing from you.

  7. Ike Sari

    Dear Murphy,

    I have been searching for a potential supervisor for my PhD, which are not my master supervisor. I have sent around 15 applications and got 5 answered. The problem is, my master supervisor is unhappy because he became too busy answering questions coming from the professors who are interested in becoming my PhD supervisor. My Question is:

    Is there any ethic or reference that explains how many applications we can send to the targeted professors in one time?

    Thank you for your attention. Looking forward to your reply,


    • Talk to your supervisor. Get them to be supportive. Ask them for suggestions about where to apply. Then you can help them by providing an addressed envelop and filling in all of the blanks on the reference form.

      There is no rule about how many applications to send. But grad school is different and supervisors want to know that you have applied to work with them rather than just sending out a lot of applications with the hopes that someone will take you.

  8. Dominic Kojo

    This is really awesome! Kathy, God bless you. Very useful for me. Besides, I happen to chance upon it at a crucial time when I needed a supervisor’s commitment to enroll in a grad school.

    Already, I have read about the current and potential research that are being or to be undertaken in the supervisors lab. And some are of interest to me. My concern, therefore, is whether it is advisable that I send them proposals instead.

    Thank you and I look forward for your urgent reply.


    • It can be overwhelming for a potential supervisor to get unsolicited proposals. Better to contact them first, start a dialogue, and ask them if they would like to read your proposal.

  9. Juan Rueda

    Dear Murphy,

    I would like to Know when the UBC offers scholarships to international students?, after the student gets a supervisor?

    If I got a supervisor, what are the posibilities for to get a scholarships ?

    what does the scholarship cover?

    thank you

  10. Narjis

    Hi Murphy,

    I really like your posts as they’re really informative and have helped me a lot. Question: My overall average is not that great (66%)..but I am working on it and it’s improving…my past two terms average is 75% . When professors ask me about my GPA, that would totally blow it off for me..what should I do? it’s a rejection from the start. I am just so concerned..I don’t know what to do.

    note: my highest marks are in the neuroscience-related courses (mid 70s to high 80s) so it is something that I really want to do. Awaiting your reply. Narjis.

    • The best thing that you can do is get some research experience to demonstrate that you have skills in that area. That will also help with the letters of support. If you demonstrate that you are good in the lab most professors will value that quite highly when selecting a grad student. But remember, poor performance in a research lab will have the opposite effect.

  11. Taiwo Fafure

    This is a very nice general tip on finding a grad supervisor. I really appreciate it!


  12. Mahesh S


    To choose a supervisor, I did not see any web page containg faculty list. How could I get faculty ( Professor ) list with their research interest?

  13. Pingback: GRADsKool 2010 in review | GRADsKool

  14. Neha V

    Hi Kathy,

    This is a helpful article. I used this along with other pointers over the internet to write to a potential supervisor for an MSc some months ago, who invited me over twice to meet him and his research group and present my undergraduate research project to them. So thank you for that!

    The prof told me honestly that he would prefer someone willing to stick it out to a PhD because of the extensive training involved, and I said that I was hoping starting an MSc could point me towards a specialization for a PhD. I felt that given my limited research experience, starting out with an MSc would be wiser. He understood my reasons, and did say I made a very positive impression on him and his group, but that he needed more time to decide.

    That was about a month ago, and I feel I should write him a casual mail saying that I hoped the recruiting process is going well. I do not want to feel like I am pressuring him in any way though or have him take anything amiss. It is the first lab I have approached and am not sure what the protocol is. If you had any advice on it, I would be grateful to hear it!

    Thanks so much,

  15. Rajendra

    Hello Dr. Murphy,
    I have recently applied to MiNDS program. This article has been really very helpful to me. Thanx..!!

  16. Whoops, I put the wrong link in the Newletter. Check the top right for the link to “How are students evaluated”

  17. hello Dr. Murphy;
    Thank you for the posts. They are very helpful.
    I am an international student currently working on my undergraduate thesis in engineering geology.
    I wanted to ask weather the graduate research topics are given to the students by UBC/supervisor, or the students themselves propose a research topic to the concerned supervisor? In my home university students just choose the particular area of interest and the topic is assigned by the department.
    Thanks again;

  18. wasan

    Dear Kathy
    Fortunatly I found a supervisor who interested in my idea and he asked me for an interview. What this interview means and should i prepare my self for it ?

    • That’s great. Now that you have a foot in the door it is important for you to clearly present your interest in the profs research. Take a look for recent papers and conference presentations for the lab. You can also contact the prof before you meet and ask them if there are recent papers that you should read before you meet. But be sure to make it clear that you have already look at some of the profs papers. Another thing to do is to read a recent review so that you get a broad perspective on the research area and know some of the current questions. A good place to look is the Annual Reviews journals.

  19. Tanya Elese

    Many thanx from Ottawa. Very helpful.

  20. Julia

    I applied to a couple of PhD programs. One is in the UK and I spoke to a supervisor beforehand since, there, you need to apply with a research proposal. For the program in the US, I listed a few different research interests in my personal statement and submitted my application.
    I know there are professors there that can supervise some of my interests, but I did not contact them because I thought it was a bit early and unnecessary.

    Now, I keep hearing that I should have. Is it too late to contact them after you’ve applied and is it really awful not to have contacted anyone in the first place?

    Thank you,

    • It is never too late to contact professors that you are interested in working with for your grad studies. We are always looking for good students that are interested in our research.

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