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Accepting versus rejecting applicants for research degrees

On what basis should I, as a PhD supervisor*, make decisions about accepting and rejecting applicants to be my students?

It is extremely important to get selection right because, once a student is registered, it is the responsibility of the institution, department and supervisor to provide all reasonable support. Where the students are not really suitable for the programme for which they are registered, the stress and outlay of time of everyone involved can be enormous. Most institutions, departments and supervisors do their best to get selection right, but stories do circulate of institutions which need fees so badly that they accept research students without giving the designated supervisors the opportunity to have an input into the decision process.

A number of different processes of selection commonly operate, and it is good practice for them all to ensure that student, supervisor and department appear likely to be able to provide what they need of each other; that they agree on this; and that they are all involved in coming to the agreement.

Common processes of selection

A common process of selection applies where the supervisor, research group or department can supply funding for the student, either as a Research Council studentship or through a bursary or grant of some sort. Then the studentship is normally publicly advertised, a number of candidates apply, and the selection of the successful individual is made during a face-to-face interview. Acceptance of the research place may also imply acceptance on the part of the candidate of a prescribed research topic, this being dictated by the terms of the grant.

Another common process of selection is for prospective students to approach a prospective supervisor informally for preliminary discussions. This tends to result in the supervisor making recommendations on whether or not the individual should proceed with the application. Usually such individuals already have some idea of the general area on which they want to work, perhaps because it is associated with their career or because it simply interests them, but they will, of course, need the help of a supervisor to refine it into something appropriate for a research degree and develop a suitable proposal. Such students often supply their own funding.

Yet another common process is for prospective students to make contact with an academic, a department or an institution on the basis of information in a prospectus. This may result in the prospective student being asked to visit for an interview, although other means have to be found if he or she is out of the country.

Paper qualifications and relevant experience inevitably influence selection, particularly where a number of candidates are applying for a single funded position or where the entry requirements of the institution are stringent. Yet paper qualifications and relevant experience are not enough. The most common dilemmas of the selection process surround the general suitability of the candidate for being able to handle effectively what is likely to be involved in the three or more years of the research degree.

Skills and attributes to look for when selecting students for research

The following figure shows some of the attributes, other than paper qualifications, to look for in a candidate for a research degree. You may like to amend it to make it more relevant for your own discipline area or situation. It can be used as a basis for probing during an interview or informal meeting, or for making decisions afterwards. A good way of probing is to ask the candidate for examples of how he or she has already used or displayed the various attributes or skills during previous study, work experience or everyday life.

Some non-paper qualifications/attributes to look for in a candidate for a research degree

Ability to grasp concepts and reason analytically

Motivation and perseverance in achieving objectives

Capacity for independent thought

Organisational skills

Independence as a learner


Enthusiasm for the research programme

Nature and extent of any relevant work and life experience

Nature and extent of any previously undertaken training in research

Likelihood of establishing good working relationships

Language skills, particularly for overseas candidates

Suggestions for selecting applicants who are out of the country

It is particularly difficult to get selection right if prospective students are out of the country, so making face-to-face meetings impossible. Some supervisors find it helpful, even essential, to converse with such prospective students electronically using Skype, FaceTime or email. Another tactic is to set a test in the form of asking for considered written comment on a relevant journal article. Yet another is to conclude other checks with a quick phone call, to ensure at least that the student and supervisor can understand each other's spoken communication. It may also be possible to arrange a video link.

References may or may not be illuminating or reliable as they tend to be written with the knowledge that the candidate may see them. It can be helpful to look for what is not in them rather than what is, but even this is unreliable because a referee may not have thought to include something rather than purposely left it out.

Selecting on the basis of a research proposal

Some institutions are satisfied to enrol students on the basis of recommendations from the prospective supervisors, but it is far more common to require some sort of research proposal which will need to be formalised for scrutiny by high level committees. Such proposals present their own problems, not least because the prospective students have to know about and then argue intelligently for certain research methodologies before they have necessarily had the benefit of any research training. An advantage may be that the prospective students are forced to think around certain issues associated with their research, but it can also be argued that the whole procedure is a sheer waste of time, rapidly to be overtaken by events after registration. Then more information and understanding tends to be acquired through a research training programme and the actual experience of the research.

There is guidance for students on developing the research proposal in the student section of the website.

edited extract from no 2 in the Guides series

Resolving Common Dilemmas in Supervision
by Pat Cryer

© Pat Cryer

* 'Supervisor' is a shorthand for 'research degree supervisor', 'advisor' or 'tutor', and applies to varying extents for all research degrees: PhD, DPhil. MPhil, Prof Doc and even undergraduate and masters' projects. In some countries, notably the USA, a 'supervisor' is known as an 'advisor'.