Finding a Supervisor

This is written for two audiences in mind: (i) undergraduate students thinking about which supervisor they would like to work with, and (ii) prospective students from other Universities wanting to figure out how they find a supervisor to work with at the University of Auckland. We break this down in six rough steps:

Step 1: Determine what you want and your personal circumstances

Determine what research you want to do and why you want to do it. This is a more personal reflective process. Example questions to yourself could include:
What sort of career do I want?
E.g. Academia? Teaching? Clinical? – if you wish to pursue a career in academia, you need to have a doctoral degree.
Am I personally motivated or interested in a specific research area?
e.g. my [relative] has ___ so I want to do research on this – are there any intrinsic reasons for your passion in a subject?
Does my family need me to start earning money soon?
Or do I have upcoming carer responsibilities soon? Postgraduate studies can afford you flexibility in terms of time, but is not financially well compensated.
Do I see myself potentially moving around the world for work?
If you see yourself working as a postdoctoral research fellow or academic, you should realistically be prepared to move around. The truth is that there are limited jobs in New Zealand and without a substantial increase in research funding, this is not likely to change in the future. Alternatively, if you are keen to work in industry, there are limited areas to work in post-PhD. For example, New Zealand has a thriving clinical research industry, but may be lacking in other research areas.

Step 2: Finding a Supervisor

Domestic students by far have the advantage of finding supervisors because the simplest way to find a supervisor is to talk to your lecturers after class or by email. Mustering up the courage and going up to the lecturer asking them about their research and if they have any openings is the easiest way to begin the conversation. Chances are, they’d be happy to have a chat with you and even if they themselves did not have an opening, they would know another staff member who might be accepting students.

Contrarily, if you never did get the chance to talk to a potential supervisor after class, you’re in a similar situation as international students. That is, you are faced with navigating the University website, finding potential supervisors and research topics. In this case, we would recommend thinking of the following things:

What are your research interests?
Pick a few key words as to what you are personally most interested in. Think short-term (e.g. 1-4 years Honours/Masters/PhD) and think mid-term (e.g. 10 years) and think long-term (e.g. over your career). If you have a direction you want to go towards, that would be greatly helpful in your search. Alternatively, you might not have a mid-term or long-term goal (e.g. “I wanna cure cancer”); in which case, just think of the topics you learnt in undergrad that interested you most (e.g. managing big data, cellular physiology, reducing health inequities, health policy, protein folding, modelling, etc.).
Do you know anyone in these relevant fields?
or example, do you have a random family friend who is/was in academic research? Were you close with one of your Teaching Assistants? Consider reaching out to people to find their opinion about how to approach supervisors. Who knows, they might coincidentally be able to refer you onwards to someone you may want to work with!
Is there a specific department/Faculty/University you would like to work in?
Departmental culture has positive predictive value in student success. Furthermore, some departments may have better/more opportunities for funding than others. Doing a project in a smaller department may feel more lonely due to a lack of other students around. Doing a project in a bigger department may feel overwhelming due to too many people around. Furthermore, some departments have a very positive attitude towards graduate students (e.g. funds social events, organises catch-ups, welcomes you to their department, extends invitations to you to departmental Christmas functions) whereas other departments may care less about their graduate students. You can get a good idea about the department by asking the current graduate students, professional teaching fellows/tutors, and teaching assistants that belong to your target department.
Find as many names as you can within your research area or desired department.
For example, the University of Auckland has “Discovery Profiles” (, you could either enter in a department name or your keywords surrounding your research area. Create a table of all the names you could find, find their University profile and read their biography, and write a brief description of their research and gauge whether it sounds like what you might be interested in doing. If that person’s University profile does not give a good explanation of their research area, search for that person’s name on Google Scholar or Scopus and find their most recent papers. Be sure to look for papers that they are either first author or last author – this means they were heavily involved in either writing the paper or directing the progression of the paper. (If, instead, they are a “sandwich author” – a middle author in a sea of other authors, they probably had less to do with the creation of that journal article). This will give you an idea of the research area these people are in. At this point, narrow your shortlist down to around ~3 to 5 names.

Name Weblinks (Profiles, Google Scholar, Scopus) Department Research Area / Keywords Related people (e.g. key collaborators / postgrad students)

Step 3: Initial Contact – Email

Now that you have a shortlist of names you would like to contact, you will need to draft a first email to make initial contact. Be respectful. Be formal. Be succinct. Suggest action.

  • Have a short and informative subject line. E.g. Masters Student Research Opportunities in your Lab?
  • Keep it formal: address them by their full title + honours + last name. Dear Professor / Dr ___,
  • Introduce yourself: name, University, year, major, and interests. I am John Smith, currently a 3rd year BSc student at the University of ___ majoring in ___ and am interested in pursuing Masters studies in the research area of ____.
  • Be concise about what you want. I am currently trying to find a potential supervisor in the research area of ___ and I came across your profile. I was particularly interested in the techniques you used in [this paper], but also want to learn more about [this research field].
  • Suggest action. Is it possible to meet to discuss potential research opportunities in your lab? My current available times include: [Include at least 3-4 dates/times].
  • Attach further information. I also attach my CV / academic transcript to this email for your consideration.
  • Be appreciative. Thank you for your time – I look forward to hearing back from you.
  • Respectful sign-off.Yours Faithfully, Name [AUID] [Current Degree / Position] [University]
If they do not respond, it is perfectly acceptable to send a follow-up email around 1 week later to jog their memory about your request. However, if they continue to ignore you – that’s probably a sign that you should move on because: (i) they just don’t have capacity right now, (ii) they’re on leave, or (iii) they are usually bad at emailing and so probably wouldn’t be an easily communicable supervisor anyways. 

Also, it is perfectly fine to email multiple supervisors simultaneously. Do not feel obliged to email supervisors one at a time. Supervisors should understand that you are looking for multiple people at the same time and if they take it personally, that’s probably a sign of unprofessionalism. Just be transparent that you are looking at multiple labs simultaneously and respectful about it. Until you sign on the dotted line accepting a research project (e.g. accepting an offer for a Masters topic), you are not contractually bound and you don’t owe anyone anything. Similarly, supervisors do not owe you anything either. That said, it’s probably respectful to communicate your intent with your potential supervisor – e.g. “I am leaning towards doing a project with [you] / [another person].”.

Step 4: First Meeting

Now you’ve scheduled a date, time, and location for your first meeting! Great! Now you have to prepare for this meeting. Some questions worth asking are included below:

  • Do you have a position available for a [Honours / Masters / PhD] project? 
  • What would the project topic be on?
  • How many students do you supervise, and how often do you see them?
  • Is there funding for the project?
  • Ask what their expectations are regarding working-from-home and/or flexible hours.
  • How would you describe the work culture of the lab?
  • How is a new student integrated into the lab environment?
  • What support do you provide students for finding their next position (academia, industry, government, non‐traditional)? 
  • Ask if you could also speak to their current students

If you do get a chance to talk to existing students, below are some questions you might consider asking.

Questions to ask their current students:

  • What advice would you give to an incoming student into this lab?  
  • What are your career goals? How prepared do you feel for these positions? 
  • What is the quality of your supervision? Do they understand your research? Do they offer you useful feedback/advice? 
  • Does your supervisor hold you to reasonable expectations?  
  • How is the group managed? Are you assigned tasks/responsibilities in terms of equipment maintenance, training, and ordering? 
  • How does your supervisor handle conflict? 
  • What kind of culture exists in your lab? Do students spend time together outside the lab? 
  • What is your day‐to‐day schedule like? Are you expected to be in the lab at certain times? How flexible is your schedule?
  • Are you able to teach as an undergraduate lab demonstrator? How supportive is your supervisor regarding this teaching?
  • Does your supervisor support your career progression? (e.g. advertising/celebrating published papers, recommending conferences, asking if you want to assist with Honours / Masters student supervision)

Now after your meeting with your potential supervisor, and presumably, you’d also have met with a few other potential supervisors. It’s now your turn to make a decision who you would like to go with and develop your research project. Write a respectful email to your preferred supervisor and explain you’d like to go with them and now you’d need to move onto developing your research proposal. This means that you’ll have to do some reading, research, and literature review to come up with your research proposal. You should absolutely expect your to-be supervisor to provide you with some “seed articles” (e.g. journal articles to get started with your reading), guidance, and even potentially template research proposals for you to model yours on. 

If the other supervisors (which you do not wish to pursue further studies with) also requested you to let them know about your decision, don’t forget to email them respectfully and tell them that you have decided to go with another supervisor. They will understand.

Step 5: Developing your Research Project and Further Meetings

After you’ve decided which supervisor to go with, you will need to co-develop a research proposal with your potential supervisor. This will involve you needing to start reading the literature and coming up with research questions. It is reasonable to expect support from your to-be supervisor. You could organise further meetings to develop your research proposal. Around this time, you could also ask further follow-up questions about research in their lab. Examples questions include:

  • Can we schedule a time to meet weekly / every two weeks to discuss progress (e.g. writing, data collection / analysis, ordering lab supplies etc.)
  • Is there funding available for conferences, and publications?
  • Which conferences should you expect to go to in your [Masters / PhD] year(s)? (It’s more common for Masters and Doctoral students to go to at least one conference in one calendar year. Honours students might also do this; but honours students have only ~8 months to complete their degree so it isn’t always possible to fit in a conference into an Honours year).
  • How do you define a successful [Honours / Masters / PhD] year for your student?
  • How long do students typically take to complete their [doctoral] degree in this lab?
  • Are there possibilities for extensions / funding beyond the duration of the programme?
  • After completing their degree, what types of jobs and careers do your students have? 
  • How much support is there within / around the lab (e.g. other students working on a related project or postdocs with experience in the lab techniques you’ll be using)
  • Is there opportunity for further financial support? (e.g. Teaching Assistant contracts, Research Assistant contracts, etc.)

    Step 6: Enrolling and Beginning a Research Project

    Enrolling is quite a process and you will need your supervisor’s help in this. Consider reading through some University resources about enrolling (e.g. – but your key source of information should be your supervisor as they will know University processes best. If you are getting stuck, do feel free to get in touch with the FMHS-PGSA at if you have any questions.

    Once you’ve started your formal enrolment in your research degree, you should expect to meet with your supervisor regularly – particularly at the beginning of your degree. This is because you are expected to receive a lot of guidance to get you started and once you’ve gained a lot of skills, you should expect increasing amounts of autonomy in your project.

    During your studies, you should expect a professional, collegial, and positive relationship with those around you (particularly your supervisor and any other colleague). It is important to continually reflect if these are positive relationships and if you are working towards your personal goals. 

    In another QuickGuide, we will discuss when things go wrong.

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