View of the Radcliffe Camera through a window
View of the Radcliffe Camera through a leaded window
Credit: Flora Burles (Graduate Photography Competition)
How-to guides

How to find a research supervisor

However niche your research topic is, there’s probably someone who is already working on it - but where and how do you find them?

Where do I start?

The very first thing you’ll need to do is a lot of independent research. Hopefully you’ve already read a few articles in your research area - try looking up the authors to see which departments they’re in. You could also ask academics you’re working with at undergraduate level for their recommendations. If you don’t have any good leads to get started on, you can go straight to Google to see if you get lucky  or start by looking at a list of academic departments at Oxford to see if there’s a broad match for your subject area.

Remember that research areas can overlap different departments - our Medical Sciences Division lets you browse all supervisors by their research theme, instead of by department, to make sure you don’t miss anyone. Most department websites also let you browse all the staff, groups and projects broken down by themes, to help you narrow down your options.

How can I tell which academics would supervise a research student?

Sometimes it might not be clear whether the academic you have found is available to supervise.

You may find a list of students they’re supervising or a research group/lab they’re in charge of. They might even say something on their webpage about whether they’re available to supervise.

If you’re not sure, you can still make contact (if you do actually need a supervisor lined up — read on for more on this) to explain your interest in their research and that you’re looking for a supervisor in this area, because they might able to recommend someone.

What do I do next?

It’s always a good idea to make sure that where you’re applying has the right expertise to support your research, but every academic department has its own policy on whether you should go a step further and contact potential supervisors. It’s usually necessary in the sciences, and often optional in humanities and social sciences — check out the How to apply section for your course page and check ‘Do I need to contact anyone before I apply?’

The next part involves, yes, more reading and prep — but we’re nearly there now, and we’ve got our research question: Why is this person the best person to supervise your research?

Understand what they do

Now you have a person, start with their profile on the academic department’s website and go down the rabbit hole. You’re preparing to discuss their research and your interests, as well as developing an increasingly detailed picture of whether and how those things fit together.

If you prep well, it’ll come through in your email and help to differentiate your email from dozens of others your person might get.

Read their publications, look at their website, see if they have a X (Twitter) account. X (Twitter) is popular with research academics (you can try TikTok but we’re not making promises) and they might have posted links to their recent work or opportunities to study with them (maybe even fully funded opportunities).

Contacting a potential supervisor

Drafting the email

Your email should be polite, concise and well-written. It will explain your interest in the supervisor's research and what you want from them, including when you’re looking to start your DPhil/PhD.

Your interest in their work needs to be well-informed and specific.

It needs to be individually tailored to the person you’re writing to. This means your interest in their work needs to be well-informed and specific. How you connect their work and yours will really depend on your research area, but consider:

  • Is one of their publications going to be key to the work you want to do? Are there open questions in their work that you’re hoping to answer? Have you identified a gap in this area you want to contribute to?
  • Do they work with an archive or facility that you’re looking to use in your research? Do you have research experience in a project with similar aims or using similar techniques to theirs?

You need to make the case, as briefly as you can, that you have the right skills and background to work in this supervisor's research area. Is there something you can easily point to as evidence of your achievements and commitment to the subject area - mentoring, funding or an award you’ve received, an outstanding grade or ranking, or research experience? Don’t be immediately put off if there are relevant skills or experience you don’t have - developing new skills is an important part of a PhD, and it’s more important to show that you know which skills you’ll need and how you’ll develop them, and demonstrate an ability to do this. Academics will look at your potential to learn new skills and they’re not expecting you to know everything on day one. Look back at where you’ve come from and what you’ve already learned.

Attach your CV (here’s some advice on writing an academic CV), and your draft research proposal if you have one, rather than trying to go through all the detail in your email. (Make sure these are clearly labelled and not huge files, or your well-written email might get flagged as spam or a security risk.)

Before you hit send

Make sure you use the supervisor's correct title and surname here, eg ‘Dear Dr Lastname’. If you’re not sure on the title, use Google to check - if there are no hits for ‘Professor Lastname’, try looking for ‘Dr Lastname’ and other variations instead. Check the spelling of the supervisor’s name. Ask someone you trust to proofread your draft email for you - they don’t have to have a profound understanding of your subject area, just look for typos, grammar and tone.

How many potential supervisors can I contact?

A scattershot approach to finding a supervisor is not a good move. You want quality over quantity here. You can contact more than one potential supervisor, but we’d suggest only one or two at a time, and make sure you put your full effort into making a completely individual approach to anyone you contact. 

I’ve got a reply - what now?

If you've received a positive answer from your potential supervisor, that's great news! Make sure you put their name in your application (there’s a box for it). Having an enthusiastic supervisor lined up is a great start for a competitive research degree application, but remember that even the keenest supervisor can’t make you an offer on the spot.

Next you’ll need to submit your full application, to be assessed by more of our academics against our entry requirements and other people who applied.

Questions for your supervisor

You’ll spend a lot of time working with your supervisor, so this is also your chance to get a better sense of whether they’re a good fit for you. You could ask:

  • What is the funding situation?
  • Are you applying to a funded project, are there are funding opportunities they’re aware of?
  • What sort of support and training is usually offered in the first year?
  • What training in research skills is provided?
  • Will you have the chance to teach or take part in outreach activities?
  • Will you have the opportunity to go to conferences?
  • What’s their approach to supervision?

What to do with a 'no'

If you've had a reply from the academic to say that they are not able to supervise you, this might be due to the fit of your research interests or skills with their research, or it might be for reasons totally beyond their control - lack of funding, time, even lab space. If that’s the case, ask for their feedback on your application and if they can recommend anyone else who might be a potential supervisor for your work.

I didn’t get a reply - what now?

There can be all sorts of reasons that you don’t get a reply. If your department doesn’t require you to contact a supervisor before you apply, you’ll be less likely to hear back (don’t take it personally - term time can be really busy and academics can get more emails than they have time to respond to). If you do need a supervisor and you’ve done everything we’ve suggested - tailoring your email, keeping it concise, checking it carefully, making sure you’re a good fit - it’s time to think about who else to approach.

Next steps

This is a lot, we know, but if you’ve done it all you’re now in a great position to finish up your research proposal or personal statement, and to make very informed decisions about which postgraduate degree programme you’re interested in. Keep up the momentum with our advice on writing a research proposal and have a good read of the Application Guide, which covers everything you’ll need to know about completing the application form.