Fascinating topic, or good supervisor - which is more important?


I'm planning to do a history-related PhD through the Open University. I took the related course last year, and got on really well with my tutor. She seems quite keen to be my supervisor, and there are some other advantages to working with her. However, she hasn't given me much guidance about possible topics, beyond saying it has to interest me.

While thinking about the general area, someone else suggested a topic which I would find fascinating. However I would have to have a different supervisor, who I have been warned is a pain to work with. Apparently her students always complain about her. I haven't met them, and know nothing more about them.

So, which is better? The supervisor I can work well with? Or the fascinating topic?


My opinion: Take the better supervisor!! You are depending so much on this person, if you are warned from many others you should not risk the trouble. I heard of people who had very bad experiences with their supervisor and quit because of that. The fascinating topic you can find on your own if you start to get really into it


Without doubt, at least in my opinion (and that opinion is based on experience)...choose the better supervisor. If your relationship with your supervisor isnt right then your whole PhD experience will be fundamentally flawed...trust me, I know!!!


Thanks for the replies. It's funny - I've spoken to several potential supervisors, and they all emphasize the importance of the topic.

Now I'm more certain I can stop thinking about that fascinating topic. Thanks again.


Hi again Penny PhD. Don't get me wrong, the topic is just as important, but having spent a year doing my current PhD project which I shall be finishing in 3 weeks time before moving to another supervisor/institution/project to start again in January, I have a better idea in my mind now than 12 months ago as to what factors are important in making that all important decision. For me, I would say that choice of supervisor is top of the list, with project & location (i.e. research group dynamic/institution/city) close behind. My first year has been highly unusual owing to a bizarre set of circumstances beyond my control that had a major impact on my PhD experience, but it became apparrent to me fairly early on that if there is no chemistry between you and your supervisor then there is a big problem which will have major effects on your project and what you get out of it. During the course of my first year I was lucky enough to experience several months effectively working at a different institution, with a different supervisor and within a different research group - the difference between my experience there and my experience with my own supervisor/institution was massive and really showed me that I was on the wrong path for me, which is why I have changed projects.


I agree with Neena. The supervisor is so important, the wrong one can make or break the whole 'PhD experience' for you'. I've got a great topic and supervisor, but needed a second supervisor as well to cover a different angle of my research. Unfortuately the 2nd sup turned out to have a boot-camp way of doing tutorials, I used to really dread them and eventually decided I'd reluctantly have to give up the whole PhD if I had to keep that team, even though my project and main sup were great. I did manage to change that sup eventually, but my confidence was really dented and the whole business wasted lots of time. That sup has a reputation with other students of being a bully, so if students think that potential sup has problems, I'd find out more first.

Would you need a completely different supervisor for the fascinating topic, or could you get round it by having the supervisor you get on with and supplementing her with another advisor/ 2nd sup? It would be great to somehow wangle it so you get both topic and supervisor!


Unfortunately I think its either the supervisor or the fascinating topic. Don't get me wrong, the topics I could do with my favoured supervisor would be interesting and some of the skills would transfer relatively easily (like learning Latin :-( ). It's just I've procrastinated long enough on choosing topic, because of this dilemma.

The more I think about it, the more certain I am that I should go with the supervisor. It's history - the other topic isn't going anywhere!


It's a really difficult question actually, as ideally you need both - the supervisor for support, expertise etc, and the topic to keep you interested and motivated through what is a fairly long and often difficult process. Good luck with making your decision!


I would also nod in the direction of picking the better supervisor, I've worked with quite a few different people and I feel thankful my current supervisors are my PhD supervisors over the others. I like them because we gel well in various aspects. We can have discussions outside and within the PhD, and thus the more confident you become speaking to them in general, the better your PhD will become because of it. (Simply, you won't dread 'talking' to your supervisor about your PhD and thus will get more out of the discussions that you do have).

I hope this makes sense, obviously you do need to be into your topic as well but don't underestimate the power of the supervisory relationship.

Good luck  :-)


Don't take on a supervisor who is well-known to be a pain to work with. Just don't do it! This is very valuable information - many people don't find this out until too late.


I would say that having a good supervisor is the key to finishing a Ph.D. in anything close to 3-4 years. Also, when you start its very difficult to predict how interesting or not you will have found the project by the time you reach the writing up stage


Good supervisor FULL STOP!
You can take up any interesting topic once you get the PhD (even more so when ya get the PhD-ers working for you in 10 years time)
A bad supervisor will only prolong the pain and also, at the end of the day, while you are doing the work, it is mostly their idea that gets implemented.


Both would be so perfect....But i totally agree with the rest out here....phd is your first project not your last, go fo r a great sup :)



Seriously my thesis has changed a lot since I started, general scope creep. But my supervisor has been great she has helped me focus on my strengths and even in my last meeting with her last week has shown me a way I can make my thesis stand out, how I can make my thesis suit me, im not a natural 'lets write an airtight 100,000 words' kinda person, but she has always championed my thesis and pushed me to present at conferences when I havent wanted to. She has genuinely been great and helped me when I have wanted to tear my hair out!
So I would say if you are comfortable and like your supervisor and theyre knowledgable thats most def half the battle. You could have a topic that interests you more than anything in the world and after a year naturally your enthusiasm starts to wane, if you have a good supervisor they will help keep you going and give you support. If you have someone whose work you respect, or are familiar with who is keen to be your supervisor, bite their hand off!


Thanks all for the replies. It more or less confirmed what I thought.

I've been doing some other reading and I think I can get some of the fascinating bits into a different thesis.