Get the ‘Right’ Doctoral Researchers – Good Practice in Recruitment

By Steve Hutchinson, Director of Hutchinson Training & Development specialising in Leadership, Communication and Personal Effectiveness; and co-author of ‘Coaching and Mentoring for Academic Development’.

Limes on a plate in the shape of a smiley face.

Let’s start with a thought exercise.

If you could design a perfect doctoral researcher who was perfectly suited to the intellectual, organisational and psychological challenges, what ingredients would you include and in what proportions?

A ‘Frankenstein’s Doctor’, if you will…

You might immediately think a fantasy scholar would need to be completely independent of supervision and need nothing. But what would be the point in that? A keen, enthusiastic researcher is a lifeline for a supervisor who, due to managerial and faculty obligations, might get to do far less actual fun research than they’d like to.

You might want a dollop of perseverance or robustness to weather the storm of criticism that a doctorate can hold. But how (outside of military-style screenings) do you recruit for psychological robustness?

Perhaps you’d include technical excellence and performance in exams or short projects. But experience shows that excellence in structured modules isn’t always a signifier of candidates who truly thrive with little structure and one far-off deadline.

You’d probably want a scoop of enthusiasm, but enthusiasm for what? There’s a big difference between motivation for the broad subject (before it is refined and whittled down to the often-dispiriting academic keyhole focus) and motivation for the qualification itself. Ideally, you’d want both.

You’d also want a pinch of higher linguistic capability, a splash of contextual understanding about how research works, a spoonful of intellectual criticality, a dollop of curiosity, and for them to have a clear research question in mind.

On a human level, you may want a personal compatibility and an alignment with your supervisory skills, your field of interest and your research and career-strategy plans for the future. And, in a modern academic world, regardless of discipline, you’ll want someone who’ll fit with the ‘team’ of colleagues, collaborators and contributors that comprise a thriving research culture.

None of these things are particularly easy to ascertain, not forgetting the fact that the doctorate is an apprenticeship qualification – so at recruitment we don’t need a completely finished article, just potential in the right areas.

There are many other considerations – too many for this short article – and not all of them are academic. For instance, it’s not unreasonable to consider whether the candidate has sufficient funding (and support) to sustain them for the duration of the doctorate. (Agreeing to a candidate with enough funding for one year and plans to obtain more or work part-time to sustain full time study (and conference, and publish and be a fully-integrated member of the department) is a fast-track to problems.)

All this is a long-winded way of say that supervisors need to take real care in recruiting the right researchers – even before they consider the intellectual quality of their proposed research project.


Having worked with many supervisors from many institutions, I’ve realised that recruiting good doctoral researchers sometimes takes years. For instance, the more visible a supervisor (not just academic output but wider reputation), the wider range of potential candidates who may make an enquiry about supervision possibilities. This is particularly important at institutions that aren’t as highly profiled on the international stage.

So, are you playing a long-game effectively? Are you publicizing (internally and externally) the areas you are able and willing to supervise? This ‘publicizing’ could comprise an encouraging word with the bright, hard-working and inquisitive bachelors student, which might be the best professional move you ever make…

Of course, there are workload issues here, but following an initial approach, are you supportive of candidates in formulating their applications? A gentle nudge in the ‘right’ direction for an enthusiastic potential candidate might be mutually beneficial. The flip-side of this is pre-registration support must be for a supervisor to be very clear what they definitely will not supervise. In this case, who in your network might be a better person for a potential candidate to approach?


If appropriate to disciplinary practices, consider carefully what you seek from a tentative research proposal. Does it show originality of thinking? Does it seem to understand the scope, scale and parameters of a doctoral project that is, when all said and done, not a Nobel prize? Has the candidate given thought to the process of ‘how’ they want to do research and the accompanying logistics? And do they have a tentative plan for obtaining the requisite skills? Finally, does their proposal contain an actual research question or is it an ephemeral group of ideas with no focus? Candidates accelerate far more quickly if they’re focused from day one.

In my opinion it is vital that you see a piece of scholarly writing from the potential candidate. This could be an actual research proposal or be something like a mini-literature review. (A colleague asks applicants to write a short critical piece about ‘the five most important papers in the research field’. This task is useful to the candidate even if they end up elsewhere.) Regardless of discipline, your candidate will need to write. Given the actual amount of time you have to supervise them, you don’t want to spend hours on basic proof-reading.

Regardless of how much input you’ve had in creating the proposal, I think it is still sensible to meet with the candidate (ideally face to face, but at least on Zoom) on more than one occasion to get a sense of their critical ability, intellectual debate skills and all the other differential ingredients that wouldn’t show up on a CV. What is more, you should involve the whole supervisory team so as to ensure alignment.

I recall meeting my research supervisor for the first time (at interview) and he asked four questions that, with hindsight, were helpful illuminators for both of us. I’d recommend asking them to any prospective candidate:

Why do you want to do a Doctorate?

The rationale here seems self-evident, but it’s important to consider their intrinsic motivation – since doctoral non-submission rate is far more common than viva failure. (Furthermore, there are an increasing, it seems, number of potential candidates who simply see the doctorate as a career differentiator and, compared to in other countries, the UK doctorate is relatively quick. While there is nothing, per se, wrong with this attitude, it may clash with your academic viewpoint.)

What do you want to do?

This question is somewhat subject dependent, given that in some fields candidates may have their own fully-independent ideas as to what they want to look at, whereas in others the potential question falls into a larger collaboration. Nonetheless, asking them what they want to do and enquiring as to the scope of their idea and their thinking behind it is likely to help reduce expectation mismatches and originality problems later. (To this end, the UKCGE’s Supervisor Survey lists early discussions of the research question and proposal scope as a key doctoral success factor.)

Why do you want to do this project?

Question three is subtly different to the first two – but is a useful one if you had a hand in creating the research proposal as part of a larger scheme. It also facilitates discussion of skills and required capabilities and flag up any training needs.

What is good research?

In order to ascertain critical-thinking ability, a question like this (open ended, and concerning criticality and values) is helpful in starting an ongoing conversation where thought (as opposed to regurgitating a ‘correct’ answer) is paramount. To this critical end, you might want to ask potential candidates to engage in a task such as reading a published research paper (or analysing a data-set) and then meeting them to discuss their critical thoughts. Essentially, it can be very helpful to create a recruitment assessment task that mirrors the specific demands of a doctorate.

If you are sensible, you’ll probably be thinking about their communication skills. More than a written proposal, can they talk and debate with criticality? (I’d argue that a University’s English-language requirements for PG study is often woefully short of what is required to debate, discuss and defend ideas at higher level. Furthermore, in a potentially-isolating doctoral existence, we know that without daily classes and regular coursework to focus on, English language capability can decrease in international candidates.)


Ultimately, recruiting the right researcher is a nuanced art. No-one really ever knows who will truly flourish and who will be merely solid. Furthermore, no-one knows which relationships will gel and create a long-lasting partnership of stimulating collaboration. (You may also want to think about diversity of potential candidates. Creativity and innovation stem from variety of approaches, and yet many supervisors, somewhat understandably, still recruit a younger version of themselves.)

What is certain is that the quality of their doctoral experience, the culture of research productivity in your department and the academic soul-feeding experience of nurturing the next generation of research talent can all be boosted almost beyond measure by recruiting with care.

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