How to Click With a Supervisor

So many research groups, so little time. The search for the perfect environment and the right project for your PhD or postdoc is on. Where do you start? A new Web site called could be just the place. According to its developers, is useful for postgraduates seeking postdoctoral positions, research scientists in industry looking for academic collaborators, and academics, as well as the wanna-be PhD student.

The Web site grew out of an annual print directory called Research Topics in the Life & Chemical Sciences, explains Andy Pritchard, database services manager for publisher Sheffield Academic Press. Launched on 1 March, offers the advantages of being able to search the directory according to criteria such as geographical location, general subject area, supervisor name, or key words, plus the possibility of being updated throughout the year. It is very easy to use, according to Hannah Clarke, a final-year undergraduate at Cardiff University who has recently lined up a PhD place for this October. "It's just blatantly obvious what you need to do," she says. She also likes the fact that there are links to each individual institution's home page from the relevant entry, so if you find something you fancy you can investigate further. Also listed are e-mail addresses, so a direct enquiry to the relevant department is just a mouse click away.

Although more than 2000 scientists have submitted projects to the directory, Pritchard estimates that the directory covers "probably a third of what's available." Clarke confirms that there are a lot of gaps: "All the PhDs I applied for--none of them were on there." The key is getting "a whole lot more" departments to subscribe, she says, something Pritchard would like to see, too. And as well as broadening the number of opportunities in chemistry and life sciences listed, the directory wants to expand into physical and environmental sciences, he explains. Physics won't be added to the database until May, he tells Next Wave, "but we've already had people e-mailing, trying to put physics projects on."

There are some potential pitfalls. "Not all the projects listed are actually funded," explains Pritchard. Supervisors are able to list any projects that they would like to start, Pritchard says, "because particularly good students can often attract funding themselves." And the site is not currently updated regularly. So if you see something you fancy it's best to enquire whether it's still available before putting a lot of effort into a formal application, warns Pritchard. However, come October all that will change. At that point departments will be invited to rent space for each supervisor and be able to update it at any time during the rental period of 12 months. Since "funding comes in at any time through the year," this will make the Web version even more useful, say Pritchard.

So, if Clarke were going through the whole PhD search process again, would she use Definitely, although she "would not rely on it." You need to draw on a combination of approaches, she says: using word of mouth, pestering lecturers, and looking at papers to get the names of people you'd be interested in working for. The Web may not be ready to fully displace traditional methods just yet, but it could make life simpler.

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