Can I say "I seek a PhD supervisor" to mean "I try to find a principal investigator of some research group who agrees to accept me as her/his PhD student to supervise my PhD thesis"?

I read from The Free Dictionary http://www.thefreedictionary.com/seek

In modern English, you never say that someone seeks a person or an object. You say that they look for the person or object.

But I also saw therein "seek" can mean "to try to obtain or acquire". And I do use "seek" in "I seek a PhD supervisor" to mean this, not mean "to look for a definite person".

So does saying "I seek a PhD supervisor" in this circumstance OK?

  • First, that rule is wrong; for example and this one. But look for is probably more common for your purpose. Second, in many contexts you will want to use the present progressive: I’m seeking, I’m looking for. – AmE speaker Sep 29 '17 at 21:21
  • @Clare - I'd call those movie titles exceptions to the rule; I think the rule still holds for most conversational communication. I can't imagine myself saying, "I'm seeking Susan," even if my daughter's name was Susan and I couldn't find her. I would say (as the dictionary recommends), "I'm looking for Susan." – J.R. Sep 29 '17 at 21:50
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    @J.R. I didn't put the word never in that rule. – AmE speaker Sep 29 '17 at 23:42

In your example, I think the object is a work-related position (job title) rather than specifically a person, though a person would fill that role.

In that sense, I think your usage is OK. seek is commonly used in the US in employment related advertisements. For example, in:

We are seeking an energetic, highly educated individual who can get to work as our marketing manager from day one.

what they are seeking/looking for is a Marketing Manager (as a job title).


Your question makes some astute observations.

First, as you guess, saying, "I'm seeking a PhD advisor" does sound less odd than saying, "I'm seeking Dr. Jones" when you simply want to ask Dr. Jones a question about yesterday's homework assignment. Moreover, if you lost your textbook, you wouldn't say, "I'm seeking my textbook;" you would say, "I'm looking for my textbook."

Even when we use the word seek for more intangible things (such as, "I'm seeking the truth," or, "I'm seeking answers"), it has an almost profound or poetic tone to it. (I think I'd be more likely to say something like, "I'm searching for truth," or, "I'm digging for answers.") The word seek isn't ungrammatical, but it just seems rather formal and stilted.

As for your context (I'm seeking an advisor), I suppose that might work depending on the context. For example:

"Hey, Bo, how is grad school going?"
"Not too bad. I'm still seeking an advisor and a research topic."

I wouldn't deem that as strikingly bad English. Still, I think this answer may sound a bit more natural, at least to my ears:

"Not too bad. I'm still looking for an advisor and trying to find a research topic."

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