A PhD applicant did me the service of sending a list of questions in advance to see if we would be a good fit. It was a fantastic idea which led to a focused and creative discussion. It got me thinking about all the questions that went unasked in various PhD supervisions I have had. I suggest that all potential and starting PhDs can ask this of their supervisors early on. It is a little like those pre-marriage courses the Catholic church runs for couples about to be cleaved, where they work out how long it will last. The aim is not to see if you are of one mind, but to set out what you expect of each other and of the PhD itself. A lot of trouble can be avoided then. I’ve adapted some of the questions here.
1. Why do you supervise PhDs? What do you get from doing it?
The first question is about where supervision fits in the supervisor’s conception of an academic life. It is central to what they think the PhD is. That can vary between disciplines and inviduals. A supervisor might see a PhD student as someone to work on their projects, in a lab model, an emerging colleague, or someone who will learn advanced skills and move into industry. As ever, when we ask questions of others these are really about ourselves. Why do I want to do a PhD? Where does it sit in my direction as a person?
2. How many PhDs are there in the department? What do they study? How do you work with them?
This is a good question to situate supervision in terms of the how you fit into the intellectual community you will be joining. It is important to understand how student and supervisor plan to communite, and whether the supervisor is a channel for students to meet each other. One of the best ways of learning is from being around people who know more than you, who are further on in the journey. Will the PhD have opportunities to do that?
3. How do you deal with hierarchy in the relationship?