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Crime, technology and society by Angus Bancroft
Dear research student, ask questions of your supervisor to be

Dear research student, ask questions of your supervisor to be

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?

First, by not pretending it isn’t there. Hierarchy informs most working relationships and is no bad thing. It is a bad thing if it’s unthinking, or hidden, or people pretend it does not exist when it does. It is not a bad thing when the senior person in the hierarchy looks out for those below them. I expect my PhD students to become experts in their own area and I will defer to them on their knowledge. I also expect students to understand that when I say ‘don’t do it like that’ or ‘you have to include this or that in your writing’ that I am saying this because that is how you do a PhD and they will come a cropper if they do not defer to me on that. Much better to get the tough stuff out there early on.
4. How do deal with problems and conflicts?
I like this one because it is a bit of a challenge. Conflicts should not be expected but can arise in any working relationship and it is best to be open about that. And sometimes differences cannot be directly resolved.

Setting out ground rules as in above does not mean you avoid difficulties or anything like that. It does allow you to start with a better idea of who each other are and what you want out of the working relationship.

Then there are questions to ask yourself. There are the obvious ones – what do I want to find out about, how do I want to do it – and the existential ones, like why am I doing a PhD? What do I wnat to get from it? These will guide you in the choices you make.


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