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By Susan Carter

I’m working with a promising new doctoral student and conversations are mainly around scoping her project. I’ll call her Angel, although she has kept her Chinese name. Our talk circles round the decisions that need to be made in the first year, and preferably in the first few months. It’s a process of thinking, choosing and writing. First, decisions are approached at several different levels.

We begin with identifying the problem that is driving the research. I want her to write that clearly. This leads to how her doctoral project might produce better understanding the problem with a goal to mitigating it. One set of considerations hovering through our talk regards methods and methodology. Will her project be mixed methods, and which methods? Will the triangulation of these methods be likely to show something really useful? How much data will be needed? How will it be gathered? How will she delimit what is in the study and what is not? She’s considering the methods and models described in the extensive literature review that she is ploughing through.

At the same time, we both want to find the shortest route to completion—Angel’s left a toddler at home with her diligent parents and her husband but wants to finish quickly and to be reunited with the family. She’s coping really well with the emotions associated with this: the entire family believe that they will all benefit from her doctorate, and she is managing herself and the project really well. Yet the separation is still sometimes overwhelming; the unfamiliar Christmas celebration with its joyful tableau of mother and son, and its focus on family, brought unexpected emotional turmoil. Desire for the fastest, smoothest route is not just about institutional desire for timely submissions: it relates to her quality of life.

So we are considering the scope of Angel’s work and thesis carefully: how much will be enough to be recognisable as a PhD and no more? Questions about scoping take us back to the literature, and to other theses in the field. I’m also keen that Angel designs a research approach that she will enjoy rather than simply applying other people’s approaches that seem to have worked. The methods she gains expertise in during her doctorate may well be ones she uses for the next five or ten years as well.

At another level, we are thinking about the best possible doctorate to give Angel the future that she most wants. She intends to return to her homeland to develop her career there, so is looking at the kinds of jobs her PhD might prepare her for. She’s considering at what level she would prefer to work: in a university department, in a university management role, in a government role with leadership in Educational policy making…. She also needs to think about where she and her family might like to live, given that her husband and the grandparents would be involved.

I’m encouraging Angel to write as we go through these conversations. We run through the pros and cons of different options in our meetings, and she writes this reasoning down in the week before the next meeting. This enables her to capture the small details of decisions likely to slide out of mind when it comes to defending her methods in writing later. Some of what she produces will fit neatly into her introduction; some will go to the more detailed methodology section.

Where possible, she is building literature that informs her choice into her Endnote library and into this early writing. This is partly for safekeeping from the limitations of memory, and it also establishes the habit of linking her project to literature and capturing that linkage in writing.

Another benefit is that we have begun working together on writing, a pleasurable part of supervision from my perspective. We are establishing expectations for meeting deadlines with writing and feedback, and trust with that. I’m figuring how to scaffold her development to where she is a confident fluent writer in English; we are both learning who the other one is, and how to best develop together as a team. For a start, Angel is learning to listen to my curious kiwi accent….

Do you have other ways of starting off new supervisions and ensuring that you begin writing early? We would like to gather more possibilities, especially around how to get useful writing in the early stages of the doctorate.