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By Susan Carter

This afternoon I am meeting a new doctoral candidate I’ll be supervising, and I’ve already sent her a set of questions in advance of meeting. Before we begin working as a team with the other supervisor to design the doctoral project and start writing seriously, I want the candidate to do some thinking. Mostly, it’s she who must ensure that we do not get side-tracked by talk of methods, methodology, and theory from focussing on what is central: the candidate as someone already with a life that we want this doctorate to improve.

I’ve drawn these questions up, and filed them away knowing that this will be another useful document for sharing with other academics and using again myself.

I’ll send the prompting questions to her, talk through any of these that really seem important to her, and then I intend to ask her to produce some writing. This is a case where writing will prompt thinking that is helpful for the design of the doctoral project—and that same writing will probably go into the full thesis proposal and may find a place in the thesis.

I reproduce this list of questions in the hope it may prompt you to make your own, and then I reflect on conversations that may arise from it.

  1. Do you have your own values or priorities about this research project’s topic?
  2. Might your closeness to the topic be a problem in any way, e.g., prevent you from being open to what your findings show you, or overwhelm you with emotion or stress unexpectedly?
  3. Does your awareness of a problem drive your impulse towards this topic?
  4. Do you have responsibilities outside of this research project (sport, church, music, family)?
  5. Do you have anyone close to you who has recently done a PhD?
  6. What is your relationship with written text?
  7. Do you currently write routinely?
  8. How urgent is it for you to finish the doctorate as quickly as possible?
  9. Do you have an idea of what job you would like after you graduate?
  • Is it an ideal to stay in New Zealand, or return home when you graduate, or would you be open to work anywhere in the world?
  • What would you most like to get out of this PhD?
  • How would you most hope that your PhD might help the world?
  • If you had to describe the thesis you would most want yours to be, what is it like?

The first three question prompts intend to alert a novice to the mine-field that they are heading into. A passion for the topic is a great driver, and yet the more intense the passion, the more potential for pain there is if the findings are different from what is hoped for, and the more the candidate must be aware of the ethics of research, the need for honesty. For many candidates, the degree of pre-involvement will not be an issue, but when it is, that should be out on the table before the project begins because considering a possible problem in advance can avoid derailment in the middle of the doctorate. Answers to these three questions may prompt a paragraph of writing which will  clarify awareness—and perhaps find a place in the introduction later.

Question 4 about other responsibilities has a couple of purposes. The answer will cue me in to the candidate’s reality, and that is important for a good relationship. It should also affect consideration of project design, since some ways of gathering data may be out of scope when there’s a need to run a household at the same time. ‘How will this work with your family (or your training schedule and competitions)?’ can be asked of research designs under consideration. A paragraph written about other responsibilities now can be tucked away as potentially useful in the thesis’s defence of methods.

Questions 5, 6 and 7 open up the topic of the role that writing will play over the next few years, and aim to gauge the candidate’s relationship with writing. As supervisor, that writing relationship is important for me to get a feel about, but even more important for the candidate to realise what she is getting into. My meeting with her today is before her official registration. I’ll be raising all the grisly realities I can think of as a duty of care, and then once she registers and we begin the work proper, that will shift to talk that focuses on the way through the realities ahead, including what is hard. In the discourse discipline I work in, Education, there’s commonly an epistemological need to situate yourself in the project, and these questions might also prompt a few sentences about relationship with writing on entry to thesis authorship.

Question 8 allows recognition of how ambitious the scope of the project can and can’t be, and invites talk about regular writing to meet deadlines. Nine and ten guide the shape of the project, namely, as entry points to designing a doctorate that will give expertise likely to be valued in preferred employment options.

Then I hope to encourage a bit of positive visualisation with the last three questions. More importantly, perhaps, they intend to get the candidate thinking practically about the item she will be producing, thinking ahead to what stance she hopes to take, what voice she aspires to produce.

Talking through these points will lead to at least a paragraph of writing and maybe several useful pages. I am hoping that process of writing as a response to questioning teaches the habit of writing as a way of thinking.

You could contribute to this idea with a comment suggesting more questions that might help early candidates to begin writing, thinking, writing….