In this article, I provide a checklist of questions to ask if you’re a PhD student, or points to clarify with your student if you’re a supervisor, as early as possible in the doctoral process. This includes points like how many years, meeting frequency with supervisor, formalities, collaborations, and more.

Why can this checklist be useful for you?

Recently a group in Canada published an impressive review on the topic of doctoral education, Sverdlik et al. 2018 entitled: “The PhD Experience: A Review of the Factors Influencing Doctoral Students’ Completion, Achievement, and Well-Being”; reviewing over 160 papers.

They start with the observation that in North America about 50% of PhD students are dropping out from their doctoral programs. I don’t know how this number compares to other parts of the world, but as they include studies like Levecque et al. 2017 which surveyed over 3600 PhD students in Belgium, I believe that this review is highly relevant for all academics, read my highlights of the whole review here.

Here they go:

“[Supervision is] the most widely researched factor, and considered to be the most influential in the doctoral experience.”

“Whereas most comments concerning supervisors were positive (e.g., joy) and acknowledged their efficiency, support, feedback, and demeanor, it was the discrepancy between supervisors’ and students’ expectations that generated confusion, stress, and anxiety in students.

Sverdlik et al. 2018

Then about departmental structure and organization:

“One issue that consistently arises is a mismatch in values and expectations between the student and the department, an unfortunate situation that can arise from departments not providing students with sufficient information at the admission stage regarding student roles and responsibilities.”

Sverdlik et al. 2018

In other words: many PhD students feel lost and anxious because of a lack of communication with their supervisor and with their department about what each expects. Therefore, let’s try to focus on finding a solution to help you, a PhD student, or you, a supervisor, to engage in a discussion to clarify what these expectations are.

I believe that for each person to get the best out of such a discussion, the best way is:

  1. to have a well-prepared checklist of points to tackle as a support medium to make sure that the discussion is complete and that all students get all the information (for equality)
  2. each person should clarify its own expectations on its side first and should try to consider what the other person might expect
  3. to keep a record of this discussion for reference: write down the answers on paper and each person should keep a copy of the resulting document in order to be able to go back to it and to bring it back for further discussion whenever needed. Indeed, there are some points which are likely to change through the doctoral process like collaborations or career plans.

Altogether this should help each person involved to get heard by the other.

So here you go: find  below the checklist with all the points which I could think of, many which I wish I had clarified earlier in my PhD studies. You can also click here to download it for free as a PDF for easy printing, you can even subscribe to the newsletter to get the Word doc to modify it to your specific needs :)

👇 scroll further down for the checklist 👇

If you’re a PhD student, I know well how scary it sounds to bring up such discussion with your supervisor, especially with an out of the blue checklist like this. I learned in my PhD that many of our fears are quite irrational and that these discussions are less difficult than we think. Try focusing on how much clarity and motivation it could bring.

Maybe not all points need to be discussed in detail right from the start of a PhD, this could even be stressful or distracting for some students. However, I believe that for a supervisor to concretely show openness to such discussion as early as possible will encourage students to ask what preoccupies them early on, creating a true atmosphere of trust.

In addition to reading Sverdlik et al. 2018, I strongly recommend looking at the resources on Maria Gardiner and Hugh Kearns website In particular, you could download for free the “Tools to give to your student” package and look at the “Expectations of Research Supervision” PDF. I used some of their ideas in today’s checklist.

Hoping this checklist can help you :) Feel free to subscribe below:


You might also be interested by my article: How project management can help reducing PhD students’ anxieties.

     👇                                          Get the PDF                                                👇

Checklist to clarify supervisor and PhD student expectations

Over a face-to-face meeting, clarify what is expected for all relevant points below and write down answers on paper. After the meeting, each person involved should keep a copy and bring it back anytime further discussion or adjustments are needed.

PhD general formalities

  • how many years
  • possibility to extend
  • funding conditions
  • salary
Scientific publications

  • number of papers required
  • first author paper
  • published or submitted
  • types of journal aimed
  • preprint, arXiv?
Written thesis formalities

  • length requirement
  • format (can it includes papers as they are)
  • will the supervisor correct the thesis before submission
  • need supervisor approval before submission
  • admin procedure from submission to defense
Defense formalities

  • how long for presenting
  • how long for questions
  • deliberation, decision
  • public/private defense

Thesis committee formalities

  • committee during PhD thesis
  • committee at defense
  • how many people & who chooses them
  • requirement for internal and external experts
  • timing and frequency of committee meetings
Other official or unofficial supervision

e.g. from a postdoc, a senior PhD student, a lab manager, a technician

  • degree of involvement and role
  • what is expected from the PhD student towards this other person
Collaboration within & outside the lab

e.g. with other PhD students, postdocs…

  • how tight is the collaboration
  • what is expected from each person actively involved in the project
  • what can each person expect to obtain from the collaboration and the project completion (e.g. authorship)
  • is there a risk for the persons involved not to go along well and what to do in such case
Formalities of research project(s)

is it the student or the supervisor responsibility:

  • to define the research topic
  • to decide the methodology used
  • to define a project outline with objectives, milestones and checkpoints
  • to check that the project is on track
  • to decide on project plan adjustments
  • administrative aspects
  • are there requirements and restrictions according to funding agencies
Presentations and posters

  • requirement and possibilities
  • presentation within the institute
  • presentation outside the institute
  • possibilities to get grants for international conferences

  • requirements or possibilities (incl. supervising a bachelor or master student)
Transferable skills training

  • requirements or possibilities
Career plan

  • ideas, wishes, goals
  • what actions can be initiated already now
  • how to allocate time for it
Social activities

  • within the doctoral program
  • within the institute
  • within the lab
  • other
  • general recommendations
Should another meeting be scheduled to discuss some of these points again? For example, in 6 months?