A dissertation or research project is normally par for the course on degree programmes. In my experience, it is a source of anxiety for many students and I’m in no doubt that this one module can act as a barrier to undertaking a University degree course.
However, what students don’t often realise is that you will be allocated a supervisor to support you with this work. To help you understand the crucial supervisor-supervisee relationship, this article summarises what supervision is in this context, and highlights some of the characteristics of a good supervisor, as well as what makes a good supervisee. There are also tips for getting a dissertation going and managing your relationship with your supervisor. Hopefully this will make the prospect of completing a research dissertation less daunting and/or help you improve your existing supervisor-supervisee relationship.
What is supervision?
There are so many answers to this question, it is hard to know where to start. Supervision transcends lots of roles and situations but, in the context of a University dissertation, your supervisor is the member of staff allocated to you to support you to complete your project. Typically, their role is to advise you on the project (e.g. research design, ethics, and comment on drafts). Note, they are not there to tell you what to do (although you might want to listen to their comments as these will be made with the aim to help you improve the project). Perhaps more importantly, they are not there to do the project for you (you’d be surprised how many students think this!). Often your supervisor will only have a limited number of hours allocated to support your work (e.g. 10 hours) so you need to use the time wisely.
What makes a good supervisor?
When I asked my students this in a recent teaching session I was inundated with answers! They were getting close to handing in their dissertations so were quite far down the supervisory journey and had a lot to say about it. Here’s a summary of their thoughts on this:
- Sensitivity – e.g. understand the contest in which the supervisee is working and whether there might be other factors that the supervisee may not be aware of
- Communication is key – personally I would argue that being an “active” listener is one of the most important things I can do as a supervisor. For example, what is the student interested in? Have they got a workable idea for their project? For students, this extended to the more mundane (but equally important things) like answering emails quickly.
- Does not misuse power – i.e. operates a non-oppressive supervisory process
- Able to give constructive criticism
- Experienced but open to learning – e.g. from supervisees, from new situations
What makes a good supervisee?
When in class, this question often surprises students. There is often an emphasis on the supervisor “doing their job properly” and “providing support” but supervision is a two way relationship and we have expectations of you too. This includes (in no particular order):
- Able to set goals and stick to them – the ability to set your own goals and work diligently to meet these agreed objectives is a key expectation. For example, if you say you are going to complete your ethics form by X date, then do it.
- Good time keeping – if you organise a meeting with me, have the curtesy to turn up on time (or let me know if you are running late). Sometimes students work on the basis that because they pay fees I work for them. Whilst I appreciate this perspective, I cannot emphasise enough that this is not true. I work to support all students, not just one. My time is not indefinite and students should not take it for granted that I am available to meet them on a whim.
- Good time keeping II – maybe this one should say patience. Basically if you want me to read a draft of something and comment on it, don’t send it to me the night before the deadline. Give me time and space to read it properly. Not only does this mean I’m more likely to do it and perhaps provide more detailed feedback as I have more time, it also allows you time to act on that feedback.
- Respond to feedback – whilst we are on the topic of feedback, let’s talk about how important it is to make changes in response to feedback. I have lost count of the number of times I have spent hours reading a draft and providing detailed feedback on content, structure, writing style etc. only to find no changes are made in the final version. Ok, a student can choose whether to make changes or not (after all, it is their project) but it is hugely frustrating to feel you have wasted valuable time commenting on a draft (often when you were busy and could have been doing something else) only to find that changes are not made or (even worse) are limited to correcting typos and referencing errors.
- Take criticism – no-one likes to receive criticism but a supervisor would be neglecting their role if they didn’t highlight weaknesses in your work. This can be hard to stomach but remember that by thinking objectively about the feedback and making changes will only act to strengthen your work.
- Have the ability to identify their own strengths and developments – speaks for itself!
- Open and honest – e.g. communicating any issues they are experiencing. You don’t have to tell me the details of your personal problems but knowing they exist helps.
- Takes initiative – I love it when a student comes in with a brand new idea rather than rehashes a study already done many times before. It is much easier to get enthusiastic about your project if it is something new.
- Considers ways to overcome problems – if something is challenging and you turn up to your meeting with your supervisor with some ideas on how to fix the problem, this is ideal.
After a (very informal!) canvas of colleagues’ views, here are some of the tips they had for making the most of your dissertation project and managing your supervisor-supervisee relationship.
- Pick the right topic – choosing a dissertation topic can be daunting. However, in my experience, getting this right is half the battle with a dissertation project as it is 10 times easier to motivate yourself to work on something you are interested in! Don’t be afraid to think outside the box – you’ll get extra credit for being innovative and creative. “Hot Topics” can also be a good bet.
- Be realistic – the most obvious example I can give here is topic selection. Is what you are suggesting likely to get ethical approval? Is it achievable in the timescales you have to complete the project? I think my favourite example of an undergraduate project which I did not allow a student to undertake was from a meeting which started with the immortal words “I want to interview serial killers…”
- Don’t let it slide – dissertation deadlines fall at the end of the academic year and, despite early warnings that these deadlines will come around quickly, many students still have a mad panic close to the deadline trying to get everything finished.
- Time management – related to the above but perhaps with some more practical pointers. Picture the scene, close to a deadline, a student has a crisis. They email their supervisor at 11pm on a Sunday evening when your deadline is Monday 4pm. Do you really expect an answer?!! Perhaps surprising, this happens all the time – just a few weeks ago I got a phone call at 9:30am asking why I had not responded to an email which had been sent in the early hours of that morning…
- Be realistic II – Supervisors will typically aim to respond as quickly as they can. However, you need to be realistic about timescales for this. Especially over the summer. Especially when you are waiting for feedback. Remember it is unlikely your supervisor is only supervising you. Therefore, when you are thinking they only need to read you 5000 word draft, they might actually need to read 10 or 15 5000 word drafts (plus anything else they are working on).
- Don’t wait until you are having a crisis before asking for support.
- Be prepared – if you arrange a meeting with your supervisor, make sure you go prepared. You would be surprised how many supervisees I have who ask for a meeting but come with no agenda (and sometimes even no pen!)
- Make notes – remember to keep a record of meetings, e.g. what was discussed, what your actions are, what your supervisors actions are. A dissertation is a long term project and it is likely you will forget the specifics agreed in early meetings if you don’t have a record of what was discussed.
- Act on feedback provided – don’t just read it, act on it.
- Keep in touch – provide your supervisor with regular updates (even if there is little to report). This gives them an oversight of your progress. Also, reply to your supervisor when they email you!
A good supervisor – supervisee relationship can help ensure your dissertation journey is a positive one so it is important to work to ensure that you build and maintain a strong working relationship. Your supervisor is there to support you – just remember their role is to guide and support you, not to do your project for you.
Working with your dissertation supervisor
By: Dr Amy Burrell
Amy holds a BSc in Applied Psychology, an MSc in Forensic Behavioural Science, and a PhD in Forensic Psychology. Amy is a Lecturer in Forensic Psychology at Coventry University and can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org She was previously the Training Manager for Perpetuity Training who specialise in security training (see www.perpetuitytraining.com) and is also involved in the Crime Linkage International NetworK (C-LINK) (see www.crimelinkage.org)