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Working with Your Dissertation Supervisor

The role of the dissertation supervisor is to guide you through the process of your research project. Your supervisor may or may not have taught you before, but what’s certain is that she’s done a dissertation (or two) before and will be able to help you with yours.

Most courses do their best to allocate a dissertation supervisor at an early stage. (If you don’t hear anything after the first few weeks back at university, contact the person leading the course to see if you’ve missed something or a problem has arisen.)

Communicating with your dissertation supervisor

Putting in a bit of effort in building rapport with your supervisor is going to make working on your dissertation a much more pleasant and enjoyable experience. Getting along well with your supervisor is good for your spirits and helps in keeping you motivated in seeing your dissertation through right to the end.

You’re likely to impress your supervisor if you first make contact with her by email or phone, giving an outline of your dissertation or at least offering some kind of work plan. Emphasise that your plan isn’t set in stone but that you’ve thought long and hard about your research question and done some preliminary reading. Providing your supervisor with this information shows initiative, but also shows you still need your supervisor’s valuable support.

Aim at always being polite and considerate when you’re with your supervisor. Don’t try to be too familiar – better to err on the side of formality until you've had a few meetings and got to know the way she works. Politeness goes a long way, as does enthusiasm! Put yourself in your supervisor’s place and imagine the effect your positive attitude has over a negative one.

Universities have different rules, guidelines and expectations for how supervisors and students work together. From your experience at school or college you’re likely to have some idea of how things run at your institution. A few things to sort out include:

  • Checking whether your tutors have drop-in times or whether you need to make an appointment to see your supervisor.

  • Making yourself known to your course administrators, who can help you to get in touch with your supervisor if she doesn’t get back to you after a long wait.

  • Finding out about what support systems are available for students with dyslexia and other disabilities.

  • Getting in touch with your supervisor – find out from your course administrator whether your supervisor prefers phone or email contact.

If you aren’t familiar with the way your university or institution operates for meeting with your supervisor and other tutors, find out right now, preferably from fellow students or from support staff. It’s your responsibility be clear about how your university works on a day-to-day basis.

Write your emails in proper English, using full sentences and capital letters, and avoiding text-`speak at all costs. Say what you have to say concisely and as briefly as possible. Don’t bombard your supervisor with lots of attachments or really long messages, but do remember to say that you’ve been getting on with some research, or preparation, and that you’re familiar with the course requirements.

Even if things aren't going too well for you and your dissertation, try to avoid just moaning and whining. Supervisors are generally keen to help and your supervisor isn’t going to be able to do anything for you unless you explain clearly that you have some problems.

General dissatisfaction, feeling that things just aren't working out, non-specific misery and being irritated are understandable, but you need to put your supervisor in a position to be able to help you. Analyse what's not working before your next session with your supervisor.

No one expects you to solve your problems on your own. Again, try some empathy – your supervisor is going to be more eager to help if you present her with all the facts in a calm and reasoned manner.

Ask sensible questions about your dissertation

If you need to get answers to questions about your dissertation most of the answers are likely to be found in the guidelines you’ve already picked up. If you can’t find the answer in the guidelines you can then ask your supervisor for help.

Although there’s no such thing as a stupid question when setting out into the unknown that is your dissertation you certainly shouldn’t ask your supervisor unnecessary, irritating and exasperating questions that only serve to wind up your supervisor and giving yourself a poor image.

For example, asking about the length of your bibliography is a reasonable question to ask your supervisor, because your bibliography is key to your project. But asking what the hand-in date is, or whether you need to put the course on the title page of your dissertation is, unsurprisingly, likely to annoy your supervisor.

When asking questions the general rule is to to try to find the answer to your question in the rules and regulations first. Ask your supervisor about the practical issues relating to your dissertation only if you’ve exhausted all other avenues. Make your questions specific, to show that you’ve been thinking about what to do.

Your supervisor is there to give you specific and useful commentary on your writing and ideas, and you need to note your supervisor’s suggestions and act upon them. A supervisor isn’t there to do your work for you.

Following your supervisor’s comments and advice is likely to improve your dissertation. You can expect your grades to rise by 5 to 10 per cent if you do what your supervisor suggests – a more dramatic improvement is unrealistic (although possible of course).

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