You and your supervisor: Making your dissertation work for you
Let’s say you’re thinking about your dissertation but you have some questions regarding how a supervisory relationship will work. I had questions too when I started the third year of my undergraduate degree, so I thought I’d outline some of the main things to consider when choosing and working with a dissertation supervisor.
Firstly, if you’re undertaking a final year project or dissertation, a supervisor is the member of staff who will act as the main point of contact throughout the writing process. In the sciences, you may be allocated a member of staff who researches the project that you have bid for. In the humanities, it is more likely that you will pick your own research, and choose a supervisor that researches a topic similar to the one you would like to investigate. Postgraduate taught students will select a supervisor in a similar format, and PhD students will often have more than one supervisor.
When you’ve got an idea of the historical period or subject you would like to write your dissertation on, it’s a good idea to meet potential supervisors before you make your nominations. Set up meetings with members of staff that align the closest with your intended direction of research. At your meetings, these are some things to ask:
· How available will you be to meet, answer emails and offer guidance this year/semester?
· Will I be required to meet with you on a regular basis, or are you happy for me to check in with you as needed?
· How would you describe your supervisory style?
· Do you think my research interests align with yours?
Some potential supervisors may be intending to go on a research sabbatical, meaning they may not be as available for supervisory meetings. If your research doesn’t align with a particular member of staff’s expertise, they should point you towards other lecturers who they think are a more suitable fit. Your course director may also offer advice on which staff are best suited to you, but make sure to do a bit of background research. Staff will have information on their publications, teaching and research interests, so check those out before you arrange to meet.
Once you’ve had those conversations, it’ll be time to make your choice. Undergraduates seem to have a random chance of being paired with a supervisor that’s actually relevant to their research, at least that’s the case at my university. I nominated a supervisor when I submitted my final proposal, but I was initially paired with someone that had nothing to do with my subject, which was military women in the early twentieth century. I’m not sure why, but over the summer my supervisor was changed to someone who researched in the twentieth century, so definitely a better fit.
If you don’t get the supervisor(s) that you wanted, understand that there may be a heavy majority of students that were interested in being paired with a select number of staff, so everyone has to take their fair share of dissertation supervisions. It may be disappointing, and I knew of several friends who felt disadvantaged by having a supervisor that wasn’t familiar with their topic. Unfortunately, there often isn’t anything that you can do about it, so it’s important to be very organised with your research and writing, as you’ll be doing most of this on your own.
For postgraduate students, it’s more likely that you’ll get your choice of supervisor as the course is often made up of less people, but remember that your research has to fill a larger dissertation project, so your initial abstract needs to be as detailed as possible.
Managing a supervisory relationship alongside researching, writing and other modules will be something that is left largely up to you. Some universities require that you book and record a specific number of supervisions per semester, and others let you decide how often you need to see your supervisor. Some staff members will wish to meet regularly to check on your progress, set deadlines and make sure that you’re on track. Personally, I was left to get on with it at undergrad, checking in with my supervisor when I had completed a chunk of writing, or wanted to check formatting. Whatever approach your supervisor takes, be sure to keep them updated with regular emails regarding your progress and any issues that you’re having with your research.
Submitting a section of your dissertation for your supervisor to read is very important, as it will probably be the only chance your supervisor has to read some of your work before submission. I submitted a 3500-word section of my undergrad dissertation, and went to a meeting a few weeks later to go through it with my supervisor. This meeting was probably the most helpful one I had, as I received reassurance that I was on the right track and hitting the level of the marking criteria I wanted to achieve. I also took comments on my writing style on board when I was writing the rest of my dissertation, and the meeting also motivated me to finish on time!
If a meeting doesn’t go well, take some time to reflect on why. Supervisors may not understand the core research you are doing (it should have some element of originality after all) or you may not be progressing fast enough. Try not to take it personally. A dissertation is probably the longest thing you’ll ever write, and staff want you to do well, especially if you’re aiming for a first-class degree. Take a step back, take the feedback on board and make plans for the future.
Supervisors often mark your dissertation. Others will too, but your supervisor will have the closest understanding of your research, writing style and general ability. It’s important to remain in regular contact with your supervisor for this reason, as the better they get to know you, the more they will fight for you. There’s no need to schmooze or be creepy, just meet regularly, take feedback on board and show some ownership of your work. When you get your final feedback, have a think back to the beginning of the year and reflect on how far you’ve come!
I will say that dissertations are often worth a large percentage of your last year, and are completed largely at a distance. There may be a small presentation and a few general lectures, but your supervisor will be the main member of staff who sees you through the process. Learning to work independently on a subject that you’re interested in is a real skill that will benefit you in the future, so I’d encourage you to give it a good shot even if writing isn’t your favourite part of your degree course. If you’re aiming for a first-class overall, your dissertation is a key moment to prove yourself in your final year, so go for it!
Setting your expectations as to what your time as a supervised student will be like is just as important as championing yourself if you feel something isn’t right. You have a right to a good support network throughout your time as a student, so don’t be afraid to bring any issues to the attention of your personal tutor, module convenor or head of school as soon as possible.
I hope this post has been useful in explaining a little about what supervisions will involve. Whether you’re an undergraduate or a postgraduate, your dissertation should be a highlight of your degree experience, so be consistent, stay in touch and ask for help when you need it.