Supervision of the Dissertation1


Knowing what you can expect from your supervisor in terms of support is vital when you start the dissertation module and when you start working on your dissertation. It may not be particularly easy to forge a relationship with a member of staff in your department, for example if he/she has never taught you, or if he/she is very busy. Crucially, all departments are different; this applies to their expectations, their deadlines, and their staff. In this section, you will find the basics of what you should be able to expect from your supervisor.

The role of the supervisor

The introduction of any new approach to learning, such as the dissertation, can be an unsettling experience for students and you will inevitably be challenged by undertaking such a piece of independent study. In order to help students progress through this challenging task, most university departments allocate students with a personal supervisor and individual supervision sessions throughout the duration of the project.

Role of Supervisor

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The role of the supervisor

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Findings from our research
In our study tutors talked about their experiences of supervising undergraduate dissertation students. Many described the dissertation as a ‘journey’, seeing their role as facilitating that ‘journey’ and making their students’ plans achievable, rather than directing the student to take a particular route. One lecturer said:
I think my role is essentially to try and help make their project realisable, rather than impose something on them (Todd, Smith and Bannister, 2006, p166)

Remember this is your project. Your supervisor is there to guide, not to tell you exactly what to do!

Often you will be allocated a dissertation supervisor who has some expertise in the area you have chosen. However, this will not always be possible, either because you have selected an area where there is no expert within your department or because a particularly popular area may result in overloading a few specialists in your chosen area.

Note that your supervisor will normally have a timetabled allowance for dissertation supervision, so make sure you take advantage of it. Take the initiative in approaching your supervisor and do not wait to be asked! You should make a point of contacting your supervisor at least once a month - do not let things drift!

You can be given assistance in understanding specific aspects of methodological technique and general guidance on, for instance, construction of a questionnaire. Your supervisor can be expected to read first drafts of chapters in some detail but to comment on later and final versions only in a general sense.

Supervisor's expectations of students

Your dissertation supervisor is there to supervise your work in progress. The official allocation of time for this work will vary from institution to institution. Do check what the arrangements are for your own department. However, it is important to make a clear agreement with your supervisor about how the supervision will occur. Meetings in the absence of any written work being completed are not generally an effective use of time, as you are wasting your allocated hours. If you have a question to ask or a point to check, then an email will usually suffice. On the other hand, writing a good chunk of material and submitting it before your meeting means that the supervisor will have had the opportunity to read and comment upon it. It is often a useful idea to arrange to have some time as soon as possible after a supervision session so that you can follow up on the comments. Successful students have also found that it is helpful at the end of each supervision session to plan out clearly the next stage of work and the target dates.

If you work closely with your supervisor in this way you can have confidence that your final work will be of a satisfactory standard.

Effective supervision may also enable your supervisor to identify where expertise in the department may be available to support your work, beyond the supervisor themselves. This applies both to areas of specialist knowledge, as well as to research expertise.

Finally, it is important to remember that the dissertation needs to represent a body of individual study and research which is fit for its purpose but which, as a document, also demonstrates internal and intellectual congruence. Poorly conducted research is always unethical and the study must demonstrate that it conforms to the requirements of governance.

But remember - the supervisor's duty is to guide you so that you can produce your best effort, and not to assist with continual revision until the dissertation has acquired a certain grade that you may have as a target. Thus, the supervisor's approval of your progress cannot be taken to imply any particular grade or classification. You should not request this of your supervisor at any stage of the dissertation module.

Note: It should be stressed that the dissertation is yours and should represent your work; not that of you and your supervisor. You are expected to work independently and to present a dissertation at the end of the year, which says to staff, 'This is what I can do. Assess it.'


Case Study 10 Managing sensitive topics in dissertation supervision: a personal view

Changing supervisors

Once you are allocated to a supervisor, it is not normally possible to change this arrangement. On rare occasions, however, a student may find that she/he cannot work with the allocated supervisor. In the first instance, the student should try to discuss the difficulties with the supervisor and attempt to resolve these through some agreed action plan. If, after this, it becomes evident that the relationship has broken down irrevocably, you should contact directly the Dissertation Tutor or whoever is responsible for the module to discuss other possible arrangements. It is important to sort out such difficulties as soon as possible.


Key Questions

Further Reading

BELL, J. (2005). Doing your research project: A guide for first time researchers in education, health and social sciences. 4th ed., Maidenhead, Open University Press, chapter 2
TODD, M. J.; SMITH, K. and BANNISTER, P. (2006). Supervising a social science undergraduate dissertation: staff experiences and perceptions. Teaching in Higher Education, 11(2), 161-173


© Dr Malcolm Todd (Leeds Met), Ian Baker (Sheffield Hallam University), Julia Waldman, Dr Anne Hollows (Sheffield Hallam University)


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