Your dissertation supervisor

What is a dissertation supervisor?

A dissertation supervisor is the member of faculty assigned to oversee your completion of the dissertation. They will act as an academic and pastoral supervisor, ensuring that you are on course to complete your dissertation to the highest standard possible. You are often simply assigned a supervisor, who will most likely be one of the tutors who has taught you over the course of your studies at university; however you may be able to select your supervisor at some universities.

These supervisors are allocated to you and your class mates based on their own area of expertise, in order to ensure that they are the most qualified to give you advice and oversee your research. Although these are usually picked by your course, getting the right supervisor is partly your responsibility. This is usually because supervisors are matched up with you based on the dissertation proposal you are asked to write, which outlines briefly what you are intending to research. So it is advisable that you have a rough idea of what you want to write about.

Why do I need a supervisor?

You will hear the odd success story about a student who wrote their dissertation without any outside help and received a high mark. These are not only extremely rare cases, but it is either far too good to be true or that individual was a very lucky student. Do not assume that you can go it alone, because you can’t. This is not because you are not clever enough, but because you need a safety net in case things go wrong. Saving a failing dissertation is not a struggle you want to face on your own, especially with all the other assignments you have to get done. Your supervisor is your life line and is solely there to help you. Do yourself a favour and make the most of your supervisor.

What makes a good supervisor?

Your supervisor is there to act as a guru for all things dissertation related. Although the entire teaching staff on your course is at your disposal, your supervisor is your partner in crime who is there to push you in the right direction and make sure you don’t fall into a dead end with your research.

Your supervisor must be:

  • Available: The most obvious trait a good supervisor must have is that they can give you the time you need. Unfortunately you will have to accept the fact that they cannot be there for you 24 hours a day, but there is a reasonable amount of time that they should respond to your emails and phone messages. They should also be encouraging you to meet up with them to discuss your dissertation and see how you are getting on. These face to face meetings should occur at least once a week.
  • Approachable: Your supervisor should be patient with you (unless you really need a kick up the backside) and realise that you probably have never undertaken a project like this and need to be reassured and made to feel confident in your work.
  • Challenging: A good dissertation is one that really digs deep into your subject area and offers a new perspective and enlightening research to consider for future study. This is why it is good to have a supervisor who can challenge your research and help you see alternative ways of approaching the subject. This may seem frustrating at times, especially when the deadline is looming, but it will encourage you to defend your research and obtain a deeper understanding of your subject area.

Meeting with your supervisor

You should aim to meet up with your supervisor at least once a week to discuss your dissertation or correspond with them regularly by phone or email. Even if everything is going smoothly and you don’t really need help, it’s a good idea to explain to your supervisor any results you have found or show them any completed sections you have done. By doing this, your supervisor can advise on other factors for you to consider and they can also be aware of any problems you may be getting into and not realise it. Remember, your supervisor has probably helped a number of students like you with their dissertations, so they can sense when things are about to go wrong or when you need to rethink your research.

The important thing is that you make the most of the time you have with your supervisor. You can do this by not going to your meetings empty handed. Make sure you bring all the work, or just the parts you want to talk about, with you so that you have an informed discussion about your research. Without seeing what you have done, your supervisor may not be able to advise you on whether you are going in the right direction.

Furthermore, before you go to your meeting, have questions ready to ask them. Do not be embarrassed if you are really stuck; better to ask now than later when it may be too close to the deadline. There are no stupid questions when it comes to dissertations and your supervisor is there to answer every one.

Should I change my tutor?

Supervisors are not only there to give you advice, they are there to make your dissertation writing process easier. If you find that they are in fact doing the opposite and are just making you stressed and confused, then something is definitely wrong. If your supervisor chooses to make themselves unavailable, cannot find time to meet up with you or you feel that they are giving you bad advice, you do not have to put up with it. Make your issues known with your supervisor in a polite manner, perhaps in an email where you can outline the problem. Do not undersell the importance of you receiving the best support available to write your dissertation; you do not need the extra stress.

If you are not comfortable with confronting your supervisor, then go and speak to either your course director to share your concerns. It is their job to make sure that you are getting the most from your degree, so there is no doubt that they would be very interested to hear the problems you have with your supervisor.

However, and this can happen to some students, your supervisor may in fact be the course director. This makes things a little awkward. The best thing to do in this case is to go to the tutor who taught you in your dissertation writing seminars, as they were probably the ones who allocated you to your supervisor.

In any case, do not suffer in silence or stop going to your supervisor all together. Get the problem sorted quickly.