1. It’s Your Thesis and Nobody Else’s
This sounds like a self-evident thing, right? Surprisingly often, it is not. So what does it mean in terms of how to make your thesis supervision work for you to say that it is your thesis and not your supervisor’s? It means of course that you do all the required parts of the thesis from literature review to the data analysis and the interpretation of the results. But it also means something more than that. It means taking intellectual responsibility of your thesis. Most of the time, your supervisor (at least if it’s me), will give you suggestions, not orders. It’s up to you to decide how you implement them.
If I ask you, for example, to write something in a clearer way, you are the one who has to figure out how to make this happen in actual sentences that you type on your keyboard. If I leave comment in the margins of your thesis asking for you to build a clearer bridge between two paragraphs and you respond to it by writing a comment like “But how?”, the answer to the question is that I won’t tell you. That’s why I’m your supervisor, not your co-author. Your job in writing a thesis is to figure out some things out all by yourself. You need to try and build that clearer bridge, not ask your supervisor to do it for you. If you are still stuck with building this metaphorical bridge after trying, then ask your supervisor. Perhaps they can help you think of some ways to make it happen.
You will make the most out of your thesis supervision and -writing as well as ensure a functioning working relationship with your supervisor, if you from the beginning, at every step of the process, remember that it is your thesis, not theirs. That being said, if you are a BSc or a MSc thesis writer, I do recommend that you always take into account the concrete and specific suggestions of your supervisor, whether they are about doing some part of your analysis differently or reading a specific article. Doing a PhD is a bit different and might occasionally require you to be more independent and even deviate from the suggestions of your supervisor. Sometimes this turns out to be a mistake, sometimes not.
However, I’m by no means arguing that supervisors know everything or that their advice is always flawless. The advice you get from me as a supervisor is not a word of Divine truth but rather a well-informed opinion on something. Doing research is a dynamic and complex process, not a school exercise where things are right or wrong and advance in a linear manner. I’m going to tell you more about that in the next chapter.
2. Have a Flexible Mindset and Tolerance for Dynamic Processes
Research is never a linear and simple process. Doing a thesis is not like taking a multiple choice exam, where an answer is either correct or not. In all likelihood, writing your BSc or MSc thesis is your first experience of doing something that resembles real world research. Welcome to the world of dynamic and complex processes!
I supervise only qualitative theses, that is, works that analyze textual data. My own research has been mainly qualitative, because I have always been most interested in how people talk about things and how they build different phenomena in their verbal interactions. In other words, for me, the most meaningful data is verbal and stems from for example therapy conversations, interviews, or reading groups. Thus, I’m very happy to be acting as a first supervisor in different kinds of qualitative thesis projects. If you want to learn more about qualitative research, you can look for example here.
I might venture to say that the world of qualitative research is even more dynamic than that of quantitative. This means many things. It means that you might decide your actual research question and analytical method only after having already read through all of your transcribed interviews. It means that you might have started happily conducting a Discourse Analysis on transcribed sessions of reading group meetings, while you realize that this method is too detailed and takes you theoretically to a direction where you don’t want to go. Then you switch to Thematic Analysis and do everything again from the start. You will probably write your method section only after you have actually finalized your results, because the back-and-forth, iterative movement between data, analysis, and literature causes the research process to be complex. You cannot articulate what and how you did until you are ready with the results. I could give you more examples, but I think you get the point. So what does all this mean in terms of your thesis supervision?
It means that you will get something that students call “conflicting feedback”. Sometimes, my students complain that my feedback changes from session to session and conflicts with what the second supervisor says. You know what, I would be worried if that was not the case! If the supervisor does not write different and even conflicting comments in the margins of your different thesis versions and if the feedback does not change at all from session to session, it might be because of two things. Either the supervisor is not really reading your thesis and/or has decided only to feedback a certain section once and no more. The other option is that you are stuck with your process and the thesis is not going through the journey it should. There is simply not enough there to give conflicting comments about!
A thesis is a complex piece of work. If you change something in your conclusions and how you discuss them, it probably means something needs to be changed in the introduction. If you change how to present your results, you might have to tinker with something in the method section. From this it often follows that at one point your supervisor will tell you to do X and in the next phase they change their mind and tell you to do Y. In many cases, you will get feedback about your introduction before you have your results figured out. It’s obvious that the introduction needs to be edited once you have the results down. Changing even a small section of your thesis might cause a domino effect requiring further changes made elsewhere in the work. In this kind of scenario, a good supervisor changes the feedback they gave earlier and tells you something different. This might feel like it’s contradictory, but it might still make sense in the bigger picture when you think about it.
In addition, remember that your supervisor is not there reading your thesis over your shoulder all the time. The versions the supervisor sees might be months apart from each other. When the student says “But you said something completely different last time!”, the answer is “Yes I did, but your thesis wasn’t the same then.”
In the world of research, contradictory feedback is the usual feedback you get. This is because normally, you will have several different people looking at your paper and sharing their thoughts of it. Let’s look at how things work outside thesis writing, in the world of peer-reviewed research papers. You will have two experts reviewing your paper. They will not know whose paper they are reading and you will never get to know who these reviewers are. In the usual case, the Reviewer 1 loves something and the Reviewer 2 hates it. The Reviewer 1 tells you to not include certain kind of literature in your discussion and the Reviewer 2 will tell you put more of it there. You get the point? It’s up to the researcher to decide which advice to apply and how, and whether it is possible to find a middle ground that meets the wishes of both reviewers.
In the same way, if you have two supervisors, you are actually lucky if they give you some contradicting feedback. That means you have more than one possible perspective to think about and more than one road to walk! Often, your 1st and 2nd supervisor might have different research interests in their own work and have experience from completely different kinds of analytical methods. They are also just two different human beings. In addition, since a thesis is not a multiple choice exam where answers are either correct or not, your supervisors are more than likely to say different things about your thesis. In the case of your supervisor giving mutually exclusive and completely conflicting advice, the obvious next step is to have an open and transparent conversation about what is the best course of action. Chances are that you will find a good solution as to what to do next by just negotiating, and that’s all that matters in the end.
What I wish to say is that the core in how to make your thesis supervision work for you is having a flexible mindset and being ready for things changing along the journey. Don’t expect the supervision and the feedback you get to be entirely predictable and black-and-white. You are not doing basic calculus where the supervisor can say “right” or “wrong”. Allow the journey to happen with some unexpected turns along the way.
3. Always Maintain Your Professional Attitude
Writing a thesis is not always easy and fun. There will be days of frustration, anger, even despair. In fact, if you don’t at any point feel like you are lost and don’t understand what you are doing, then you are probably not venturing much outside of your comfort zone. As a supervisor, I always try my best to be understanding and compassionate about the personal struggles of the students. Being kind and understanding is also a professional skill and very important in academia that can be quite cold and harsh sometimes. It’s not always easy to stay polite, calm, and nice when to-do’s keep piling up and the stress levels are peaking, but I will always make an effort to stay that way. I hope you will, too.
A professional attitude means that you behave like a polite, mature human being. You take responsibility, respect other people’s time and effort, do what you promise when you promise. Supervisors need to respect their students and students need to respect their supervisors. Without a respectful and professional attitude, no good theses will be written.
In practice, what I mean with maintaining a professional attitude is that you don’t accuse your supervisor for things such as not making sure you can get a high degree or a green light (the official ok to defend your thesis at a colloquium). Sometimes I have heard students accuse their first supervisor for not telling them earlier that they will not be getting a green light for their thesis. This accusation does not make any sense. A green light decision is, at my current university, reached independently by two supervisors. It is given for the version of the thesis the student hands in for their last supervision meeting before “colloquium”, the event where they present their thesis and answer questions about it. The student cannot be told that they are or are not going to get a green light before they actually hand in the last draft of their thesis, the green light version.
In a similar vein, your supervisor cannot promise you a certain grade. They can probably tell you what kind of a grade you would approximately be getting with a certain version of the thesis. However, thesis drafts change all the time. I have seen cases where a relatively decent thesis becomes worse between two meetings, because the student misunderstands crucial feedback. I have also seen how a relatively decent thesis becomes mind-blowingly good in just a couple of weeks. Your supervisor might be a fantastic scholar, but they are not a fortune teller. Hence, don’t ask for a certain grade and don’t assume anything. If you are disappointed about a grade, ask for clarifications for why it was given. Just don’t assume that your supervisor is grading you low because they are mean and don’t care about you.
Examples of non-professional behavior are more than complaining about your grade. Other things I would avoid are sending out countless emails to the supervisor to ask questions to which you need to find an answer yourself. Another thing is not taking into account the feedback your supervisor is giving. I have heard about (but not personally supervised) students who think that they are on top of the academic world and their supervisor is stuck in the Middle Ages. Let me inform you that if you are doing an MSc thesis, then your supervisor has a PhD. Having a PhD in most cases nowadays means having published at least two peer-reviewed scientific articles at the time of the PhD thesis defense. A BSc or a MSc thesis is not a peer-reviewed scientific article.
Try to see your supervisor as an expert of whose knowledge you can benefit in your thesis rather than as someone you need to compete with or challenge. In many cases, when a student thinks they are very smart in challenging their professor, it is actually quite an embarrassing event to be witnessing. Humbleness is a very useful quality in academia in general. It means you know where your limits are and are willing to expand them by learning from others who have already walked further on their journey.
What If There Is No Way to Make Your Thesis Supervision Work for You?
It’s time to acknowledge that not all supervisor-student -relationships are fruitful and functional. What does it mean to be professional in case things are just not working out between you and your supervisor? Well, let’s first think about what it means that things are not working. Is your supervisor skipping meetings that you know you are entitled to have? Are you not getting any feedback at all? Is your supervisor acting in a disrespectful way towards you? After trying to discuss the issue with your supervisor directly, do not hesitate to contact other people at your department.
Different universities and departments have different protocols on these things. If the university’s website doesn’t help you to figure out who to talk to, try the study advisor, your second supervisor, or the thesis coordinator. Ask someone -anyone!- what to do.
You don’t need to tolerate substandard supervision. I myself asked to have my supervisor changed during my Master’s, because he would never reply my emails, would not organize the meetings I knew I had a right to, and acted disrespectfully. The new supervisor was great and I ended up doing a decent job. End of story.
Sometimes professional behavior entails asking difficult questions and confronting someone directly about how they do their job. Just be aware that supervision is a two-line highway. I will myself not hesitate to tell a student if they are out of line when example complaining about a no green light decision or are sending me too many emails with questions that they could try asking Google first.
Last Words on How To Make Your Thesis Supervision Work for You
I cannot speak for all supervisors in the world, but as a supervisor, I really hope that you will always tell me if you are stuck, lost, confused, or anything like that with your thesis. Tell me if you didn’t understand some feedback or if you need extra help in finding relevant literature. One of the most important rules of acting professionally is that you are honest, open, and ask for what you need. If I don’t know where my student is mentally or academically, I cannot guide them to the best of my capacity.
Lastly, I want to say that I hope writing a good thesis is important to you. If you are not interested or motivated about your thesis, the supervisor should know. Perhaps there is something to be done to make the process more inspiring.
Being a thesis supervisor is a very important job for me, and I take pride in doing it extremely well. I care about the students and their theses (to see how another professor from a different discipline also cares about their supervisees by writing out some rules of engagement, check here). That’s why you are always welcome to give me feedback, too. That is the only way to keep growing in what one is doing!