Eight tips to effectively supervise students during their Master's thesis

Jul 30, 2021 PhD

I am a fan of knowledge transfer between peers, teaching what I know to others and learning back from them. At University I frequently helped my fellow course mates with the material, so I was very interested in formally mentoring students when I started my PhD. Luckily my supervisor, who is really talented at this, agreed to let me help him with supervising some Master’s theses. In this article, also published as a Nature Career Column , I present eight lessons that I learned by watching him at work and trying on my own.

I supervised three Master’s students in the past year. One of them was quite good and independent, did not need a lot of guidance and could take care of most things on his own, while the other two required a fair amount of help from us, one of them even coming close to not graduating successfully. Dealing with the difficult situations is when I learned the most important lessons, but regardless of the ability of the students a common thread soon appeared.

But first, here’s a brief digression on how that happened. While I was writing a draft for this blog, I noticed an interesting article on Nature’s newsletter. While I was reading it, I felt its style was quite similar to what I usually aim for in this blog: use headlines to highlight the important points, and elaborate on those with a few paragraphs. I then noticed the author of that column was a PhD student, and I thought: “how comes she has an article there? Why can she do that? Can I do that?”. I quickly found how to do it , finished the draft and sent it to them, and, after eight rounds of review in the course of two months, the article was finally up! The editor was very responsive and we could iterate quickly on the manuscript, and the quality of the writing is so much better than what I had originally sent in. On the other hand, I sometimes felt the message was being warped a bit too much. After the editing process was finished I had to agree to an Embargo Period of six months during which Nature had the exclusive right of publishing the final version on their website. As those six months are now over, I am finally allowed to publish the final version here, too. Enjoy!

This is a post-peer-review, pre-copyedit version of an article published in Nature Career Column . The final authenticated version is available online at: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-021-02028-1 .

The lessons I learnt supervising master’s students for the first time

PhD student Emilio Dorigatti supported three junior colleagues during their degrees.

I started my PhD wanting to improve not only my scientific abilities, but also ‘soft skills’ such as communication, mentoring and project management. To this end, I joined as many social academic activities as I could find, including journal clubs, seminars, teaching assistance, hackathons, presentations and collaborations.

I am a bioinformatics PhD student at the Munich School for Data Science in Germany, jointly supervised by Bernd Bischl at the Ludwig Maximilian University Munich and Benjamin Schubert at the Helmholtz Centre Munich, the German Research Center for Environmental Health. When I went to them asking to gain some experience in communication and mentoring soft skills, they suggested that I co-supervise three of Benjamin’s master’s students.

At first, I felt out of my depth, so I simply sat in on their meetings and listened. After a few months, I began offering technical advice on programming. I then started proposing new analyses and contributions. Eventually I became comfortable enough to propose a new master’s project based on part of my PhD research; Benjamin and I are now interviewing candidates.

I gained a great deal from this experience and I am grateful to both of my supervisors for supporting me, as well as to the students for staying motivated, determined and friendly throughout. Here are some of the things I learnt about how to ensure smooth collaboration and a happy outcome for all of us.

Draft a project plan

With Benjamin and Bernd, I put together a project plan for each of the master’s students. Drafting a two-page plan that ended up resembling an extended abstract for a conference forced us to consider each project in detail and helped to ensure that it was feasible for a student to carry out in their last semester of study.

If you’re a PhD student supervising others, sit down with your own supervisor and agree on your respective responsibilities as part of the project plan. At first, you might want your supervisor to follow you closely to help keep the project on the right path, but as you gain more experience and trust, you might request more autonomy and independence.

Use the project plan to advertise the position and find a suitable student: share it online on the group’s website or on Twitter, as well as on the job board at your department. Advertise it to your students if you are teaching a related topic, and sit back and wait for applicants.

We structured the plans to include a general introduction to the research subject as well as a few key publications. We described the gap in the literature that the project aimed to close, with the proposed methodology and a breakdown of four or five tasks to be achieved during the project. My supervisors and I also agreed on and included specific qualifications that candidates should have, and formalities such as contact information, starting dates and whether a publication was expected at the end.

Benjamin and I decided to propose publishable projects, sometimes as part of a larger paper. We always list the student as one of the authors.

Meet your student regularly

I found that I met with most students for less than an hour per week, but some might require more attention. Most of the time, Benjamin joined the meeting, too. We started with the students summarizing what they had done the previous week and any issues they had encountered. We then had a discussion and brainstorming session, and agreed on possible next steps. I learnt that I do not need to solve all the student’s problems (it is their thesis, after all). Instead, Benjamin and I tried to focus on suggesting a couple of things they could try out. At the end of the meeting, we made sure it was clear what was expected for the next week.

We used the first few weeks to get the students up to speed with the topic, encouraging them to read publications listed in the plan, and a few others, to familiarize themselves with the specific methods that they would be working with. We also addressed administrative matters such as making sure that the students had accounts to access computational resources: networks, e-mail, Wi-Fi, private GitHub repositories and so on.

Encourage regular writing

Good writing takes time, especially for students who are not used to it, or who are writing in a foreign language. It is important to encourage them to write regularly, and to keep detailed notes of what should be included in the manuscript, to avoid missing key details later on. We tried to remind our students frequently how the manuscript should be structured, what chapters should be included, how long each should be, what writing style was expected, what template to use, and other specifics. We used our meetings to provide continuous feedback on the manuscript.

The first two to four weeks of the project are a good time to start writing the first chapters, including an introduction to the topic and the background knowledge. We suggested allocating the last three or four weeks to writing the remaining chapters — results and conclusions — ensuring that the manuscript forms a coherent whole, and preparing and rehearsing the presentation for the oral examination.

Probe for correct understanding

In our weekly meetings, or at other times when I was teaching, I quickly realized that asking ‘did you understand?’ or ‘is that OK?’ every five minutes is not enough. It can even be counterproductive, scaring away less-assertive students.

I learnt to relax a little and take a different approach: when I explained something, I encouraged the students to explain it back in their own words, providing detailed breakdowns of a certain task, anticipating possible problems, and so on.

Ultimately, this came down to probing for understanding of the science, rather than delivering a lecture or grilling an interviewee. Sometimes this approach helps when a student thinks they fully understand something but actually don’t. For example, one of our students was less experienced in programming than others, so for more difficult tasks, we broke the problem down and wrote a sketch of the computer code that they would fill in on their own during the week.

Adapt supervision to the student

Each student requires a different type of supervision, and we tried to adapt our styles to accommodate that. That could mean using Trello project-management boards or a shared Google Doc to record tasks; defining tasks in detail and walking through them carefully; or taking extra time to explain and to fill knowledge gaps. I tried to be supportive by reminding students that they could always send an e-mail if they were stuck on a problem for too long. One of the students found it very helpful to text brief updates outside of scheduled meetings, as a way to hold themselves accountable.

Sometimes, if we felt a student needed to be challenged, we proposed new tasks that were not in the original plan or encouraged them to follow their interest, be it diving into the literature or coming up with further experiments and research questions.

One student conducted a literature review and summarized the pros and cons of the state-of-the-art technology for a follow-up idea we had. That saved some time when we picked up the project after the student left; they learnt lots of interesting things; and the discussion section of the manuscript was much more interesting as a result.

When things go badly, make another plan

Not all projects can be successful, despite your (and your student’s) best efforts. So, as part of each project, my supervisors and I prepared a plan B (and C), working out which tasks were essential and which were just a nice addition. This included a simpler research question that required less work than the original. The initial plan for one of our projects was to compare a newly proposed method with the usual way of doing things, but the new method turned out to be much more difficult than anticipated, so we decided not to do the comparison, and just showed how the new method performed.

Halfway through the project is a good time to evaluate how likely it is that the thesis will be handed in on time and as originally planned. The top priority is to help the student graduate. That might entail either forgoing some of the tasks planned at the beginning, or obtaining an extension of a few months if possible.

Have a final feedback round

After the oral examinations, Benjamin and I met to decide the students’ final grades on the basis of the university’s rubric. We then met the students one last time to tell them our decision, going through each item in the rubric and explaining the motivation for the score we had given. We tried to recall relevant events from the past months to make each student feel the grading was fair.

We also remembered to ask the student for feedback on our supervision and to suggest things they thought we could do better.

Lastly, I encouraged those students to apply for open positions in our lab, and offered to write recommendation letters for them.

master thesis supervisor

The Educationalist

master thesis supervisor

Thesis Supervision 101

The educationalist. by alexandra mihai.

master thesis supervisor

Welcome to a new issue of “The Educationalist”! You probably noticed quite a long gap since the last issue- as some of you may know, in the past two weeks I moved to the US to start my Fulbright Schuman Scholarship at Yale University. I am very excited to be working at the Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning and I’m looking forward to sharing with you what I learn and what inspires me here in the next six months. In the meantime, this week I want to address a topic that I myself had to plunge into this year: thesis supervision . Luckily, I benefitted a lot from the valuable advice of my colleague, Therese Grohnert and that is why I asked her to share her tips and resources here, which she kindly accepted. We hope you find them useful and we look forward to your comments, experiences and ideas. Happy reading and have a nice week!

If you are currently involved in a taught Master’s programme, then you are most likely a Master thesis supervisor, guiding students in completing an extended research project from planning to finished thesis or dissertation. When you think back to how you got started in this role, did you receive formal support for developing your dissertation skills, did you have access to best practices and advice outside of your own network? In fact, many thesis supervisors receive little to no guidance when getting started , having to rely on their own experiences as a student, or their colleagues’ experiences. This can create quite some uncertainty, when thesis supervision is a wonderful opportunity to work closely with students individually or in small groups, to get students excited about research, and to build their research and project management skills.

In my role as a faculty developer, I often get asked for advice on getting started as a beginning supervisor, on maintaining students’ motivation throughout the process, and on using your limited supervision time effectively. So, I went to work and collected best practices and advice for my colleagues. Let’s walk through the supervision process step by step, from preparing your first supervision to assessing a master’s thesis.

Step 0: Preparing

Before you are assigned your first thesis students, you can already take steps to set yourself and your student up for success:

Check the expectations of the programme regarding the timeline, the final thesis, and what you as a supervisor are expected to do, check the code of practice or contact your thesis coordinator for this information;

Set up ground rules : make explicit how you want to work together with your student, think of how and when you want to be contacted, when and how often you will provide the student with feedback, when you expect the student to speak up and ask for help, etc. More experienced colleagues can share what is common in the programme;

If you are new at your current institution, find out what the support network is like for students , including academic advising, workshops, library support etc. so you can direct the student when needed, and can share the load.

Depending on your programme, you may already formulate tentative topics and you might consider whether you will supervise students individually or in small groups; this will depend on the size of the programme and the autonomy given to students when it comes to choosing a topic.

Step 1: The First Meeting

Once you have the first meeting scheduled with your thesis student, use the following agenda points to prepare with motivation, safety, and effectiveness of the process in mind:

Make time to get to know each other , connect over common interests, background, or goals to build trust and a comfortable atmosphere; encourage the student to speak up when needed and to let you know how they are doing;

Ask your student about their learning goals (not their grade goals!): which skill would they like to learn through the thesis, what are their plans after graduation, and how can the thesis trajectory help them prepare?

Ask the student to share why they are interested in their topic , what they hope to find out and who would benefit from the insights of their thesis before helping them formulate two or three concrete steps to get started.

In this first meeting, be sure to discuss your ground rules and to ask the student how they like to collaborate so you can make specific agreements and manage expectations on all sides.

Step 2: Managing the Process

Throughout the supervision process, it is important that the student takes responsibility for their own their process, and that you support the student in managing the thesis process. My colleagues have shared the following tips for fostering student independence and project management skills :

Ask your student to send in a document or questions in time, to prepare an agenda, and to start each meeting with a short recap of their current project status;

Check in to reflect on the student’s skill development towards their learning goals, as well as any struggles that the student cannot overcome by themselves yet;

At the end of each meeting, ask your student to formulate specific next steps for their work an a clear guidance for when to contact you again for the next meeting (forgetful students can also be encouraged to send you an email with these steps in writing).

In case you are supervising many students, you can create a tracker with key milestones and room for notes for a quick overview, and you can pair up students with a similar topic, method or challenge so they can support each other and you can provide support for these students as a group.

Step 3: Providing Feedback

When and how you provide feedback to your student will depend on the programme guidelines as well as on what your fellow supervisors are offering to their students. In some programmes, students will receive feedback at least once on each chapter of their thesis, while in others, supervisors will focus on a complete draft only. In either case, there are some ways in which you can use your time and energy in an efficient and effective way:

Ask students to submit feedback questions along with their work: which sections did students struggle with, where are they unsure of their work, which element are they not yet happy with and why? This will allow you to focus on these issues first, adding 2-3 additional points when needed to challenge but not overwhelm the student and connect to their current level of learning;

Consider the level of feedback needed : when sections are messy and ineffective, avoid editing your student’s work, but offer to create an outline together before the student reorganises their own work; if paragraphs are not well-organised, edit one paragraph together and ask the student to apply your feedback to the remainder of the section;

Don’t forget to let the student know what they are already doing well and where to apply these good points in future sections – make these comments as specific as you can.

Finally, whether we are experienced supervisors or not, every student is different and may benefit from different ways of providing feedback. Ask you student what works for them and plan together how you will give and how they will process feedback . This is an essential learning skill they will benefit from regardless of their plans after graduation.

Step 4: Assessment

Let’s assume everything has gone well and your student is getting ready to submit their thesis. At some universities, students complete a defense (or viva) in which they discuss their thesis with the supervisor and maybe an independent reader. This part can be daunting for a beginning supervisor, but here are some tips to get started:

Check whether there are any rubrics or assessment criteria available for your programme, who is required to assess a thesis, where to send the final grade, and what happens if the student fails;

If possible, ask experienced colleagues to share a good, an average, and an insufficient thesis with you, along with their assessment and feedback for the student; these documents can help you benchmark your own grading;

Think how you will communicate your grade and feedback to the student , in writing or during a defense; keep the student’s learning goals in mind and make explicit how the student can continue their learning journey based on what they have achieved throughout the thesis trajectory.

If you are unsure, ask a colleague to provide a second opinion and their best practices for the defense/viva and/or providing written feedback. As with any skill, becoming a good thesis supervisor takes experience, reflection, and feedback . I am curious to hear your experiences and best practices, and am happy to discuss our faculty development activities on thesis supervision with anyone interested – looking forward to connecting with you!

Further resources

“Understanding the up, back, and forward-component in master's thesis supervision with adaptivity” , by Renske A.M. de Kleijn, Larike H. Bronkhorst, Paulien C. Meijer, Albert Pilot & Mieke Brekelmans- a qualitative study for framing and fostering goals in the supervision process;

The UM Library Thesis Bookshelf - helpful resources for supervisors and students on academic writing and literature reviews;

Tips and resources for supervising remotely - University of Edinburg’s best practices for remote supervision;

Master thesis supervision: resources on preparing, managing and assessing theses - resources from our own SBE Learning Academy, including videos for supervisors and resources that can be shared with students;

The LDO Troubleshooting Guide to Academic Writing - an interactive tool we use in our programme that helps students process feedback on the thesis or to deal with various writing struggles;

A Practical Guide to Projects and Dissertations - an online course developed by the Centre for Distance Education, University of London, that has both resources dedicated to students and an Instructor Tool Kit.

Dr. Therese Grohnert is an educational developer, educator, and assistant professor at Maastricht University’s School of Business and Economics in The Netherlands. She supports staff in effectively supervising master theses, managing group dynamics in a PBL context and designing courses with constructive alignment and student motivation in mind. She is also studying how professionals learn and develop in the workplace for better judgments and decision-making. Find her on Twitter: @grohnerttherese .

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Supervision work is closely linked to the intended learning outcomes of the degree and thesis as well as the related grading criteria. In accordance with the Regulations on Degrees and the Protection of Students’ Rights at the University of Helsinki, the student must receive instruction both during their studies and while writing their thesis.  See here for instructions on ensuring that your supervision is aligned with the learning outcomes.

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Supervision principles.

The Rector decides on the principles of supervision, including the rights and obligations of the student and the supervisor. The degree programme’s curriculum must contain instructions on how to prepare a personal study plan, along with the practices for approving and updating the plan. Please review the curriculum of your faculty and the thesis grading criteria in order to ensure that your supervision is aligned with the learning outcomes.

In the Rector’s decision, supervision refers to the support provided for the student’s or doctoral candidate’s learning process as they change, gain experience and grow as an expert. As a whole, supervision consists of communication, advice, instruction and special guidance. Supervision and counselling can be organised in a group led by the supervisor, at a seminar, in a peer group of students or doctoral candidates organised by the supervisor or in a personal meeting separately agreed between the supervisor and the student/doctoral candidate. Supervision and counselling can also be provided electronically through, for example, Moodle or other teaching tools available. 

Members of the teaching and research staff provide counselling that is related to teaching and research and requires knowledge of the content of different studies and disciplines. This counselling may concern, for example, personal study plans or thesis supervision. 

Guidance and counselling are provided in the Finnish and Swedish-language and multilingual degree programmes in Finnish or Swedish depending on the student’s native language or in English or another language as agreed with the student. If the student’s native language is a language other than Finnish or Swedish, guidance and counselling are provided in English or, if agreed with the student, in another language. In English-language master’s programmes and doctoral programmes, guidance can also be provided solely in English.

The degree programme steering group is responsible for ensuring that each student is appointed with a primary supervisor who is responsible for the supervision of their thesis. Additional supervisors may also be appointed. Your supervision plan can be used to agree on the responsibilities related to the supervision.

Supervision as interaction and the supervision plan

Supervision is about interaction with responsibilities that are divided between the different parties of the supervision relationship. Ambiguities related to supervision are often due to the parties’ different expectations regarding the content and responsibilities of the supervision and the fact that the parties are often unaware of the others’ expectations. Below, you can find a table that serves as a great tool for considering the different rights and obligations related to supervision

The policies and practices of supervision should be discussed in the early stages of the thesis process. The supervisor and the student may also prepare a written supervision plan that clarifies the schedule for the supervision and the thesis work as well as the content of the supervision. The plan can also be utilised if any problems arise or you fall behind schedule.

Topics the supervisor should incorporate in the supervision

When supervising a student’s thesis work, remember to pay attention to the following topics:

  • the responsible conduct of research and avoiding cheating
  • guiding the student in matters related to data protection  
  • matters related to open access publications and the public availability of theses  
  • inform the student of the general process of thesis examination and approval and the related schedule 

Different faculties may have their own decisions and instructions on thesis supervision. Please read the instructions provided by your faculty.

See also the Instructions for Students

You will find related content for students in the Studies Service.

Bachelor’s theses and maturity tests

Thesis and maturity test in master's and licentiate's programmes.

  • Instructions for students
  • Notifications for students

students in library

Thesis supervision

Find a thesis supervisor.

Thesis supervisors must be authorized by their Faculty to supervise theses.

Finding a thesis supervisor arrow_drop_down

Before thinking about a supervisor, students should make sure they are committing to the area of study that most interests them. They should ask themselves whether they are enthusiastic enough about a topic area to sustain this enthusiasm over the period of time it will take to prepare the thesis. Speaking to students and professors who do research in the proposed area of study will help clarify the students’ thoughts. The students should make sure they are well-informed before they approach any potential supervisors.

A professor is not obligated to take on a student if he or she feels the match-up would not be a good one, or if the professor lacks lab space, time or funding.

A student may have more than one supervisor. When mention is made of the thesis supervisor, it is implicit that there may be a co-supervisor.

  • Information to collect before contacting a potential supervisor
  • Questions to ask after the meeting with the potential supervisor
  • Professors, by research interest

Appointment of a thesis supervisor arrow_drop_down

From the uoZone Application tab, click Service Requests to create a service request and appoint a thesis supervisor.

Meetings between the supervisor and the student arrow_drop_down

Preliminary meetings.

Before a student begins researching and writing a thesis, the supervisor and the student should have a detailed discussion of expectations and requirements. Below are examples of general and specific issues to be discussed during the preliminary meetings.

As soon as possible, the student should obtain ethics approvals or any other required approvals to conduct research. The student should discuss with the thesis supervisor and visit the  Office of Research Ethics and Integrity  Website.

  • General and specific topics to be discussed

Regular meetings

The student and the supervisor should plan to meet regularly whether or not the student has any finished work to show to the supervisor.

If it is a major meeting, the student should draw up and deliver to the supervisor an agenda beforehand. If the meeting is to discuss text that has already been written, the student must send the draft well in advance of the meeting. 

After the meeting, and based on this agenda, the student prepares a brief report on what was discussed and decided, and shares this report with the supervisor.

It is important to be productive at these major meetings, but it is also crucial to just keep in touch.

Components of a typical agenda

  • a summary of the purpose of the meeting
  • a review of what was discussed at the previous meeting and what has been accomplished to date
  • a discussion and clarification of the current topics, ideas and issues
  • next steps as a result of this discussion
  • agree with a date for the next meeting

Feedback and revision arrow_drop_down

All along during the thesis preparation process, a student will receive feedback and should expect to do revisions. Revising a thesis based on feedback from the thesis supervisor, advisory committee (if applicable) and from the jury is an important part of the thesis preparation process.

Part of the advancement of knowledge that preparing a thesis fosters involves engaging in dialogue and learning from these discussions, learning how to communicate clearly, and responding appropriately to suggestions for improvement

student carrying books

Already a student?

Types of supervision, co-supervision arrow_drop_down.

A joint management with a professor in another discipline may be considered if the research project of a student is favoured.

Cotutelle arrow_drop_down

A doctoral student may prepare a thesis under a cotutelle agreement. You find below additional information to help familiarize yourself with the roles played by each of the stakeholders.  

Learn more about Cotutelle.

Thesis advisory committee arrow_drop_down

In many academic units, a thesis advisory committee, also referred to as thesis committee, is assembled as soon as a student finds a thesis supervisor. Please note that not all academic units have thesis committees, the students must check on the protocol in their own academic unit.

Constitution of the thesis committee

How the thesis committee is formed varies from academic unit to academic unit. The thesis supervisor plays the biggest role by approaching colleagues who have the expertise and inviting them to join the committee.

A thesis committee is made up of:

  • the student
  • the thesis supervisor, and
  • usually at least two other professors.

The thesis supervisor is usually the chair of the thesis committee.

Role of the thesis committee

While the roles and responsibilities of thesis committees may vary from one academic unit to another, members of the committee should provide guidance to the student on thesis planning, research and writing; be available to discuss ideas or for consultation on any other matter related to the thesis; and, if this is the practice within the discipline, evaluate the thesis after submission.

Thesis committees meet according to a schedule set either by the academic unit or by the committee itself. The student is usually responsible for initiating the meetings. When concerns about the progress of the research arise, the supervisor and/or academic unit may require meetings at more frequent intervals.

Useful information

Contracts arrow_drop_down.

Some supervisors and students have contracts or agreements to formalize the expectations and delineate the responsibilities in the preparation of a thesis.

Although these agreements are not considered official documents with force of law, they set out the expectations of the student and supervisor in relation to many of the issues covered in this Website section and help avoid conflict and misunderstandings.

A student should not make assumptions about who will do what in the research and who gets credit for any new discoveries or inventions. A supervisor should not assume the supervised student is aware of any assumptions the supervisor has or any authorship or credit protocols that may exist in the area of research.

Professors who use contracts do so because they have found such agreements are a good tool for helping students achieve their goals and finish their theses. However, while a written agreement can be very useful, one of the keys to a successful supervisor–student relationship is good communication and mutual trust. Both sides need to foster and build on that. 

Absences arrow_drop_down

Sometimes a potential supervisor is approached by a student looking for a thesis supervisor and both the student and professor agree it would be a good match, but the professor is going on an academic leave partway through the period in which the student will be preparing this thesis. In the event of a scheduled absence from the University for more than one month, the thesis supervisor must make the necessary arrangements with his students and the academic unit concerned to ensure that students continue to be accompanied during the supervisor's absence.

A thesis supervisor who is going to be away should let the student know well in advance. The same goes for the student. The student should discuss this with the thesis supervisor well ahead of time. In case of illness, the student should let the supervisor know the expected timeline for recovery.

If the student is planning to suspend work on the thesis for a term or more, for whatever reason, the student needs to apply for and receive approval for a leave of absence. Please note that absence has an impact on eligibility for funding.

Professionalism arrow_drop_down

As a student, the development of professional skills—for example, communicating appropriately in writing and in person, responding promptly to e-mails, coming prepared to meetings, following up after meetings, respecting deadlines, tracking changes to the text so that it is easy for the supervisor to review each draft after revisions—is important in the preparation of the thesis. Some faculties offer courses in professional skills.

If the student feels aspects of the supervisor’s behavior are unprofessional, he or she should consult the graduate program director or the chair of the academic unit.

Changing supervisors arrow_drop_down

As for changing supervisors partway through a thesis, this is not recommended. Keep in mind that as long as the thesis is logical and the conclusions drawn from the data are valid, the student and the supervisor do not need to be in total agreement on methodology, analysis or interpretation.

The thesis committee may be able to fill in whatever gaps the student perceives in the relationship with the supervisor. If the research goes off in an unexpected direction, one that is not very familiar to the thesis supervisor, the student could see what opportunities are available and what guidelines the academic unit has for this situation. The student could consider joint supervision as an alternative to finding a new supervisor.

If the student has explored all other options and still wish to change supervisors, he or she should talk to the graduate program director. If the supervisor happens to be the graduate program director, the student should talk to the director of the academic unit. If the student remains uncertain or dissatisfied, he or she should talk to the vice-dean graduate studies of his/her home faculty. Beyond that, the student can talk to the university ombudsperson. The student can request that the exchanges with any or all of these individuals (directors, vice-dean, ombudsperson) remain confidential.

The student should be sure to explore options carefully before withdrawing from the supervisory arrangement—a student who terminates the relationship with a supervisor before finding another supervisor may have difficulty securing another supervisor and compromise the thesis project.

Getting the most out of thesis supervision meetings

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Chances are that postgraduate students meet their thesis supervisor/s only every few weeks, and for a limited amount of time. Therefore, it is extremely important to take full advantage of supervision meetings. The following tips help bachelor’s, master’s and PhD students to make the most of thesis supervision meetings.

What can you expect from a thesis supervisor?

Taking charge of thesis supervision meetings, pre-meeting progress updates before thesis supervision meetings, agendas and note-taking strategies during thesis supervision meetings, post-meeting action points after thesis supervision meetings.

Before diving into what you can do to get the most out of thesis supervision meetings, it is important to be clear on the roles during a thesis process:

A thesis supervisor supports and guides you through writing your thesis. However, ultimately you are responsible for your work.

What this role division means in practice is that students cannot expect their thesis supervisor/s to tell them exactly what to do. And the thesis supervisor/s will not simply provide students with solutions to their challenges on a silver platter.

That said, a supervisor’s role is crucial. He or she will guide you in your writing, point out weaknesses in your argument and approach, and make suggestions for improvement. Furthermore, you can benefit from their experiences and scientific knowledge.

Considering that students are ultimately responsible for their thesis, they do benefit from taking charge of supervision meetings.

First and foremost, it means that students should be proactive. They should stay on top of time planning. They should keep track of a regular supervision schedule. And they should let the supervisor/s know what they need in terms of support and advice.

Pre-meeting updates, a meeting agenda and strategy for note-taking, as well as post-meeting action points, help students to get the most out of thesis supervision meetings.

Each of these points will be explained in more detail below. Combined, they offer concrete and repeatable structure to prepare, take part in, and summarise thesis supervision meetings.

It is never too late to change your approach to thesis supervision meetings. Just introduce the new structure to your supervisor/s and explain how it helps you to keep track of your progress. Most supervisors appreciate it when students take responsibility for their learning.

Pre-meeting updates are a summary of the progress you made since your last meeting.

Both master’s and PhD thesis supervisors tend to supervise many students at the same time. They might lose track of the progress of individual students. Progress updates before a meeting help to bring everyone up to date.

Sending around progress updates before the meeting also saves a lot of time: during the meeting, you can dive much more quickly into the discussion of your challenges and how to move forward.

In the pre-meeting updates, it is also advisable to already share your main questions and struggles in advance. Be very clear in stating what you need from your supervisor/s. It helps them to prepare.

And of course, if you have written text for review, make sure to give your supervisor/s enough time to review it. Supervisors have busy agendas. So don’t hand in the written text an hour or a day before the meeting.

  • Send around a progress update before the meeting.
  • Specify the questions and challenges you would like to discuss.
  • If applicable, share written text well in advance.

During a thesis supervision meeting, be prepared. Have an agenda ready, and share it with your supervisor/s at the beginning of the meeting.

The agenda should reflect the key points that you would like to discuss during the meeting.

In addition to the agenda, explain what your key objectives are for the meeting. Then, ask if your supervisor/s would like to add points to the agenda. Edit the agenda on the spot so that all points and objectives are reflected.

A good agenda helps to structure the discussion and it ensures that all relevant points will be addressed.

Furthermore, have a good note-taking strategy in place. Even if you understand everything that is said during a supervision meeting, it can be tough to remember it all.

Either take your time to take proper notes by hand or ask all parties present whether it is okay to record the meeting. You will thank yourself later.

  • Come prepared, with an agenda and meeting objectives.
  • Make space for unplanned discussions and feedback in the agenda.
  • Take detailed notes or ask to record the meeting.

Phew! The meeting is over. What’s next?

Take a day or two to reflect on the meeting. Sit down, have a look at your notes, and then develop action points that came out of the discussion.

Action points can be agreements made with the supervisor/s on content, research methods, writing style, you name it. Compile a short but concrete list of the steps you will take to progress with your thesis. Where applicable, also include specific deadlines and notes on time-planning.

Then, send the post-meeting action points to your supervisor/s.

Why? Because there is a chance that you misunderstood each other. Asking your supervisors for brief feedback on your action points provides an extra layer of security. It shows whether you are on the same page and whether you are moving in the right direction.

Furthermore, it is always good to have your agreements in writing. It can help, for instance, if you run into trouble because you have to deal with conflicting feedback from different supervisors .

Lastly, already start to prepare for the next meeting. If you haven’t done it yet, send a calendar invite to your supervisor/s, so that everyone can block the time of your upcoming thesis supervision meeting in their agenda.

  • Develop concrete action points after the meeting, and share them with your supervisor/s.
  • Reiterate agreements on deadlines and time-planning.
  • Send out calendar invites for the next meeting.

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    Thesis supervisors must be authorized by their Faculty to supervise theses. Finding a thesis supervisor arrow_drop_down. Appointment of a thesis supervisor arrow_drop_down. Meetings between the supervisor and the student arrow_drop_down. Feedback and revision arrow_drop_down.

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