Navigating the thesis

You & your supervisor

Humanities Building

 

At the heart of the postgraduate experience is a more intensive relationship with a researcher who is your appointed supervisor, whether for your Honours essay, your Masters dissertation, or the capstone PhD work. You are entitled to expect a steady level of support from your supervisor; s/he in turn is entitled to expect a specific level of application from you. These expectations are recorded in a Memorandum of Understanding or an annual supplement between the student and supervisor.

As postgraduate work becomes more independent, and the onus falls more and more on the neophytic researcher, the Graduate School in Humanities is committed to ensuring that your relationship with your supervisor and the department is as productive as possible.

What can you expect of your supervisor?

  1. Your supervisor will meet you regularly to discuss your progress with your research project and to comment on the material you have submitted.
  2. Your supervisor will provide you with support and advice, drawn from the supervisor's experience and expertise.
  3. Research projects are lengthy and demanding commitment, and you will need the general support of your supervisor (and your friends and family).
  4. Your supervisor will provide timeous feedback on your written submissions, with constructive criticism.
  5. In addition, your supervisor will provide regular contact, guidance, encouragement and feedback

 

What can your supervisor expect of you?

  1. You need to take the initiative in seeking regular contact with your supervisor. Your obligation is to keep closely in touch.
  2. You need to have a clear programme and meet your deadlines, with regular delivery of work.
  3. You need to respond positively to the constructive criticism of your supervisor, and incorporate this into your work.
  4. The supervisor will expect: regular contact, hard work and commitment as well as responsiveness and openness to advice from you.

 

Choosing a supervisor:
Choosing a supervisor for your postgraduate research is probably not the most important decision you will make in your life. Choosing a life-partner, choosing a place to live, even choosing a new library book; these are the things that make or break happiness of the moment or of a lifetime.

Choosing a supervisor, however, is no light-weight matter. Even though such choice may be constrained by your research interests or by the people available in a particular department to work with, it is critical to spend some time dreaming and planning. In your ideal world, with whom would you like to work as a young researcher and writer? In this ideal world, what kind of relationship would suit you best? What does your own experience, to date, tell you about the kinds of evaluation, support, and feedback from teachers that work well for you?

Broadly speaking, there are three main areas in which it is useful to try and assess someone's skills if you want to work with them as a postgraduate research student.

  • Do they have have a solid sense of the academic conventions and guidelines through which a research project can be transformed into a "Masters" or "Doctoral" dissertation?
  • Do they have intellectual standing as researchers and writers within the specific discipline, and research field, in which you want to work?
  • Does their communicative and pedagogic style suit you?

The way to find some answers to these questions is to engage in some research of your own.

  • Use the internet, or other sources, to find and read material authored by people you might want to work with.
  • Speak with other young researchers about their experiences of working with particular supervisors (each person is different, so you will need to take such information on board with care).
  • Attend a prospective supervisor's seminars, or lectures; while this does not say everything about their communicative style, it will give you a hint of their approach to pedagogy (do they appear to respect their students? is there evidence that they prepare inputs with thought? do they use contemporary research to support arguments made in lecture space? are they flexible when it comes to hearing others' ideas?).
  • Arrange to meet a prospective supervisor, and talk with them about your ideas, experiences, and hopes. Ask them about their own supervision style.
  • Read dissertations written by students with whom they have worked.
  • Find out how accessible they are (do they have a reputation for missing appointments, being extremely busy, not handing back marked material timeously?)

In other words, take the choice seriously and simultaneously allow for the reality that even with careful planning, the real potential of a good supervisory relationship cannot always be predicted.

Good supervisory relationships can last into a lifetime of collegial friendship, and support; poor ones cause sleepless nights and confused days. Here at the Graduate School in Humanities, we do our best to support you in the process of making a choice that will work for you.

For more information, see guidelines for the appointment of supervisors of Doctoral candidates and responsibilities of supervisors of Masters and Doctoral candidates.

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