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Supervising Dissertations

Dissertations and projects are increasingly used as forms of assessment: they are very effective and valid (although not always entirely reliable). They are also extremely time-consuming to supervise properly, and their individual nature lays tutors open to accusations of unfairness.

The solution is probably to be found in a learning contract, but in this case a specialised one which sets out the standard, rather than individualised, features of how you are prepared to supervise-and it seems to apply at more or less all levels.

The rationale is that if you are up-front about what can reasonably be expected of both of you, you are less likely to get into recriminations later.

  • The specimen below is offered as something which you might like to modify for your own circumstances, and then have a supply ready for all those students as they knock on the door, or even put in the handbook for the module (note, however, that I am working in a broadly social science area-the shape of the dissertation in particular will need to be modified for other disciplines):


The purpose of supervision of these tutored modules is for me to enable you to produce the best-quality piece of work you are capable of. This means:

  • You are doing the work, not me! 
  • So you have to be self-directed, and manage your own time and resources effectively.
  • Shortly after starting, you will know more about your specialist topic than I will, so my influence will become increasingly indirect.

My Commitments

  • I am allocated ?? hours for this in the academic year: I'm not going to count by the minute, but you need to work out roughly how you want to use my time
  • Generally, you will need to let me have material a couple of days before we meet, if you want me to have read it.
  • Experience tells me that I can manage to read two drafts of the whole thing, at most. However, I will expect to read drafts of sections as they are produced.
  • I will not chase you: management of your time is up to you.

Your Commitments

  • I expect you to book sessions with me as you need them: don't leave it to the last minute. Usually we will book another session each time we meet.
  • On the whole, it is only worth us meeting if you have written something for us to work on (although obviously that doesn't apply if you are just popping in to ask about references etc.)
  • I am all for collaborative working: as long as the final product is your own, it makes sense for you to work with fellow-students on both background reading and other information-gathering, if possible. By negotiation, I am prepared to meet with a small group (but that negotiation needs to include the approval of any other supervisors).

To begin with:

  • The most common problem with students' initial ideas is that they are too broad. Go for (reasonably) narrow and deep, rather than broad and shallow
  • Make sure the topic is sufficiently interesting (and preferably multi-faceted) to keep you going: a lot of poor work is ultimately due to boredom! PhDs in particular are primarily tests of stamina.
  • Check your access to resources: are you reasonably confident at this stage that you can get access to
    • appropriate literature?
    • people you may wish to interview?
  • If you need to contact organisations for information, start on that as soon as your plans are clear: the turn-around time can be lengthy (although the information is often simply on their website).
  • Check that you have the necessary skills: if you are going to do something quantitative, do you know enough statistics? Read up on relevant research methods, rather than just assuming that because you have done a research methods module, you know all that. Nothing exposes lack of knowledge in this area as much as doing research for real.
  • Draw up a timetable for stages (Chapters) of the project: what do you expect to have done by when? You may not stick to it, but you need to know roughly where you are.

Shape of the dissertation (probable)

The figures in parentheses are the order in which you write the material (based on an October-June academic year).

1. Introduction (1) October: (7) May next year
2. Literature Review (2) January next year
3. Methodology (3) also January (but remember you also have to gather the results)
4. Findings (4) March
5. Discussion (5) April
6. Conclusion (6) April/May: unites 2 and 5


Start keeping a log now. Record

  • Our discussions
  • Everything you read (apart from the Daily Mail) with full references: there is nothing more frustrating than thinking "I saw something on that somewhere, but where was it?" when you get to the writing up stage.
  • Notes of discussions with other people.
  • Things to do.
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This is an archived copy of Atherton J S (2013) Learning and Teaching [On-line: UK] Original material by James Atherton: last up-dated overall 10 February 2013

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