Dissertation Advisor 101

How to get the most from the student-supervisor relationship

By: Derek Jansen (MBA) | Expert Reviewer: Dr Eunice Rautenbach | January 2024

Many students feel a little intimidated by the idea of having to work with a research advisor (or supervisor) to complete their dissertation or thesis. Similarly, many students struggle to “connect” with their advisor and feel that the relationship is somewhat strained or awkward. But this doesn’t need to be the case!

In this post, we’ll share five tried and tested tips to help you get the most from this relationship and pave the way for a smoother dissertation writing process.

1. Clarify roles on day one

Each university will have slightly different expectations, rules and norms in terms of the research advisor’s role. Similarly, each advisor will have their own unique way of doing things. So, it’s always a good idea to begin the engagement process by clearly defining the roles and expectations in your relationship.

In practical terms, we suggest that you initiate a conversation at the very start of the engagement to discuss your goals, their expectations, and how they would like to work with you. Of course, you might not like what you hear in this conversation. However, this sort of candid conversation will help you get on the same page as early as possible and set the stage for a successful partnership.

To help you get started, here are some questions that you might consider asking in your initial conversation:

  1. How often would you like to meet and for how long?
  2. What should I do to prepare for each meeting?
  3. What aspects of my work will you comment on (and what won’t you cover)?
  4. Which key decisions should I seek your approval for beforehand?
  5. What common mistakes should I try to avoid from the outset?
  6. How can I help make this partnership as effective as possible?
  7. My academic goals are… Do you have any suggestions at this stage to help me achieve this?

As you can see, these types of questions help you get a clear idea of how you’ll work together and how to get the most from the relatively limited face time you’ll have.

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2. Establish a regular communication cycle

Just like in any relationship, effective communication is crucial to making the student-supervisor relationship work. So, you should aim to establish a regular meeting schedule and stick to it. Don’t cancel or reschedule appointments with your advisor at short notice, or do anything that suggests you don’t value their time. Fragile egos are not uncommon in the academic world, so it’s important to clearly demonstrate that you value and respect your supervisor’s time and effort.

Practically speaking, be sure to prepare for each meeting with a clear agenda, including your progress, challenges, and any questions you have. Be open and honest in your communication, but most importantly, be receptive to your supervisor’s feedback. Ultimately, part of their role is to tell you when you’re missing the mark. So, don’t become upset or defensive when they criticise a specific aspect of your work.

Always remember that your research advisor is criticising your work, not you personally. It’s never easy to take negative feedback, but this is all part of the learning journey that takes place alongside the research journey.

Fragile egos are not uncommon in the academic world, so it’s important to demonstrate that you value and respect your advisor’s time.

3. Have a clear project plan

Few things will impress your supervisor more than a well-articulated, realistic plan of action (aka, a project plan). Investing the time to develop this shows that you take your project (and by extension, the relationship) seriously. It also helps your supervisor understand your intended timeline, which allows the two of you to better align your schedules.

In practical terms, you need to develop a project plan with achievable goals. A detailed Gantt chart can be a great way to do this. Importantly, you’ll need to break down your thesis or dissertation into a collection of practical, manageable steps, and set clear timelines and milestones for each. Once you’ve done that, you should regularly review and adjust this plan with your supervisor to ensure that you remain on track.

Of course, it’s unlikely that you’ll stick to your plan 100% of the time (there are always unexpected twists and turns in a research project. However, this plan will lay a foundation for effective collaboration between yourself and your supervisor. An imperfect plan beats no plan at all.

Gantt chart for a dissertation

4. Engage with problems proactively

One surefire way to quickly annoy your advisor is to pester them every time you run into a problem in your dissertation or thesis. Unexpected challenges are par for the course when it comes to research – how you deal with them is what makes the difference.

When you encounter a problem, resist the urge to immediately send a panicked email to your supervisor – no matter how massive the issue may seem (at the time). Instead, take a step back and assess the situation as holistically as possible. Force yourself to sit with the issue for at least a few hours to ensure that you have a clear, accurate assessment of the issue at hand. In most cases, a little time, distance and deep breathing will reveal that the problem is not the existential threat it initially seemed to be.

When contacting your supervisor, you should ideally present both the problem and one or two potential solutions. The latter is the most important part here. In other words, you need to show that you’ve engaged with the issue and applied your mind to finding potential solutions. Granted, your solutions may miss the mark. However, providing some sort of solution beats impulsively throwing the problem at your supervisor and hoping that they’ll save the day.

Simply put, mishaps and mini-crises in your research journey present an opportunity to demonstrate your initiative and problem-solving skills – not a reason to lose your cool and outsource the problem to your supervisor.

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5. Navigate conflict like a diplomat 

As with any partnership, there’s always the possibility of some level of disagreement or conflict arising within the student-supervisor relationship. Of course, you can drastically reduce the likelihood of this happening by implementing some of the points we mentioned earlier. Neverthless, if a serious disagreement does arise between you and your supervisor, it’s absolutely essential that you approach it with professionalism and respect. Never let it escalate into a shouting contest.

In practical terms, it’s important to communicate your concerns as they arise (don’t let things simmer for too long). Simultaneously, it’s essential that you remain open to understanding your supervisor’s perspective – don’t become entrenched in your position. After all, you are the less experienced researcher within this duo.

Keep in mind that a lot of context is lost in text-based communication, so it can often be a good idea to schedule a short call to discuss your concerns or points of contention, rather than sending a 3000-word email essay. When going this route, be sure to take the time to prepare a clear, cohesive argument beforehand – don’t just “thought vomit” on your supervisor.

In the event that you do have a significant disagreement with your advisor, remember that the goal is to find a solution that serves your project (not your ego). This often requires compromise and flexibility. A “win at all costs” mindset is definitely not suitable here. Ultimately, you need to solve the problem, while still maintaining the relationship.

If you feel that you have already exhausted all possible avenues and still can’t find an acceptable middle ground, you can of course reach out to your university to ask for their assistance. However, this should be the very last resort. Running to your university every time there’s a small disagreement will not serve you well.

Communicate your concerns as they arise and remain open to understanding your supervisor's perspective. They are the expert, after all.

Recap: Key Takeaways

To sum up, a fruitful student-supervisor relationship hinges on clear role definition, effective and regular communication, strategic planning, proactive engagement, and professional conflict resolution.

Remember, your dissertation supervisor is there to help you, but you still need to put in the work. In many cases, they’ll also be the first marker of your work, so it really pays to put in the effort and build a strong, functional relationship with them.

Psst... there’s more!

This post was based on one of our popular Research Bootcamps. If you're working on a research project, you'll definitely want to check this out...

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