Working with a supervisor on your own research project at dissertation level offers a very different relationship from the student-tutor relationship you might be more used to – and more comfortable with. It's a relationship that demands clarity and understanding, but that can develop (and challenge!) both your academic and interpersonal skills. Here are some tips on getting the most out of your relationship with your dissertation supervisor.

Choosing the right supervisor

If you're an undergraduate (and perhaps even a Master's student) you may find that your supervisor is chosen for you, based on a broad match with your dissertation topic. For most PhD students and some Master's students, however, choosing your dissertation supervisor will be one of the most important early decisions you make, and it will impact both the direction of your research and the shape of your dissertation. Here are some of the questions you should ask yourself about your prospective supervisor (you can even ask some of them directly to the prospective supervisor, provided you deploy a degree of tact in doing so) to ensure you'll get the most out of your working relationship.

  • Are they familiar with your sub-field?

    This question gets more important the higher the level of your dissertation. While you can expect most academics to have a broad familiarity with their field, it's not reasonable to expect that everybody in your wider field has a detailed knowledge of the theories, frameworks, and texts you'll use in your own work. And given the other demands on their time, it's also unreasonable to expect a supervisor to familiarise themselves with the work of fifty or a hundred scholars before they even start to read your work! Senior academics are likely to be upfront and refuse to supervise you if they lack the expertise to do so. But academics new to the profession may enthusiastically agree to supervise a project even if they're ill-equipped to provide the necessary level of critique. It's your responsibility to be both discerning and reasonable about your expectations.

  • Are they broadly sympathetic to the direction you want to take?

    You and your dissertation supervisor absolutely don't have to agree on everything – and disagreements can be enormously constructive (see below). However, there are also some approaches to the same field that are fundamentally incompatible. By all means pick a supervisor who will challenge your assumptions, but not someone who is ideologically opposed to everything you do before you start doing it.

  • Do their working patterns and expectations match your own?

    By now you should "know yourself" sufficiently to be able to identify what you want in a supervisor. Are you a procrastinator in need of a "hands-on" supervisor who will give you strict deadlines for the delivery of outlines and chapters? Or are you highly self-motivated and content to work with a "hands-off" dissertation supervisor who will read your work when you ask them to do so, but not bug you otherwise? Also ask yourself about their style of grading papers – are they generous with praise at the expense of constructive feedback? Do they offer detailed, constructive feedback on how you can make your work better, or do you find their comments picky and overbearing? And, just as importantly, do you tend to get motivated or deflated by the sight of red pen decorating your work?

  • How many other supervisees do they have?

    Popular supervisors may be supervising a high number of dissertations at any one time, potentially reducing the time they have to spend on you. On the other hand, if an academic has no supervisees at all, there might be a reason for that.

Working with your supervisor

It's important to realise that you and your supervisor will need to develop a working relationship based on trust and a shared understanding of what each expects from the other. The exact shape your working relationship takes will depend on your individual working patterns – and the subject area you're working in – but here are some useful pointers to consider

Work with, not for, your supervisor

No doubt you're used to taking modules at university and completing tasks, assignments and exams to pass those modules. You'll have become accustomed to a certain model of working: your tutor gives you direction and instruction, and you complete the assignments to satisfy their requirements. It can be easy, especially for undergraduates, to fall into this familiar pattern when working with a dissertation supervisor. But, although your dissertation will have to meet rigorous assessment criteria set by your department, you shouldn't think about your dissertation supervisor as the tutor for whom you're completing the work. Think of your supervisor instead as a teammate with whom you're working towards completing a goal – an original, rewarding piece of research.

As with any time you're working in a team, you'll need to provide what you're asked for – whether that's a draft of a chapter, a full dissertation outline, or just a set of research questions – when you're asked for it, because another member of your team requires it in order to fulfil their role in the collective endeavour. But don't forget the other important aspect of teamwork. Be clear about what you'd like your teammate to offer you at each step along the way. If you ask your supervisor to look at an early draft, make sure you're explicit about what kind of feedback you're seeking; if you were just looking for confirmation you're "on the right track" structurally, but your draft is full of factual and grammatical errors, it's not going to feel good for anyone when your supervisor assumes that it's a near-final version and rips it to pieces.

Engage your supervisor early

Many supervisors will insist that you meet frequently during the planning stages of your project, especially if you're writing an undergraduate dissertation. But if your supervisor is particularly "hands-off", they may not insist on these early meetings, so it's your job to do so! Involving your supervisor in the planning stages of your dissertation is essential, and will prevent you from making errors that take a great deal of time to fix later, or simply producing a dissertation that your supervisor fundamentally dislikes. Your supervisor will be able to recommend lots of readings for your literature review, and will help you develop a methodology that is robust, well-grounded and theoretically sound, and that – where applicable – adheres to the required ethics standards. If you and your supervisor are in sync about the grounding and methodology of your project, any disagreements that follow are liable to be of the productive rather than the destructive kind!

Meet with your dissertation supervisor frequently, and give them work little and often

Few things are more disheartening than delivering a 5000-word chapter to your supervisor and being told that you need to rewrite almost all of it, because your premise was flawed. It's best to get into the habit of checking in with your dissertation supervisor frequently to discuss where you plan on going next. If you're stuck, your supervisor may be able to help you frame an argument, or transition from one to another. Or they might point you to a couple of sources who will help you make the argument you're trying to make.

Most importantly, you needn't feel that you should only give your supervisor finished or polished work. This is one of the key ways in which a supervisor differs from a tutor, and one of the key reasons why you need to resist thinking of them as such. You shouldn't, of course, give your supervisor sloppy work that you simply haven't bothered to proofread and that is littered with spelling and grammar mistakes. But you can hand in draft introductions or in-process sections with development notes, provided you clearly communicate what it is you're giving your supervisor and what you expect them to do with it.

Disagree – but productively!

You and your supervisor absolutely don't have to agree on everything; academia is based on lively discussion and creative disagreement. Your supervisor is bound to disagree with at least some of what you write – whether it's an interpretation of an individual source or your entire conclusion. It's true that a minority of academics can be dogmatic, and if it becomes evident that your dissertation supervisor is in search of a disciple rather than a student, there may be a problem in your relationship.

If your supervisor is a particularly distinguished academic in their field, it can feel very intimidating to have them argue with you, and it's very tempting to simply back down. Sometimes that's also the right call – knowing when you're wrong and need to change direction is a skill you need to acquire as an emerging academic! Just as often, though, what feels like pressure to simply agree with your supervisor's way of seeing things is actually a challenge, to address counter-arguments in your dissertation and make your work more robust as a result. If you still think your argument is strong even after your supervisor has presented their own reasoning, appropriate that reasoning into your argument, and address head-on why you still believe your interpretation is better. If in doubt, ask your dissertation supervisor directly: do you think I'm just wrong here, or do I need to do more to convince you?

If all else fails… switch!

In the unlikely event that something goes wrong – perhaps you've realised too late that your supervisor simply wants you to write an entirely different dissertation from the one you're writing, or you find their feedback impenetrable and demoralising, or they're too busy to meet with you for weeks at a time – you may decide that you need to switch supervisors. Try talking this out with your dissertation supervisor first, and then approach your head of department.

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