Lecturing Series: Supervising Undergraduate Dissertations

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This article explores an aspect of a lecturer’s job that is rarely discussed: supervising dissertations. As a PhD student you will have probably gained experience in lecturing, leading small group work, marking and even designing your own sessions. But it is rare that anyone other than full time staff are asked to supervise dissertations. So, how do you prepare for this task?

One to one work:

For some lecturers, dissertation supervision is one of their favourite parts of the job because it presents a rare opportunity for working closely with one student over a period of time (usually one academic year) on a project close to your area of interest. This activity requires a different communication skill to that of speaking to a classroom full of students. You need to be informal, collaborative and friendly but maintain the distance between tutor and student.

There are also important issues to be aware of when conducting one to one meetings. It is recommended that you don’t meet with a student of the opposite sex behind closed doors. Have your office door open or meet in a public place. Keep a record of every meeting so that if a colleague or your line manager queries your progress you will be able to inform him or her of what has happened in your meetings.

Achieving a balance:

Acting as a supervisor is a difficult job because the student will often be studying something dear to your heart so the tendency is to try to guide them too firmly. It is important that the student is allowed to design their project, undertake the research and write it up without too much interference from you. You are a guide and advisor, not the senior partner in a project requiring them to do the menial tasks. You are there to facilitate their independent learning.

Time management and record keeping:

A key duty is to encourage your student to stick to a timetable by which they can easily complete their project. This will usually involve setting mini-deadlines throughout the year and meeting regularly to hear updates on their progress. It is your job to ensure that these timetables are met, and to chase students who forget to contact you for weeks at a time.

It is also important to keep notes recording the progress of each student. You may have ten or more dissertation students, so keeping track of their projects is a challenge.

Extra duties:

Because you will see this student regularly, he or she will probably find you more approachable than other tutors seen only in a large group context.  You may become a confidant for that student, listening to a range of academic and personal problems. Usually you only have to provide a friendly ear. However, on some occasions you may have to help with accommodation, finance, relationship or other personal problems that are beyond your remit. In that case, refer to your departmental guidance. Make sure you protect the student’s privacy and integrity when discussing the case elsewhere.

You might be asked to act as a referee for jobs after the student has finished university. Although this is rather time consuming, it is a rewarding part of the job because you see your students move on to the next stage in their lives. When writing a reference, it is important to be honest in your evaluation, but bear in mind that the candidate can ask to see their references so don’t write anything that you would be embarrassed for them to see.

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