Introduction to supervision

A supervisor will guide your thesis-writing process. Next to content related outcomes, the supervisor will also evaluate additional learning outcomes, which are related to competences on bachelor or master level. Your supervisor will evaluate how you apply ethics appropriate to scientific research, how you demonstrate your ability to work on your own initiative and how you demonstrate your ability to organize your work on this long-term project within a tight schedule.

Be aware that it is common that your supervisor has limited time to supervise you, but nonetheless has great expectations of your commitment. The working relationship you have with your supervisor is unique and it frequently happens that it is the source of some friction and sometimes frustration. This is because your supervisor is the person who is likely to be challenging and (constructively) criticising your ideas on a regular basis.

The relationship with your supervisor can have a major influence on your success rate. Be aware of both your roles in the thesis process and if unclear inform yourself on what to expect and what not to expect. In maintaining a successful relationship with your supervisor you might be able to graduate sooner and achieve a higher grade.

Choosing a supervisor

In some cases you are allowed to choose your own supervisor. Before talking to a potential supervisor, it is important to think carefully of the listed points below.

Preferences with respect to the content:

  • Topic: what do I want to research?
  • Method: how will I analyse my topic?

Personal preferences:

  • Level of ambition: which grade do I want to achieve? When do I want to graduate?
  • Self-support: How much guidance do I need from my supervisor?
  • Click: Do I prefer to work with a woman or a man? Do I prefer an open or a formal way of communication?

It is important to find supervisors who have the time, the right knowledge and the commitment to work with you productively. Next to that, it is important to be clear what you want, or need, from a supervisor.

They may be a great expert on the precise field in which you want to work (a particular author, say). Or they may be exponents of a theory or method that you want to work with, in a different field from theirs. Or perhaps they may be neither, but have a general knowledge of the broad field, and of different approaches to its study, and sufficient pedagogical skill and experience to be able to direct you effectively. A supervisor of any of these types may be very successful; but try to get clear in advance what it is they can offer you. If you are working, for instance, in an area where very precise skills or knowledge are required (e.g. some kinds of bibliography, or history of ideas, or advanced psychoanalytic theory) you may need the specialist, not the generalist.

Managing the relationship with your supervisor

Good, open communication is the key to managing your relationship with your supervisor. At the beginning of your thesis, come to an agreement with your supervisor on the writing process:

  • The time and frequency of your supervision meetings.
  • An overall plan and timeline for your research, as well as how you will agree on interim deadlines.
  • Whether your supervisor would like to see regular pieces of work, or just finished drafts, and how they will give feedback.
Dealing with problems

Writing your thesis can be a long, intense, and emotional process, and unfortunately, the supervisory relationship sometimes breaks down. If you are having problems working with your supervisor:

  • Try to talk to your supervisor about your difficulties first – and see if you can work them through.
  • Take a step back and identify what is making it difficult to work together – focus on specific professional difficulties, as opposed to the character or personality of your supervisor.
  • Get an objective, confidential, outside perspective from someone you can trust, such as a student advisor.
  • Ask fellow students who you can trust if they have had similar problems and how they have managed them.
  • Try to maintain communications with your supervisor and don’t let the relationship deteriorate to a point where you don’t talk.
  • If things are very difficult, see if you can find a third person to be a mediator. This could be a student advisor or thesis coordinator (if applicable) at your faculty.

Things generally go wrong because of a failure of communication. Therefore, the first thing to do if you are unhappy about something (or if the supervisor is unhappy with your work!) is to talk about it. Don’t hide.

General tips and tools for students

There are some things you can do to make the process go smoothly; before, during and after your meeting with your supervisor.  

Before supervisions prepare for the meeting by thinking of:

  • Your progress and achievements since the last meeting
  • Any problems or points you need clarifying
  • An action plan of what to do next

During your supervisions:

  • Take notes, especially of any actions or things to follow up.
  • Pay attention to the questions your supervisor asks, as these are often crucial in helping you think about the direction of your research.
  • Take the opportunity to explain and defend your ideas.

After your supervisions:

  • Make sure that you confirm the details from each supervision in writing (via email) to check there have been no misunderstandings.
  • Reflect on what you have discussed – it is likely to trigger more ideas.
  • Take your supervisor’s advice seriously – they don’t expect you to follow everything they suggest, but they do expect you to consider it carefully.

Get support

If you don’t feel able to address the issue with your supervisor, contact a student advisor at your faculty.

Available workshops at Maastricht University

The Student Services Centre has a wide range of training, workshops and lectures available that can help you with your studies. Take a look at their website for more information.