Recent Blog Posts

Dissertation Supervisors: When More Is Not Better

Universities increasingly pride themselves on appointing two or more supervisors for each graduate student. If you plan to start your MA or PhD, don’t accept such ‘offer’ without reading this post.

In case you’re already blessed with multiple supervisors, you might still finish your degree on time. Albeit with some time loss and possible confusion. Or you might be in for a huge disappointment.

Becoming a supervisor is relatively easy for a professor. A department can appoint any staff member to officially guide you in your dissertation.

But being a good supervisor requires something your average professor does not possess. Experience, and lots of it. Plus a good amount of patience and persistence.

Your university might appoint two (MA) or three supervisors (PhD) for your dissertation. Resist being fooled, however:

Unless one supervisor is an experienced graduate advisor, your prospects for a future career in academia might be compromised.

For the university, appointing two supervisors removes the fear that one of them would unexpectedly quit. Departments will not tell you, but having two or more staff members to supervise graduate students looks good in their annual evaluation. And for the extra supervisors, it’s a way to boost their personal research achievements.

What about you then, the unsuspecting MA or PhD student? For one, an extra supervisor can cause damage through bestowing inexperienced advice.

A little-published staff member might give his/her blessing to your dissertation, only for the co-supervisor to revoke that decision.

In case of a PhD candidate, this can result in a setback of a full academic year: one semester to make changes to the dissertation, another few months for university bureaucracy to run its course.

The external examiner, usually someone from another affiliated university, might become alerted to your supervisor’s inexperience and overconfidence. This examiner then has the right to present the student a list of proposed changes.

What awaits the graduate student is painstaking work in which the original supervisor, now academically belittled, will prefer not to get involved.

It is, therefore, in your interest to find out one essential piece of information:

Does the university you plan on joining appoint supervisors on the basis of workload rather than intellectual ability?

If so, don’t even consider enrolling as a graduate student at that school.

I enjoy guiding graduate students. Yet, I’d describe my job as incredibly difficult: there’s a huge responsibility resting upon any supervisor. Were I to shift that responsibility to others, the student or a second supervising colleague, I’d just be doing ‘a job’. That, unfortunately, is increasingly happening in universities nowadays.

So make sure that, if possible, you are guided by one supervisor only. Someone who understands that responsible supervision means assisting you until you’ve successfully completed your dissertation.

Don’t be shy and do research the supervisor’s publication and conference list. Discretely talk to other academic staff. Have a chat with the supervisor’s current graduate students.

Does the supervisor write with his/her graduate students? Good. Does s/he write almost exclusively with PhD students and have few other publications to show for? Bad.

Would it surprise you to hear that some supervisors claim co-authorship of every publication written by graduate students? Do not think that this is acceptable. No supervisor should use your work to forward their own research standings.

If you write a paper, it’s in your name. If your supervisor has contributed, you both share the publication. If you’re in doubt, discuss this privately with a professor you can trust.

Let’s assume you have a choice between a supervisor with a moderate international reputation and one with a star-like status. Avoid the ‘star’. Chances are the moderately published professor will be in his office if you need him. His star-like colleague might, at best, be able to Skype you once a month.

If your choice lies between a popular supervisor and one with sufficient publications but with few conferences to show for, avoid both. The former is likely to be overworked: he has to distribute his energy among a high number of graduates. The latter probably lacks passion in sharing his or her research with others. Read: also with you.

As a graduate, you need to be supervised by a professor who’s passionate. Not just about teaching, but in particular about research. But don’t choose a supervisor who’s either constantly out of office or refusing your requests for a meeting.

In particular, avoid universities where professors are allowed to appoint other PhD students to tutor or even supervise you.

I know of cases in which the star-status supervisor ended up being disappointed, both in the student as well as in the assisting supervisor. The unfortunate students could only approach – ‘beg’, actually – for help from another professor.

As a graduate student, beware of some universities’ bureaucratic system. Although it’s easy for professors to become graduate supervisors, universities put high demands on them. A number of supervisors then allocate this extra work to their graduate students.

A good supervisor will protect you and act like an academic bumper against bureaucracy. A bad one will expect you to take care of filling out forms and preparing reports.

This, however, is valuable time you should spend on writing your dissertation. And every moment you don’t work on your dissertation (the only part of your MA or PhD that matters) is a lost moment you could have been reading, attending a conference, or writing your literature review.

The worst thing to do is not to choose an MA or PhD thesis/topic yourself. Sometimes students attempt to choose any ‘good’ (kind, famous, or both) supervising professor in any ‘well-ranked’ university. A professor/supervisor who, in all likelihood, will propose a topic not directly related to the student’s field of study.

Although students might graduate on time doing so, it would take a significant effort on their behalf. They have to re-educate themselves in the topic chosen by their professor. The worst-case scenario: not graduating on time, because that good professor could not be there when the students needed him most. Do yourself a huge favor: choose your own research topic and thesis.

From the outset, be passionately connected with your thesis. Don’t over-rely on your supervisor’s input. It’s your thesis, your research.

If English is not your native language, a good supervisor will correct and edit your dissertation on a weekly base. If he doesn’t, kindly ask him to do so. Or find external help and consult someone – like yours truly.

But never – ever – delay the editing and proofreading part until a few weeks before your deadline.

A good supervisor will set up weekly one-hour meetings. Don’t settle for anything less, even if it would involve some insistence on your behalf.

Finally, a word on a supervisor’s appearance. And a word of tribute to my late MA supervisor.

First impressions matter in choosing a supervisor. Don’t fancy a supervisor dressed casually? Yet, a supervisor dressed up to the nines is no better than someone in a bermuda and T-shirt. I actually believe the opposite to be true:

An Armani suit on a graduate supervisor is, at times, used to compensate imperfections of a more academic kind.

A quick look at online editing services showing photos of smartly dressed individuals claiming to be ‘academics’ speaks volumes.

In Leuven, I was supervised by a professor who often met his MA students (including myself) in a local pub. He’d happily drink dark ales while giving precious and practical advice.

You’d expect me to tell you that this was inappropriate. That his students were in for a hard time being supervised by someone with such a ‘habit’. Except that they weren’t. This man was there for his graduate students – every week for several hours, or as long as it took. And every hour of the day in his office or aula.

Coupled with a unique inspirational teaching style, his feedback on our draft dissertations proved invaluable. He passed away far too young and is missed by those who knew him. If you’re a former student and happen to be reading this post, I’m quite sure you do remember this iconic professor in Linguistics at Leuven University.

The moral of this final tribute?

Unless alcoholism or sexual advances are involved, don’t judge supervisors from seemingly unusual habits.
Don’t approach supervisors merely because of their star-like status or appearance.
Look at their proven track record, talk to their colleagues, and approach students they’re currently working with.