The chasm between you and the supervisor

All that distance between them

Ever been frustrated at a supervision meeting? Do you feel that they never really read the stuff you send them? Is your supervisor asking questions in the meeting which you have already answered before or in written form? Are you anxious as the precious little time you have with your supervisor is squandered like this? Is there anything you could do to change it?

I’m in a good position to see both sides of the fence. I’m discussing my own PhD project with my supervisors and an advisory group. At the same time I am supervising two MA students in their dissertation/thesis writing.1 So the mechanics behind the frustration is becoming clear. The main issue is the communication breakdown which stems from the asymmetry in the situation which affects on several levels.

Total time

The student devotes most of his time (and often life) to her/his thesis for a long period. The supervisor allocates (is allowed to allocate by the uni) a few hours to this one student every couple of months. For example, I’m allowed to spend 10 hours on each MA thesis.

Thougth resources

The student’s mind is employed full-time on the topic. He eats, breathes, sleeps the topic. This goes so far that usually no-one can stand the student because the thesis topic is all he talks about. The supervisor divides her time between this student, other students, her own research, administrative tasks, lectures, preparing for lectures, evaluating student essays etc.


For the student the dissertation might be the most important thing in life just then. Perhaps almost more important than life. (Just think about how many relationships are ruined by dissertations.) For the supervisor, the student is just another student and the dissertation just another dissertation. Sure, there sometimes are exceptional students and papers, but most of them are routine to the supervisor.

Memory capacity

Because the student is so immersed in the topic she is actually storing most of it in her head. She can think about it, revise it, have detailed discussions about it, at all times. The supervisor probably forgets most things about the topic between the meetings. He probably stores a some kind of general idea, or an outline of it in his head. Therefore the supervisor must remind himself of the topic every time before a meeting.

Time used before a meeting

Usually the supervisor(s) asks for a plan, summary, an outline or something similar before a meeting. The student will spend days or hours doing this. She will evaluate the whole research and then will try to summarise where she currently is at. The supervisor will probably have an hour or two to read this summary and understand the situation.

So often instead of efficient communication, this leads to a communication breakdown. The plan, summary, or the outline is too long for the supervisor to really digest in that hour or two. In the meeting the supervisor will then pose questions that the student has already answered in the summary.

The alternatives?

Is there a solution then? Maybe. Instead of the written situation report, perhaps it would be wiser to communicate with different means.

I’ve personally tried creating pdf-presentations. And it seems to work. The downside is that the presentation is extra work. Usually the summary can be created from the written chapters with copying and pasting. But the presentation is extra work which will not be useful in anything else. But doing the slides is a really really useful exercise in encapsulating the research for oneself. It truly clarifies the topic when one tries to think how to squeeze it into five to ten pages.

Another good way might be using mind maps. They are a nice way of giving a general overview into the research. It is easy to see if there is something crucial missing, or if the topic is threatened by too many sidetracks. Mind maps can be slightly cryptic but they work well as starting points for discussion.

Naturally there is still use for the written reports. Among other things, they prove that the student can express his/her thoughts in prose. And they might help some students suffering from a writer’s block. Forcing oneself to write the report might just help getting through it. I think I’m using this blog in a similar manner. I’m keeping up my writing skills while I’m going through literature and not actually writing my thesis.

The student who cried wolf

I think it is best for the student to try and understand the situation from the supervisor’s perspective. Yes, you are desperate but try to remember that you are not the only thing in your supervisor’s life. Do not call out to your supervisor all the time. Do not swamp them in constant revisions. Try to gauge your problems and contact your supervisor only when it is really necessary. Remember that you’re getting only a limited amount of time from them and it just might run out at some point.

  1. Different countries use these terms differently. For example, master’s paper in the UK is a dissertation and a doctorate paper is a thesis. But in Finland the master’s paper is a thesis and the doctorate paper is a dissertation… So, here i’m going to use them interchangeably. []