How does a thesis look from the other side? This guest post is written by Dr Kristin Natalier, a qualitative researcher and senior lecturer in the School of Sociology and Social Work, University of Tasmania. If you catch her on a good day Kris will admit she actually quite likes working with research students on their projects. In this post Kristin sets out her manifesto for treating your supervisor right!

It’s not me, it’s you. Do you treat your supervisor right?

Supervisors can be difficult.  We can be eccentric. We can be tetchy. We can lose your drafts and forget to give you feedback. Sometimes we don’t treat you right. But it’s not all a one way street – sometimes you treat us bad, too. Here are some questions to ponder …

Do you roll your eyes when your supervisor offers advice?

Supervisors know stuff. We have spent years as high achieving undergraduates, postgraduates and then academics finding out about stuff. We were employed by our institution because we know about stuff. Some of that stuff will be relevant to your research.

Even if you are working with someone who’s not an expert in your specific topic, they will have something worthwhile to offer you.  Academics ‘get’ their discipline:  we have a working knowledge of its parameters, debates, what’s hot and what’s not. If you have been thinking ‘class’ and your supervisor says ‘what about gender’? , don’t presume they have no idea.  Follow it up: ask questions then or go away, do some reading and some thinking. You don’t have to agree but you do need to engage with the possibilities of the suggestion. Discount the advice out of hand simply because it doesn’t obviously fit with your vision. The mind of a trained academic can be fiendishly subtle…

Thinking about advice is also important when it comes to comments on your written work, especially thesis chapters. If a supervisor asks you to do something, do it or explain why you haven’t. Ignoring it won’t make it go away – it just leads your supervisor to wonder if you are recalcitrant, can’t read, or are just not very clever.

Do you presume your supervisor has poor comprehension skills?

We don’t. We’ve made a career reading and writing in ways that are appropriate to our – and your – discipline. So if we write ‘I don’t understand what you are trying to get at here’, presume it’s because you aren’t writing clearly.  It’s not because we don’t understand sophisticated ideas or specialised language. It’s because you don’t write clearly and effectively – and we’re doing you a big favour pointing that out before some pissed off reviewer does.

Do you act as if your supervisor has world enough and time?

We don’t. You’re likely one of many research students and definitely one of many obligations.  Being late for meetings – or worse, not turning up – are obviously egregious behaviours. Most dodgy practices are a little more subtle, based on the presumably unexamined presumption that when you’re not with us, we while away the hours on Facebook and ebay.  These practices include unrealistic expectations for turn around times on submitted work, expecting instant access when forms need to be signed, ‘just dropping in’, and replying to a request for a meeting one week later and one day before the suggested date (our dance card will then be full).

Do you follow the letter of the law but not its spirit?

When you agree to deliver a draft to your supervisor on Friday, do it right.  A draft is a complete and relatively coherent piece of work, written in sentences and proof read. It doesn’t include notes to yourself or questions to your supervisor (‘Should I discuss Said here?’), there are no missing sections (‘feminist critique of individualisation to go here’), the font is all the same size and style, you have referenced your work and provided a reference list.  Friday means close of business Friday and preferably earlier (hey, it’s Friday), not 11.58pm… or 8.58 am on Monday.

Do you act as though your supervisor is your support staff?

Supervisors have been employed for their disciplinary expertise.  We are not paid to: print out your 357 page thesis draft sent via email, photocopy it and pass the copies to the rest of the team; line edit your work; correct your systematic and yet never predictable misuse of semi-colons; find forms on the University website; remind you of important dates relating to your candidature; provide a reading list of foundational texts in your field. In short, we are not your secretary, editor or research assistant.

Do you hide things from your supervisor?

Please don’t. We don’t need or want to know most details about your life but we can’t work with you to develop your research if we are missing key information about your circumstances.  This information includes: any illness that is difficult to manage and may affect your thesis work; significant life events or commitments that may affect your thesis work; problems with the design and implementation of your project; skills you don’t have but need to have.  Knowing about this issue will shape what we can expect from you, how we will support you, and how we advocate for your interests to the institution.

Do you say thank you?

For many of us, supervision is the very definition of a thankless task. Being listed halfway through the thesis acknowledgements is a pretty small payoff for over three years of effort.  Saying ‘thank you’ at the end of a meeting or when your supervisor has commented on your work is a nice touch, even if it is only common politeness.  Even classier: delivering your supervisor their crutch of choice (chocolate, coffee, moonshine) when you plonk the first full draft of your thesis on their desk. Those suckers can be rough to read.

Thesis writers feel mad, sad and bad in response to their supervisors’ behaviours. But supervisors have feelings too. More than feelings, we have professional expertise and authority. And we write references for our graduate students. If you don’t communicate well, find it difficult to work with others, fail to meet deadlines, present poor quality work and struggle to be flexible in your thinking … well, how’s that reference going to read?

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