Thesis Writing Tips - Choosing and Working With a Research Supervisor

Many degree programs require both undergraduate and graduate students to work on a thesis as a final requirement for graduation. Working on a thesis can be both an exciting and even at times, frustrating experience. This article identifies several steps on how to definitely make the thesis writing experience a pleasant one and specifically, it focuses on choosing and working with a thesis mentor, which is one of the most crucial aspects of the process.
Understanding your own Research Interests
Even before embarking on a search for the most suitable thesis supervisor, the very first step is to spend time in understanding your own research interest(s) and to narrow them down into 2-3 interrelated topics as a prospective thesis. Although students will only work on 1 topic which they will formally propose to their department, being prepared with 2-3 interrelated topics gives them more options to work with.
The thesis writing process often begins during the third year of an undergraduate program and it is to the advantage of the students to be able to formalize and define their research interests by then. Otherwise, some students go into thesis writing unprepared and soon after they realize in the middle of the process that they are working on a topic that they are not really interested in. This is very common among students. It wastes time and should be avoided. I strongly suggest for students to take some time to narrow down their research interests even though they are still semesters away from formally enrolling in a required thesis writing course.
If students are aware that thesis writing is a requirement for graduation then they can start exploring possible topics that interests them early on in their degree program. This advice is particularly helpful for graduate students. The different courses that the students take from their first year in a program and onwards abound with prospective topics and issues for study. What is important is for students to develop a mindset that they are on a lookout for topics and issues related to their degree program that either interests them or is related to a personal concern that they would like to have a better understanding of. Eventually, students should be able to formalize and identify the 2-3 interrelated topics just in time for enrolling in a thesis writing course.
Finding a Suitable Research Supervisor
When students are clearer as to the topic that they would like to pursue, the next step is to find a suitable research supervisor or thesis mentor. There are several important considerations. Your research supervisor should be knowledgeable about the topic that you want to work on and even better, has written about the topic or is considered as an expert on the subject matter which you plan to study. Being able to align the 2-3 proposed topics with the expertise and research experience of a prospective research supervisor will help a lot in enabling students solicit quality advise and guidance. This can be done by asking faculty members for suggestions when looking for a prospective mentor or you can also research the publication lists of faculty members in your department or even at another department. Usually, faculty publication lists are published online on the department website. Moreover, asking around and knowing about a prospective research supervisor's supervision style is equally important. It can be assumed that students have been in the class or have worked with, in one way or the other, with almost all the faculty members of the department that they belong to. Use this as a basis in gauging the work and supervision style of a prospective mentor. Some research supervisors, as evident also in their own classroom teaching method, highly prefer their students to be independent learners. This appeals to some students while other students prefer a more nurturing approach from their mentor and in being directly told what to do and how to do things. Students should align their own work style with the supervision style and even work style of their prospective research supervisor. If the supervision and work style of a mentor are too different from the work habits of the students being supervised, this can be a source of conflict that can lead to undesirable delays and frustration for the students. Remember, thesis writing in itself is already a daunting task and running into conflict with the thesis mentor due to work habit differences always complicates the whole process and is to the disadvantage of the students.
Expectation Sharing and Goal Setting
As soon as a research supervisor and the student(s) have made a formal agreement or understanding to work together in the thesis process, it is necessary to discuss and share expectations and goals during the first meeting. Students often take a passive role in their working relationship with the supervisor thinking that mentoring is a one-way process in which they simply follow whatever the mentor wants to be done in the research. This mindset should be changed since the thesis writing process, which is a form of challenge-based project teaches students to be active collaborators. The thesis process is a collaborative process but most of the effort must come from the students.
Students should be aware of their mentor's expectations and goals and vice versa. Doing so also helps both parties understand each other more which again can help lessen possible conflict in the working relationship. Students will be working closely with their research supervisor. In any working relationship, it is important for all the persons concerned to understand each other's motivation for getting involved in a project. A successful working relationship is achieved whenever both student(s) and the supervisor feel that their needs are met and their voice is heard in the duration of working on the project.
Setting-up an Appointment Schedule
Setting-up the most workable appointment schedule all depends on the work style of the research supervisor and the student(s). There is no need to meet on a weekly basis unless your supervisor wants this and you'll be able to cope with the demands of producing tangible work every week, which can be stressful if you are still doing other coursework at the same time. Also, students have to consider the workload of their research supervisor. Negotiate for a win-win situation by taking into consideration your own work pace and style but with careful consideration of the department's prescribed schedule for submitting the thesis and doing the oral defenses. Remember, doing research and writing a thesis is not a walk in the park. Do not impress your research supervisor by committing to a weekly appointment only to make several cancellations later on. Doing so is always to the students' disadvantage as it gives the impression that they cannot keep up with the expectations. A reasonable schedule would be to meet your supervisor at least once or twice a month and to make sure that during the meetings, you are able to show substantial developments or improvements in the work that you are doing. Sending emails in-between meetings to ask questions or get some small advice is also a good way of showing your supervisor that you are doing your work.
Students often grit whenever they think of their thesis or are about to work on it. It cannot be denied that thesis writing is indeed challenging but it is definitely a good challenge to help students grow intellectually and develop a keen understanding of the issues and problems in their future area of specialization. Everyone needs a good challenge and thesis writing need not be a frustrating experience.
Dr. Joseph Anthony Narciso Z. Tiangco teaches at Shu-Te University in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. He is the author of The Way of Psychology: Nothingness and Relatedness in the Intellectual History of Psychology. His research interests are philosophy of social sciences, postmodernism, philosophy and psychology of the self, and English studies. Dr. Tiangco is also involved in managing several projects - personal and for the university. Feel free to invite him to give a lecture or do consultancy work at your institution


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