The role of thesis supervisors in UCD: Symbiotic or unsatisfactory?

Image Credit: Katerina Holmes

Sophie Finn examines the current supervisor system for final year students undertaking a thesis, gaining the perspective of both supervisors and students on the role and its value.

Many final year students have a mandatory thesis or dissertation which can amount to up to 20% of their grade. Depending on their course and thesis choice, students may be matched, or choose a supervisor or advisor to assist them. Supervisors or advisors are often researching their own project, juggling teaching responsibilities, and may not have the necessary resources to fully assist students. Depending on the situation, this may leave supervisors in a situation where they cannot adequately provide the needs of their students, and students in a vulnerable and dependent position where a large chunk of their final GPA may be affected by their supervisor. 

A supervisor for Masters and PhD students spoke to the University Observer about their experience of the role. “In terms of the supervisor role in general, I supervise MSc students (taught and research students) and PhD students. In terms of resources, it is all dependent on the funding available to the research group. Thus, we are highly reliant on external funds (Science Foundation Ireland, Enterprise Ireland, EU ITN funds, and industry collaborations). From the schools and the university there is very little budget available to support research, or even teaching.” 

The supervisor commented that in their experience there is a lack of training provided for the role. “I haven't had specific training in supervision, and I think most colleagues haven't, but I did a 2-year course on university pedagogics years ago when working in Denmark, and I find that finding the right chemistry between supervisor/advisor with the students is the most important part of the process.” 

I haven't had specific training in supervision, and I think most colleagues haven't

Discussing how the position could be improved, the supervisor placed an emphasis on learning rather than an exam based approach. “We need to support the student learning process, and I think there is too much focus on course material rather than the actual learning process. Ideally, we should foster an environment that allows time for in-depth thinking and exploration. We start doing science because we are curious to learn, but many end up focusing more on grades and on exams rather than the fun of discovery. Ideally, we would need longer time on a single topic, maybe in group projects, rather than racing through a lot of topics in a short time. The focus is too much on exams rather than on exploration. In the research groups we can go more in depth, typically a PhD is 3 to 4 years. There it is more of a mentor role in a friendly and stimulating atmosphere.”

The University Observer also spoke to a recent graduate of UCD about their experience working with a supervisor for their final year thesis. The student chose a particular supervisor and PhD student based on their area of interest. However, the supervisor's research project was not fully articulated when the thesis began, “the research was really vague, and not properly defined”. The ethics were also not yet approved which resulted in a “rocky start” and caused difficulty throughout the thesis.

Due to the lack of an approved subject to research, when the student was due to begin carrying out experiments, they did not have the access to the subject. They also didn’t know what their thesis would be based on, it was very “make up as you go along”, which caused confusion and frustration. The student outlined that it was difficult to begin writing without the subject material as they weren’t sure what to write about. “It was completely made up, the writing up and calculating was so difficult, how could I compare and analyse things I did not have access to?”. The student also felt they weren’t supported during the difficult time. The student believes the supervisor choice heavily impacted their thesis outcome “so much depends on your supervisor and PhD student, and we were told that by other students when choosing”.

Another student who has chosen to remain anonymous outlined that they have also had a difficult experience with their supervisor. “I haven’t had the best experience with my supervisor so far. They weren’t aware of parts of my thesis that were due soon. I needed guidance from them to complete the project and they didn’t know about it.” The student outlined they personally like the supervisor, but don’t feel confident with their assistance for their thesis. “They are really nice, but I just feel they’re not taking it seriously, or not focused on it and it’s stressing me out. I don’t really feel supported, and the project is really important to me and for my grade.”

Depending on the situation, this may leave supervisors in a situation where they cannot adequately provide the needs of their students, and students in a vulnerable and dependent position where a large chunk of their final GPA may be affected by their supervisor.

Students are often matched with supervisors who also have a postgraduate student they are supervising. The relationship between postgraduate students and their supervisors has been fraught with problems, with many groups, such as the UCD Anti-casualisation Group airing the difficulties these students encounter. UCD has a web page with resources for graduate students and supervisors, which offers information on how best to work together, although this is setting the bar low in terms of resources for these students and their supervisors, undergraduate students and their supervisors are not afforded this facility.

However, despite some students' negative experiences with their supervisors, it’s clear this situation does not apply universally. A final year English with Creative Writing student has had an extremely positive experience with their advisor so far. “So far my experience with my dissertation advisor has been very positive. As I am doing a creative dissertation this year, the editing process can be very daunting but I have found my meetings with my advisor to be extremely helpful. We discuss what I have written and my plan for the story going further while also fleshing out ideas together and brainstorming the positives and negatives of each stylistic choice. My only complaint thus far is that we only meet three times a semester and I wish it was more often. While I understand this is meant to be an independent project, I struggle to get more done without the pressures of deadlines and know that my dissertation would be much farther along if our discussions occurred more often.”

A final year Computer Science student is also experiencing a predominately beneficial relationship with their advisor. “I think overall my experience with the final year project process has been positive and I don't feel particularly dependent on my advisor. Though they have often provided resources for me to make use of or read in areas I'm unfamiliar with, it's always helpful and if I decide I would like to go in a different direction, it's accepted without much hassle.” 

However the student outlined they can feel under pressure with weekly meetings so close to exams. “We have been holding weekly meetings and while these are beneficial for discussion, I can often feel pressure to have something tangible done every week, which can be hard especially now approaching the end of term with so many assignments due at once. On balance though, my advisor has allowed me to be relatively free in the process while providing adequate but not overbearing support where I need it.”

It’s clear the experience of supervisors and students varies and cannot be generalised. Discrepancies in the experience may be due to individual supervisors and students’ personalities and work ethic, or differ depending on the course, nature of the thesis and role of the supervisor. Each experience is subjective, however there does appear to be a wider issue regarding the training of supervisors, resulting in problems in the support of thesis students and the relationship between supervisor and student. It has also been suggested supervisors are limited by an overemphasis on exam-based learning. These issues may hinder supervisors’ ability to offer the necessary support and guidance to some students, this drawback is exacerbated by the important role a thesis plays in the students final GPA, and as a result their dependence of the student on the supervisor.