Getting started with supervising Masters projects

By Dr Stephanie Zihms, Lecturer in Researcher Development, University of the West of Scotland.

a cartoon representation of multiple researchers carrying jigsaw puzzle pieces labelled 'research project, 'phd project' and 'idea'. The researchers together slot the pieces into a bigger picture canvas.
Image created by S Zihms using Canva

I offer this post as an introduction to the process of supervising Masters Degree projects, and I will cover how to craft an appropriately sized project, build good working relationships, and ensure timely completion and reporting. It’s intended for all people new to supervising Masters projects.

We probably all recognise that the supervisor-supervisee relationship is one of the most important factors in doctoral degree experience and a growing body of literature shows its impact on degree satisfaction, progression and completion (e.g., Deuchar, 2008; Hemer, 2012; Jordan and Gray, 2012) . Masters’ supervision can sometimes be thought of as being slightly lower stakes due to the shorter time frame over which it takes place. Yet the impact of a thoughtless approach, a strained relationship, poor support or inappropriate behaviour will have lasting impact on the student and can affect their mental and physical health and career progression. These issues can be navigated, averted, or avoided if we manage expectations, agree our management and communication styles and work on building an effective relationship with our students (Lee, 2008; Stracke, 2010 p12; McEvoy et al., 2018). 

Getting started with research supervision

What is your context? Have you ever thought about how your prior experience and life, educational and workplace context influences your practice as a project supervisor? 

My context is that I’m a white cis gender, disabled, academic based in a professional services team in a Scottish University. I have experience of official and unofficial supervision both as a PGR and Post-doctoral Research Associate, and now as a Lecturer. I currently lead our Supervisor Development Module, as well as a wide range of other development activities and support for PGRs and Staff. This personal and professional experience as well as my discipline conventions, and my personal values, gives my approach a certain grounding or ‘lens’. 

Additionally, my experience of being supervised has informed my approach. We can often tend to copy good practice or behaviour we have experienced and try and avoid repeating ‘bad’ practice. On the Supervisor Module I lead; I often hear how people either want to copy their supervisor or never end up like them. These personal reflections, whilst important, are certainly not the whole story. A rounded and capable supervisor will seek to learn from a range of different sources, and will reflect on their approach, and its effectiveness. Let’s start with the fundamentals:

What’s your role as a supervisor?

The role of a supervisor can vary in terms of the written guidance you can access, and it will depend on how you interpret and perform the role as well, in line with the personal contextual influences I discussed above (e.g., Severinsson, 2015). The key responsibilities of supervisors from the institution’s perspective generally cluster around supporting the student to engage with, plan, manage and interpret their research project. And to offer this support in line with requirements, policies, and procedures relating to the academic, career, safeguarding, and wellbeing needs of students.

Make sure you are familiar with your institution’s specific expectations of Masters supervisors and also with the people and resources you have available to support you to supervise well. This can seem like quite a lot to consider, yet being prepared, and informed can help you avoid passing on misinformation, crossing boundaries, or getting into problems down the line.

Your work before the project starts

Obviously, a lot of work needs to happen on your part before the research starts to scope out feasible projects you can support and resource. Do you keep a bank of ideas or even draft proposals for Masters projects? 

If you are looking for ideas your ‘future work’ sections from your doctoral thesis, previous Masters dissertations, or recent publications would make a great start. Keep in mind the limited timescale for a Masters project, and break down the work into multiple small manageable research questions, and ask students to choose (or adapt) just one. Keeping it small, and boundaries is key for completion on time. You can add later if needed, but scaling back a project half way through can feel demoralising to the student. You can always cross-link between related projects, to keep your eye on the bigger picture, and make sure different students are communicating about their findings in related areas.

Expectation management and relationship building

Let’s go back again to the ideas of context and our lived experiences and how these might influence not only our approach but also our expectations for supervision, and for our students. 

It is normal to be influenced by these experiences, but it can lead to misunderstandings and can get a relationship off to a rocky start. Given the short duration of a Masters’ project there might not be enough time to fix a false start and so I highly recommend you undertake the ‘Expectation of Supervision’ exercise developed by Dr Hugh Kearns (Click here to open the Expectations of Research supervision download link). Completing this, first individually, and then as part of a conversation with each supervisee, will ensure that both you and the student(s) you are supervising understand each other and can develop a supervision agreement. It will also help you to begin to recognise each student’s different individual needs, and help you to see how you can tailor your approach to each person.  

It is worth noting here that some students might not be aware of what supervision style ‘works for them’ and a that Masters’ project might be too short to fully figure this out. Do plan in time to reflect on the supervision partnership, and be prepared to make adjustments as needed (e.g., Halse, 2011)

It will be worthwhile to discuss the expectation questions with others in the supervisory team (if appropriate) to ensure you all agree on your roles and contributions as well. That way the supervisee will benefit from unified, coordinated support, which will improve their experience. 

A Masters project – how much time do they really have? 

One way to plan a realistic and reasonable project is to start with the submission date and work our way back. A typical taught Masters Dissertation is proposed around March or April with a submission date in August. This gives roughly three to four months to produce a draft and a further month to finalise the draft. Not long!

What work needs to be included in this short period? What type of project can be realistically done in this time? What resources are required? What skills and experience does the student already have, and what do they not have? What did you learn through the expectation setting processes (above) that will inform this planning work? Are there points that the project could get stuck, or are there critical elements that would block downstream progress if they were to fail or get held up? It’s worthwhile having a timeline template produced early on, that you can discuss, risk assess, and amend with students you are supervising. 

The same exercise can be applied to MRes projects and doctoral theses as well, noting the appropriate duration and timing differences, of course. And it’s worthwhile finding out if your institution has a ‘Dissertation Supervisor Checklist’ or similar, and if not perhaps create your own? (Open Tools for the supervisor folder from I Think Well website)

A Masters project – how to change the world one (small) project at a time

It can be tricky or even frustrating to work on a project if the student feels like it is not contributing to the big challenges society faces. Students may wonder, how will a four-month research project help to solve economic crises, find a cure for cancer or help tackle climate change? Reassure them, and maintain motivation, by ensuring the projects are nestled within these big challenges and highlight or map how they fit into the bigger picture. 

It can also help to develop a diagram for how each Masters’ project links to others, builds on previous work you have done, feeds into future doctoral research and contributes to the wider research ambitions of your team, department, school, or university. 

Connecting project and ultimately the researchers can help them feel less isolated and part of the wider researcher community, and it ensures they understand how research doesn’t happen in isolation but is a collaborative and collegial process that builds on the work of others in the local or disciplinary environment. This can then be backed up by ensuring Masters students are invited to attend research meetings, present their work, take part in the wider discussion and become embedded into the community. You never know they might be future collaborators if given the right acknowledgement and encouragement.

Such a project relationship diagram might also, depending on your career ambitions, be something you want to maintain over time and keep as a live document showing your research direction. It could be the start of mapping out your own niche, and a future research strategy for a fellowship or grant proposal.

There is a lot to consider as a Masters supervisor but there are also many rewards it will bring to you in terms of your professional development, your research niche, your standing in your research community and the networks of researchers and collaborators you will build. Enjoy it above all!

Further Resources to check out:

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