How to Get Great Supervision?

Good versus bad supervision makes a large difference to your thesis project; both in terms of the outcome and how you feel along the way.

The single most important factor is how much time your supervisor dedicates to you. In general, many other factors influence how much useful advice you get from your supervisor (including your personal working styles, prior supervision experience, …). However, even great supervision experience is no use if the time to apply it to your thesis is lacking. Perceived “good” and “bad” supervisor performance in the eyes of their students is primarily determined by the amount of time the supervisors invest.

However, supervisor dedication varies drastically. While some dedicate several hours each week to each student, others aim to minimize contact. In the most extreme case I experienced, a student met her supervisor twice only: first to receive the topic and register the thesis and last to hand it in. The supervisor even confused her gender on the thesis certificate. This is not the kind of supervision you are looking for.

As a student, I was convinced that it was my supervisors job to supervise me, since that was what he got paid for. I felt that I would be doing him a favor if I came up with my own thesis topic, since this would save him the effort of having to think of one. I also felt that since I was essentially putting in six months of full-time work for free, I deserved a fair share of his time in return. Not providing that supervision could then only be attributed to an unfair character of the supervisor. So I felt.

In hindsight, this view is both unhelpful and wrong. Unhelpful, since it offers no insight on how to increase the odds of getting good supervision. Wrong, since it builds on a fundamental attribution error: the amount of supervision time is not primarily determined by the supervisor’s character, but by his or her work context:

Work-Life as a PhD student

Most thesis supervisors are PhD students. They accepted their post to do research they care about, typically abstaining from larger salaries in industry. Most of their working hours, however, are spent with teaching or research projects they do not care about. The hours left for their own research are usually scarce.

To make this more tangible, I want to share some data I gathered during my own dissertation. At some point during my PhD thesis, I was frustrated how slowly I progressed. To find out where my time went, I clocked my entire worklife (using an App on my smartphone). The chart shows the results after the first two weeks:


The height of each bar denotes the number of hours I worked that day. Gray areas are non-dissertation tasks. Red areas are dissertation tasks. The dashed line marks the number of hours I got paid for.

When I looked at that data, I was shocked that I did not even manage to get all of my overtime (i.e. sparetime, since overtime in universities is unpaid) into my dissertation. In response, I focused my schedule by abandoning some tasks to create more time for my thesis. The result is displayed in the next chart:


While the red areas increased, most of my time was still dedicated to non-dissertation tasks. The remaining gray time was required for tasks that I was not at liberty to abandon (e.g. because they involved teaching or research projects that funded my position).

In other words, as a PhD student, I had very little free time and only limited control of the choice of tasks. Furthermore, supervising a thesis does not lift any other obligations—there is no time budget I received for supervision. However, the time for thesis supervision has to come from somewhere. This has the following implications:

  1. If the topic helps with my work (e.g. research project, dissertation, …), the thesis “frees” time that I can dedicate to supervision.

  2. If the topic is not related to other work I need to do, each hour I dedicate to supervision is coming from my sparetime (or dissertation time). It thus competes with the work I am most passionate about.

Depending on the topic, the work context thus actively encourages or discourages dedicated supervision. While I have no hard data on other PhD students, I am convinced that their situation is very similar. How well a topic fits into the work-context of a PhD student thus determines how much time will likely be available for supervision.

If you want good supervision, your thesis topic must thus be aligned with the work context of your supervisor. In practice, this is a lot easier to do if you let your supervisor suggest a topic (or at least the general area of your topic).

In hindsight, I was lucky that my supervisor convinced me to work on the topic he suggested and not the one I had come up with. Not only did it allow him to dedicate much time, it was also better suited for a thesis.

Informatiker, Software-Analyst, Sprecher, Wein- und Biertrinker.

Posted in Initiation
4 comments on “How to Get Great Supervision?
  1. Quora says:

    Which computer science fields should I consider before deciding my thesis topic for a master’s in computer science?

    Good question. From your list of criteria, my advice is to focus on “2) learning”. (Both breakthrough possibility and career prospects are rather speculative. Real-world applicability can be increased by choosing a company to do your thesis at.) Now,…

  2. […] estimate, however, is that the fraction proposed by students is small, however. Why? Because it is much harder to get a motivated supervisor for a topic that you […]

  3. Ann says:

    this article is really perfect.. but what if there is no such good supervisor around anymore? they don’t have the heart to provide A good supervision to the student.. and that is what i’ve experienced now. 😦

  4. Hi Ann, have you already started your thesis? Don’t loose faith too soon 😉 From my experience, there are very many motivated supervisors if you manage to touch topics that they are passionate about.

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