To avoid friction at the interface between you and your author, it helps to have a common understanding of each others responsibilities. This includes an understanding of what each one is not responsible for.


There is no single, universal way of defining these interfaces. However, some distributions of responsibilities work better than others. This post describes the interface design that I have seen work well for many.

Author responsibilities

The author does the actual work, including writing the thesis document, searching literature, performing experiments and so on. Other responsibilities may not be as obvious, but are equally important:

  • Make choices. Each thesis involves choosing between alternatives (e.g. algorithms, evaluation approaches, study objects, …). Many of them affect both effort and quality of the result, not always in predictable ways. The authors suffers both good and bad consequences of these choices much more than the supervisor. It is thus the responsibility of the author to make them. The supervisor can advise, but the author makes the final decision.

  • Manage time. It’s the supervisor’s responsibility to make sure that a topic’s size is a rough fit for the available time. But that’s about it. Doing actual time management is the responsibility of the author. This includes communicating time-related problems early.

  • Communicate problems. Each interesting thesis topic contains a certain amount of unpredictability. It is thus common to run into unforseeable problems. These could relate to performance of your implementation, availability of study objects, bugs in third party components and whatnot. Very often, they are not your fault. Until you communicate them to your supervisor, however, they are your responsibility. Communicate them early. Often you can find a fix of a workaround together that non-obvious to the author.

  • Obtain feedback. When you do something for the first (or second) time, you are naturally uncertain about how you are doing. If this uncertainty becomes a distraction, ask your supervisor for feedback.

Supervisor responsibilities

It is the supervisor’s responsibility to provide the basis of a great thesis. This includes:

  • Topic definition. Many factors determine how well a thesis topic is suited for a great thesis. Its the supervisor’s responsibility to make sure a topic is suitable.

  • Scoping. Even after 25+ supervised theses, I find it impossible to scope a topic perfectly to the available time. I am convinced that this is an inherent trait of interesting, challenging topics: they simply cover uncharted territory. This should not be the author’s problem, however. The solution is to tweak the scope to fit the remaining time. Scope modifiers are e.g. the number of research questions or study objects in the evaluation and the number of algorithms to implement.

  • Giving feedback and advice.

While it is in the best interest of the supervisor that the author creates a great thesis, it is not his responsibility. Consequently, it is not the supervisor’s job to:

  • Micro-manage the author
  • Debug code, search literature, design studies, …
  • Proof-read the whole thesis document

Many supervisors will still help you out with these topics, especially if you ask them. However, treat it as what it is: a favor.


There are certainly other ways of distributing responsibility between author and supervisor. More important than each individual choice, however, is that you have a common view of your responsibilities. So independent of how you design your interfaces, make sure that your understanding is mutual.

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