As we mature as adults, existential questions begin to emerge deep from our consciousness: ‘what am I here for? what is the purpose of life? and how do I gain fulfilment?’ With the overbearing need to know that our lives mattered, the most personal of those questions is, ‘What is my legacy?’ Some played a role in alleviating poverty, some can be seen in enduring skyscrapers, and some live on through people who were influenced by their ideas.
Football fans will be familiar with the legacy left by the late Johan Cruyff. Unlike Pele and Maradona who were great footballers, Cruyff’s influence extends beyond his playing days. Institutions such as Ajax Amsterdam and FC Barcelona still adopt his vision of how the game should be played. He founded La Masia, Barcelona’s youth academy which has consistently produced technically superb players, Lionel Messi and Andres Iniesta being the most obvious. Cruyff can also count the likes of Pep Guardiola, Ronald Koeman and Frank Rijkaard as his disciples in ‘total football’. Mentoring works in professional football.
Does mentoring exist in the selfish world that is the pursuit of academic success? Yes, you have a study group during exam period. Yes, you have seniors whom you look up to for advice. But are you alone and in the dark when it comes to writing your dissertation? Although 95% of your paper is indeed independent work and fighting against your natural tendency to procrastinate will require much effort, take heart for you are far from alone. Remember that email you received at the start of this academic year from your dissertation supervisor? TADA! Your Johan Cruyff is within reach. The question is, “Will you make the best out of this relationship?”
Irrespective of your current stage of the dissertation writing process, the following tips can be applied immediately. The golden thread that unites these three tips is this mantra (which you are to recite now): “Your supervisor is willing to help IF you are willing to help yourself first”.
- Your supervisor treats you as an adult; act like one.
For most, a dissertation will be the crowning achievement of your undergraduate or masters degree. For most, it will be the largest piece of original work attempted in your life thus far. It is rightly a challenge, but it can be done well. The process of dissertation writing, to me, gives us a first taste of adulthood: you are entirely responsible for how your life turns out. Therefore, keep in mind that your supervisor will treat you as an adult. No more spoon feeding, no more hand holding; you are entirely responsible for how successful your dissertation is.
Practical tips on how to be an adult:
(i) Time: Arrive early for agreed meetings, respect your supervisor’s time.
(ii) Time: If you cannot make it for the agreed supervision time, inform your supervisor in advance and suggest another time.
(iii) Work: Your supervisor expects you to demonstrate progress. Do not attend a meeting with nothing new to show. You are wasting everyone’s time.
(iv) Work: Take up your supervisor’s advice on amendments to be made. He or she is the one marking your paper, and if you make the necessary changes, you are likely to see an improvement in your overall grade.
(v) Relationship: Always be polite. Don’t try to be too familiar, especially in the early weeks of working together.
(vi) Relationship: Be enthusiastic! No one enjoys spending time with a sulking blackhole void of energy.
“Your supervisor is willing to help IF you are willing to help yourself first.” – Mr Koala, WordPecker
- Your supervisor is Yoda; you are Luke.
Unless your topic does not have a dedicated expert in the faculty, it is very likely that your supervisor has a respectable level of knowledge in the topic of your dissertation. Do not be daunted by that; use that fountain of knowledge to your advantage.
Practical tips to be a padawan:
(i) Questions: Ask for advice on the specific area you are writing about, suggested authors or articles to look at, and whether your topic can in fact be interesting and substantial enough to carry a dissertation.
(ii) Questions: Ask questions on the theory behind your topic, research methodology, whether the data you collected is sufficient, or anything else that puzzles you. Being as specific as you can will show that you have been thinking about what to do, and will inevitably make your dissertation better. Your supervisor is the expert, you are not yet one.
(iii) Questions: Do not ask questions in which the answers can be found in your school’s dissertation rulebook. This will also include silly questions such as your supervisor’s opinion on whether you can make the deadline, or worse, when is the deadline. Do not be ignorant and annoying.
(iv) Feedback: To ensure the most efficient use of time, email draft chapters to your supervisor in advance to allow him or her the time to read, think and criticize.
(v) Feedback: Do not take criticism personally. Your supervisor is not undermining your intelligence; he is doing his job in optimizing your work. Do not be embarrassed by the amount of changes made; welcome them.
- Work the system to your advantage
No, I’m not asking you to risk plagiarism by paraphrasing a passage minimally. Neither am I asking you take advantage of your good relationship with your supervisor by putting him in the difficult position of critiquing your completed dissertation before the submission date. What I am suggesting however, is educating yourself with how finely you can tow the line.
(i) Meetings: Some institutions mandate the minimum mandate the minimum number of compulsory supervisory meetings throughout year. It goes without saying that you must make the best out of those meetings. However, work the system by finding out if your supervisor has drop in hours in which he is happy to discuss your progress, and by asking your supervisor (very politely) during those meetings whether you can submit a short passage or draft chapter for him or her to review.
(ii) Feedback: A good dissertation will devote a significant portion to the specific topic of discussion. Therefore, if your university only allows a maximum number of supervisory meetings (and your supervisor is a stickler for adhering to this rule), it will be wise to seek feedback on those chapters, instead of the descriptive part of your paper. The rulebook may prescribe for the maximum number of words your supervisor can review, but does it make any mention about the contents of those words? Unlikely. Considering that the discussion part of your dissertation carries the most marks, it is wise to get as much feedback as possible. Due to the shortness of time, this might require you to first tackle the hardest part of your dissertation; a small price to pay in the grand scheme of things.
Again, you are not alone in this journey. However, observe the mantra, “Your supervisor is willing to help IF you are willing to help yourself first”. Johan Cruyff could instil into Pep Guardiola the philosophy of ‘total football’ only because the latter was willing to meet his on the training pitch every single day. Yoda could instil into Luke the ways of the force only because the latter was humble and willing. Be tactful, be aware of time constrains, and be smart. Allow your supervisor to elevate you to the next level.
1. Sheffield Hallam University, ‘Supervision of the Dissertation’
Aaron Lim is a practicing lawyer, and co-founder of WordPeckers.org