• Michael Randall

Honours Dissertation Supervision - The Start of a New Set of Projects

The start of each academic year is, for me, a juggling act between getting involved in induction events, completing final bits and pieces for teaching, and also trying to arrange meetings with students. I could write about the awkwardness or icebreaker questions when meeting my new Personal Development Adviser students, or write a (quite dull) piece about how I try and manage my time effectively. However, over the last few days, I have been having meetings in my honours dissertation supervisor role, which, in the current climate, are running in a slightly different way from normal.

The start of the academic year is always an odd experience for new honours year students. Firstly, students go from classes with a lecture and tutorial structure, to the seminar setting. On paper, there may be fewer hours timetabled, however, the adjustment to a new form of studying is always (what I will describe as) the ‘honours bump’, particularly if you have been in the well-earned position of being able to take the summer off (I’d actually encourage honours students to make sure they take at least some break). Put simply, the work needs to be done. I preferred this style of learning when I was a student, although admittedly, that may have been more about the figurative kick up the backside that each seminar presented me, by forcing me to make sure I was prepared (not that I wasn’t prepared for tutorials, of course).

However, the dissertation is the thing which causes the biggest concern for students, at least in my experience. Quite often students will have written a dissertation proposal a few months ago, and put the idea to the back of their mind. When they come back, it is a daunting task – how do you go from having a sketched out idea to a blank page to having a full 11,000 word project in about 6 months?

For us as supervisors, the supervision meetings are always interesting. The standard structure of a programme doesn’t exactly prohibit you from speaking to students in a one on one setting, but it’s the exception rather than the norm. You are relying on a student approaching you after a lecture or tutorial to raise a point, or send you an email, which naturally means that your response is usually via email. It’s not exactly a dialogue. Therefore the dissertation is the point at which we get to have a, hopefully, engaging dialogue with students – see what interests them, makes them tick, what values they have, their work ethic in action and generally get to know the person quite well.

And so the start of term sees the initial meetings for me, where a student wrote ideas on a form a few months ago, and in an allocation process, got stuck with me advising them. I say ‘stuck with’, there are students who list one of my areas of supervision as their first choice, which always takes me by surprise a little bit – it’s a big part of the student’s degree, and they’ve picked for me to help them. I know that I can’t teach/come across in the same manner as the titans of the school (Kenneth Norrie).

One thing I used to think until recently was “why do you want me? I’m quite daft” – a sort of ‘imposter syndrome’. One thing recording videos has taught me, though, is you’re better off not over-thinking it – if someone thinks I’m an idiot, that’s not going to change. In the meetings I've had so far this year, one student witnessed me (an arachnophobe) dispatch of a spider in my flat, and another one had their meeting interrupted by am Amazon delivery. So this is the level of professionalism that I'm conveying at the moment. However, is someone else sees a quality in the work/potential as supervisor, from our previous interactions, then that’s a good thing.

Last year, I was involved in the allocation process. This year, I was not (I am assured nothing ominous about that - I have asked), so this year was the closest that I get to being involved in an NFL style draft and seeing which students I 'get on my roster'/in my cohort, so to speak. I'm clearly never going to say anything other than the next sentence, but it is genuine - I have a group of really interesting projects, from some really talented and hard working students. A brief snap shot from the proposals, I am supervising - causation in medical negligence, standard of care for young medical professionals, modernising medical negligence, current standing of vicarious liability, regulation of collective investment schemes, 'white collar crime', bankers' remuneration, HMRC and tax avoidance, tax havens/Panama Papers and conscientious objection to abortion.

Every supervisor approaches dissertation supervision slightly differently. But for me, the first meeting is pretty much set – it is a case of explaining what the process is/what makes a dissertation unique, explain what my role is in the process (i.e. what the student can expect from me), and what I expect from them. We talk about timelines, structure, sources and word count. Each of the students gets, pretty much, the same information at the beginning. And then, if we have time, I talk through the proposal, and flag a few places to start/watch out for (knowing full well that the question can/will change).

After this, the process is dictated by the students, and I am always impressed at how they go about their work. It is an independent research project, so I’m not a backseat author/insisting on things to appear in the final piece of work. However, when we have follow up meetings surrounding progress, you get quite an honest view of how a student is getting on – students can be well into their research and know their argument, or need a little bit of confidence that they are on the right track.

I am, unfortunately, grouping all students together there. This goes completely against my advice about, what I call, ‘dissertation peacocking’. This is where students try to compare themselves to other students, by asking how the project is coming along, and often reducing progress down to word count. Each project, by definition is unique – I have 10 different sets of discussions after that first meeting. Each person is tackling a different question and has their own writing style. Each person has different commitments and priorities – some work alongside studies/need to prep for different classes/assignments etc.

And that, ultimately, is what makes dissertation supervision rewarding. In class, there can be a tendency each year to tread over the same ground – there can be some changes and developments as new cases and legislation come in, but the backbone of content is usually the same year on year. The dissertations are a chance for us to have proper, considered dialogue with someone who is keen in the subject area, and we help them to get their argument across as well as they can.

6 months is not a long time. 11,000 words is not, actually, very long. Students have good days on the work, and bad days. However, come mid-late March, I always look forward to seeing the dissertation hand in photos, whether in the school, or (this year) at home/in a back garden for two reasons. Firstly, it is impossible to look natural in them – I like how set up they are. However, the main reason for me is it shows pride in the student’s work. It is a major milestone, which should be celebrated and achieved. It reflects a student’s personality on the page. We get to see the culmination of our meetings and discussion. And no one dissertation is like another.

If you are reading this as one our current honours student, just a few final things – you are going to be absolutely fine. Trust your gut, believe in your ability, and you will do well. And for the love of god, please don’t engage in dissertation peacocking, OK?

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