The thesis supervisor as coach


By Esther Versluis

After some 13 years of supervising theses in the Bachelor in European Studies (BA ES), I think I would best describe this part of my job as being some sort of motivational coach. I feel the most important part of thesis supervision is to somehow ensure that students remain (or become) motivated about doing their research, and to help them tackle their own insecurities and boost their confidence that they can do this. This obviously mostly applies to those students who want to work and who put an effort into their thesis. I stopped worrying about those students who do not want to work – that is, those who do not submit drafts or do not respond to feedback. I try to contact them once or twice to see whether there is anything I can do to help, but if they do not respond, there is nothing more I can do. It is their thesis after all, not mine. While during my first years I would feel very responsible for their progress, I slowly came to realise that as a supervisor you can only help those who want to be helped. Students are very much in charge of their own thesis writing process and our job is to support them in doing so.

What then, are the key things that work for me in thesis supervision? Well, they actually very much overlap with a recent article I read. First of all, for colleagues new to thesis supervision perhaps a reassurance: it is not extremely important to be an expert in a particular field. This is not to say that I do not like supervising theses in my own field of expertise better; I simply dare to say that all of us can supervise any BA ES subject. There are only few occasions when my feedback to students relates to the precise content of a particular theory or method. Instead, core to what we as supervisors add to students’ learning is structure and clarity in their research and writing. In addition, we often need to provide steering in terms of the feasibility of the project, because, more often than not, BA thesis proposals intend to change the world… Doing research and writing it down can be tough. As stated before, I think the key aspect we bring is reassurance. That is why I like the supervision in groups so much. I really think it helps students to see that they are not the only one struggling with certain issues and to have a joined discussion on how to tackle such problems.

I always discuss a few things with my students. The first is that there is no such thing as a writer’s block. Of course, everyone has ‘off days’, and there are always certain parts of the research process that go smoother than others. But when you are stuck, you simply need to move on to something else. Having great difficulties putting something on paper? Big chance that you simply do not have enough material yet, and need to read more. Stuck on a particular section? Leave it open and move on to a next section. I personally, for instance, hate writing introductions; I really am very bad at it… So, I simply leave my introduction blank – this is always the last part I write when doing research.  The second thing I discuss with my students is the necessity of handing in as complete a draft as possible. Without a substantial part of the thesis on paper, it is simply impossible for me to provide good feedback. The better and completer your draft, the better my feedback will be, and thus the more likely that a student will pass. I safely dare to say that it is close to impossible for students to pass the thesis without having submitted a decent draft.

Finally, while there are many good tips for students to be found elsewhere, I want to add an additional one for the students who read this blog: whenever I grade a thesis, the first thing I do is check the reference list. I can immediately predict whether the thesis will fail or not based on the extent to which the student took the editing of the reference list seriously…

About the Author

Esther Versluis (1975) is professor of European Regulatory Governance and programme director of the Bachelor in European Studies. Esther has taught many courses in European Studies at both BA and MA level, including supervision of many, many BA and MA theses. This is Esther’s last year as programme director and she is really looking forward to her upcoming research sabbatical.