Master's degree supervisors
What do we expect from our supervisors?
Our employees at the Institute of Physics have various experiences supervising master students.
Some follow up on the students conscientiously, and perhaps help them more than they should. How are the students supposed to acquire the learning outcomes we have decided if the supervisors do not entrust the students with the responsibility to do it themselves?
On the other hand, some supervisors do not follow up on their students enough. They end up working on their own too much and are afraid to ask for guidance when they need it. These students hardly acquire the learning outcomes we expect them to either.
The study administration meet quite a few frustrated master students and wishes the institute to take more responsibility in order for the supervision of master students to become more predictable than it already is. This is also something the management and Educational Board are concerned with. This note suggests some possible options.
The Project description
The learning outcomes states the following: ‘’…can plan and manage a research project’’. An important foundation for this outcome is that enough work and effort is put into the project description already the first semester.
Some students claim the project description to be useless when writing their master thesis, and that it is just some administrative nonsense requested by the study administration.
Other students receive an almost complete project description from their supervisor, and have no real understanding of its content. Some supervisors express that the project description is of no value; instead, you have to wait and see what happens during the project.
It is important to remember that the master’s degree today is regulated in a completely different way than in previous years. The aim is for the students to complete their studies in two years, these are hard deadlines, which one cannot expect to change. This means that the planning of the master thesis must be taken more seriously than some supervisors have done previously.
Luckily, today the student and the supervisor are supposed to work closely together on the project description. With this, we can accomplish a more thoughtful document that both the student and the supervisor can look back at occasionally to evaluate if the plans are working and if the progression is good enough.
It is very important during the master’s degree that the student and supervisor communicate openly about the responsibilities. Do both agree on whether a student should learn a special theory, experimental method or numerical modelling completely on their own, or how much is the supervisor supposed to contribute? If the supervisor will contribute, at what time should it happen?
A great deal of considerations such as these needs to be clarified already in the project description.
However, there will be a need to be more detailed once in a while throughout the process. We strongly recommend that all supervisors meet with their students at least twice per semester where expectation clarification is the main subject of discussion. This could also be a good opportunity to evaluate whether the student is following the agreed upon progression in the project description, and if not what measures need to be taken to correct the situation.
It also needs to be made apparent which expectations the supervisor and the research community have regarding attendance to seminars, group meetings etc. In most cases, it would be wise to have a fixed agreement on when to meet each week where the supervisor and the student can discuss and decide on more day-to-day issues.
First the supervisor and the student should make a note of everything that might go wrong with the project (broken equipment, equipment not arriving on time, permits not given in due time, faults in de-bugging of code...). Second they need to make plans to handle the issues when something goes wrong.
Many supervisors skip this essential point, thinking the student can get an extention to their deadline if something goes wrong. We must make Our best effort to make sure the student finish in 2 years. They will not necessarily get an extention given a lack of risk management.
The master thesis is not a mini-PhD
Some might take offence at this headline. If we compare the learning outcomes for a master thesis and a PhD thesis, there are many similarities. The reason behind the headline is to point out that a master thesis has a greater degree of supervision than a PhD thesis, and that you are not necessarily supposed to end up with results you can publish. Some supervisor expect the master students to write scientific articles and value this more than the students finishing their master thesis in time. That is not OK!
A master’s degree should result in a thesis! The work does not have to be published in a scientific journal. If one can do both, that is great, but the main priority is the master thesis!
The master’s degree has several learning outcomes!
When reading the learning outcomes for the master program (see attachment), one realize that there are actually a lot of different aspects mentioned. We especially expect the student to mature and develop a more reflective attitude to research and science as well as our role/responsibility in society. We are not supposed to graduate geeks!
This means that we as supervisors have to reconsider our responsibilities and not just make sure the students can get through the research.
We are currently attempting to relieve the supervisors in some areas. First we wish to give the students training in scientific writing through the ‘’Writing Science’’ program which now is mandatory for the master students in physics from the fall of 2019. The other master programs will hopefully follow and offer something similar to their students (Electrical engineering already have something similar in place).
There is also a mini course in place on how to use the library, in addition we should encourage our students to participate in the course about scientific communication (MNKOM4000 – Communication and scientific journalism) or in courses given by the Career center.
We could get better at organizing collective gatherings to cover the learning outcomes that are of general character in order for more students to be able to get educated at the same time. Suggestions are welcome! It is important that we rationalize our job in order for the supervision of master students to become as efficient as possible. At the same time, we need to remember that we are responsible for the entirety, what we cannot get others to cover; we have to take responsibility for ourselves.
- A supervisor has to take responsibility for the project description to become a common project between the student and the supervisor, and that the document becomes an important tool to follow up on the project for the remainder of the master’s degree.
- Expectation clarification should take place at least twice per semester the last three semesters of the degree.
- The master’s degree ends with a master thesis. Publication in scientific journals is not required, and must have a lesser priority than the thesis.
- The learning outcomes for the master’s degree are broad. It is the supervisors’ responsibility that the different aspects are taken seriously. However, organizing courses together could potentially relieve the supervisors’ workload a bit.
- This document should be read by students and supervisors before the work on the project description starts.