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The University of Southampton
Centre for Linguistics, Language Education and Acquisition Research

Experiencing master's dissertation supervision: two supervisors' perspectives Seminar

16:00 - 18:00
16 March 2016
Lecture Theatre C Avenue Campus University of Southampton SO17 1BF

For more information regarding this seminar, please email Dr Karin Zotzmann at .

Event details

Part of the annual seminar series for the Centre for Linguistics, Language Education and Acquisition Research.


As master’s and doctoral programmes expand, a growing body of research has focused on a major component of these programmes: the dissertation/thesis candidates write, and the experiences and practices of dissertation/thesis supervisees and supervisors. This body of work, which mainly focuses on doctoral study, has pointed to a high degree of variability in both supervisory experiences and practices. In this talk I focus on the less-researched arena of master’s study, and on the supervisor’s rather than the supervisee’s perspective. I present findings regarding two supervisors’ experiences of supervising non-native students who were tackling their master’s dissertations at a UK university.

Using a multiple case study approach (e.g. Duff 2008; Merriam 1998), I interviewed the supervisors about the supervision, analysed the students’ drafts and final dissertation chapters, their supervisors’ comments and feedback on this writing, and the markers’ reports on the final dissertations. In addition, I examined supporting materials on supervision provided by the subject departments (e.g. handbooks, dissertation writing guidelines, assessment criteria).

I focus on supervisors in two different social science departments: Billy and Harriet. Both supervisors had recently taken up post, but Billy was a highly experienced supervisor of 17 years’ standing while Harriet had never supervised before. Although both Billy and Harriet’s supervisees wrote successful dissertations which were awarded distinction grades, the supervisors’ experiences were not trouble-free (confirmed by supervisees’ interviews). Specifically, Billy supervised a dissertation outside his area of expertise, his supervisee had difficulties grasping methodological concepts, failed to adhere to deadlines to submit draft chapters, and was out of contact for several weeks; while Harriet’s supervisee decided to change her research hypotheses late in the day, and produced a weak methods chapter. In the face of these difficulties Billy was sanguine, while Harriet’s narrative featured moments of uncertainty and guilt about her practices. Billy spoke of the ‘arrogance of longevity’ his experience afforded him and how he was confident he knew how to supervise. His practices were characterised by flexibility as he reportedly altered his approach depending on students’ needs and abilities—and as he did when his supervisee began missing deadlines. He was therefore resistant to institutional attempts to impose rigid departmental supervisory practices. In contrast, Harriet was conscious of her department’s more prescribed supervisory norms and, despite disapproving of the policy that she was only allowed to read and comment on one of her supervisees’ draft chapters (the results chapter), conformed to it, ensuring that she could not be accused by her department of intervening inappropriately. 

I argue that these cases raise questions about supervisory policies and provide food for thought for university policy makers attempting to draw up supervisory guidelines. For instance, how relaxed should departments be about supervisors being allocated supervisees beyond their areas of disciplinary competence? How many drafts and pieces of written work should supervisors be allowed to comment on? How much and what type of feedback should it be permitted to provide? Most fundamentally, how much autonomy should supervisors be allowed to vary their practices and their supervisory styles? 

I close on a less normative note, by discussing the tensions identified in the data between the supervisors’ inner convictions (e.g., their beliefs about best supervisory practice) and the departmental supervisory regulations, and how these tensions are (un)resolved, then broaden this discussion out to reflections on supervisor autonomy in the face of the performative and instrumental discourses surrounding the contemporary university.


Speaker information

Dr Nigel Harwood, University of Sheffield. Nigel Harwood is Reader in Applied Linguistics at the University of Sheffield, UK, where he teaches undergraduate and master’s modules relating to second language writing and research methods, and supervises doctoral students working on topics related to second language writing, materials design, English for Academic Purposes, and English for Specific Purposes. He has edited two volumes focusing on English language teaching materials and textbooks, English Language Teaching Materials: Theory and Practice(CUP) and English Language Teaching Textbooks: Content, Consumption, Production (Palgrave Macmillan), and has published articles on EAP and academic writing in various journals, including Journal of Second Language Writing, Written Communication, Journal of Pragmatics, and Journal of English for Academic Purposes. He is the co-editor of the Elsevier journal English for Specific Purposes.

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