Is this acceptable for a dissertation supervisor?

(44 Posts)
catlovingdoctor Fri 02-Dec-16 12:56:46


I'm not an academic but I wanted to see what the consensus from all of you is. I just finished a life sciences degree this year.

I was allocated early in the year to a dissertation supervisor. As a lecturer she sadly already had a reputation for being disorganised/a bit of a mess. She ran a module the year before which was appalling; never answered emails; uploaded resources late; etc. I was allocated to her for my topic and I was emailing her for advice. We had to do a systematic review which if you've not done one before was quite tricky and technical. She once took 8 days to reply to an email asking her for assistance. In the end progress was so slow I changed topic and supervisor but to be honest it set me back and stressed me out more than a bit. If I'm paying £9k for the year surely my supervisor should be more supportive and prioritise helping her students? She replied to an email saying she was "snowed under" but would respond properly the next day (surprise she didn't).

So I just wanted to hear if this is normal or acceptable in your departments from you all?

OP’s posts: |
Booboostwo Fri 02-Dec-16 14:47:36

I think first off you need to be more specific about what she did/failed to do which affected the supervision you got. From your post all I can gather is that once she took 8 days to reply to an email which in itself is not the end of the world (she may have been sick, away at a conference, teaching an intensive module, etc).

Secondly can you clarify where you are now with your degree? Are you in the final year of your BA? Did you start your dissertation in September and are due to submit in April/May? If yes, have you considered changing supervisor? Ask for an appointment with the appropriate person in your department and ask to change supervisors. These requests are usually approved on the face of it as some people just don't get on (academically and/or personally) but have a list of the problems you have encountered just in case.

If you have already submitted it's too late to do anything about it.

While you are paying 9k you are also an adult and are expected to take some responsibility for making things work. If this is not the right supervisor for you, ask for another one. If your request is ignored that's the time to take it further.

Booboostwo Fri 02-Dec-16 14:49:49

Sorry I misread your post. So you were unhappy with your supervisor and changed, that's good. What do you hope to get from this thread? Different disciplines and different universities have different rules regarding supervision. Some have written guidelines on what to expect. In this case you were unhappy and your supervisor was changed, surely that's a good thing? It's still early, you have plenty of time to work on your dissertation.

Hellmouth Fri 02-Dec-16 14:54:59

It sounds like this was resolved - you changed supervisors - so i'm not sure what the issue is here.

I had a dissertation supervisor (graduated 2010), but I think I met up with her twice as, to be honest, I didn't really need her. All of my lecturers were very busy with courses, seminars, their own research, as well as helping people with their dissertations, so I think sometimes you have to cut them some slack. also, by the time you are doing a dissertation, it is expected that you're doing the majority of studying and research yourself, they're mainly there to fine tune your ideas and review your work. That's my opinion anyway smile

iveburntthetoast Fri 02-Dec-16 14:57:51

The OP said they had finished their degree last year. I think it's more of a general complaint than asking for advice.

OP, how did the supervision from your second supervisor compare? That should tell you a lot. As the PP said, you haven't given any substance to your complaint, other than taking 8 days to reply to an email.

catlovingdoctor Fri 02-Dec-16 15:48:20

Booboostwo-I took as much responsibility as I could- hence I was actually bothering to send emails in the first place. If staff are too "snowed under" to help their tuttees then perhaps they should reconsider their workloads. Staff are PAID to support students, they aren't volunteers!

I changed topic and supervisor by mid November. Although when I raised it with the module lead he didn't like the fact I was criticising one of his colleagues. In any case my next supervisor was much more proactive, and never took anywhere near as long to respond. We had January exams so it wasn't a case of taking things slowly till Christmas then go for it; I needed to move ahead with the work and didn't find the support adequate. That's all I was asking about, and for opinions based on all your own experiences as academics. A few of my friends had very different experiences so I was just wondering about mine. Thank you all for your replies.

OP’s posts: |
geekaMaxima Fri 02-Dec-16 18:05:30

If staff are too "snowed under" to help their tuttees then perhaps they should reconsider their workloads. Staff are PAID to support students, they aren't volunteers!

Wow cat, do you realise how petulant and entitled that sounds? More to the point, it suggests you understand very little about what being a lecturer involves, even though you're complaining about one.

To start with, academic staff don't set their own workloads. We are usually given a workload allocation by the head of dept or similar, and teaching (that's all forms of student contact, not just stand-up lecturing) typically takes up a minority of our workload - for instance, in my dept, 20-40% of a staff member's time is meant to be spent on teaching, with the remainder spent on research and admin/service. As such, it's not possible for us to "reconsider" our workloads when we are overburdened. I wish it were. As it is, most of us work far, far beyond our contracted 37.5 hrs/week just to keep head above water.

A supervisor taking 8 days to respond to an email during teaching term wouldn't be acceptable in my dept (ok if it's outside teaching term as people are at conferences and on hols), but we also accept that it happens to everyone occasionally. When you're getting up to 100 emails a day, it's easy to miss one when you're overworked, or when you're ploughing through a backlog of email because you've been off sick for a few days, and so on. For these reasons, we expect students in such a situation to be more proactive about making contact if they don't get a response to an email when expected. We expect them to send at least one follow-up email, go in person to the supervisor's office, ask in the undergraduate office if the supervisor is actually around or ill / away / etc. Only if multiple efforts of proactive chasing failed to make contact, or if 8-day delays were a regular occurrence, would a supervisor be considered unreachable and therefore not providing students with adequate support.

As it is, as pp noted, there's not much substance to your complaint on the basis of the info provided. You still sound quite angry about the situation, however, even though it seems to have happened over a year ago and was resolved when you switched supervisors. Are you still angry?

museumum Fri 02-Dec-16 18:10:21

Your dept should have a dissertation handbook setting out the support to expect from supervisors. If there isn't one now suggest they create one. It's important that supervisors give enough support but also that students don't have unrealistic expectations of how much contact they should have.

catlovingdoctor Fri 02-Dec-16 19:03:21

Geeka- I'm entitled?! When I'm expected to be "proactive" multiple times to chase up an email I've ALREADY sent to a member of staff, when I'm essentially a customer paying £9,000 per year??

OP’s posts: |
OutDamnedWind Fri 02-Dec-16 19:18:50

You are not a customer. That is the single biggest piece of damage increased tuition fees have caused. It cannot be reduced to a 'transaction' between the student and the academic.

What kind of advice were you asking for? As a student I was quite surprised by the expectations of some others on my course - expecting instant replies to their constant emails about incredibly specific things (wording of particular sentences, which quotes to use etc) and essentially wanting to be given the answers.

Lecturers are humans. Of course they'll occasionally miss an email, or take longer to reply than they intended to.

MedSchoolRat Fri 02-Dec-16 19:39:22

CatLoving: can you say what kind of degree you just finished, BSc? Was it really a syst. review or just a structured literature review as part of your final dissertation? If you did a structured lit review, were there not loads of specific instructions what was expected?

It's true some supervisors are pants. Be glad you didn't get that person as a PhD supervisor (stuck with them for 3 yrs). Imagine what it's like to work with that kind of person as regular boss, who never replies or makes decisions & can't communicate clearly even when you do see them once every 2 months.

MedSchoolRat Fri 02-Dec-16 19:40:12

ps: ask your syst review questions now... I'll see how long it takes me to type good answers. smile

Booboostwo Fri 02-Dec-16 19:42:53

Sorry OP I completely misread your post! I don't know why!

So if you have finished your degree well done you! I can understand the need to rant but you have a very odd view of academia for someone who was just recently a student. Firstly, academics don't choose their workloads, most are overloaded in an attempt to do as best as possible in a job that is chronically underfunded. Secondly, if you are a customer you are one who has paid very little. While 9k is a lot of money for an individual it goes nowhere near towards covering the true costs of education, especially considering that someone has to educate the socially necessary but extremely expensive professions like medicine on the same fees. Thirdly, students do not bring in money, research does as a result students are at the bottom of managerial priorities despite the marketing speak.

This is what academia is like at the moment and it is only likely to get worse.

Still not sure what the first supervisor did that was so wrong. Is it just the 8 day reply time for one email?

catlovingdoctor Fri 02-Dec-16 22:25:58

Given I am going to be paying out of my future wages in exchange for the university's support and tuition (apparently), I do actually view myself as a customer, yes. No students paying fees- what would happen? Of course, students still need to engage fully. That's completely true- nobody who isn't committed should be studying at a high level.

Yes, it was a systematic review for a life sciences BSc. Supervisors were supposed to help us narrow down general fields of interest to find a specific title. I.E two terms return 200 results on a search engine; filter through them to make sub-objectives off which to make a final title. At the start it wasn't very clear what we were meant to be doing, and what types of articles could or couldn't be included. We had to have our plans (which counted towards the final mark) due by November hence I got exasperated when my supervisor was taking this long to respond to emails.

No other lecturer ever took that long to reply to any emails, including our course director and other senior staff.

OP’s posts: |
user7214743615 Fri 02-Dec-16 23:48:35

I think you would be better off directing your frustration towards university management rather than individual lecturers.

Most academics who teach and research are being expected to cope with huge workloads, of teaching, research and administration. We work evenings. We work weekends. Many of us don't take much annual leave. We can't just reduce our own workloads, as you seem to think - we are allocated teaching and administration, and punished if we don't do enough research.

Yes, you are paying 9k per year, but our salaries have decreased significantly in real terms while the costs of living (including childcare) have increased.

Most of us can completely understand an academic claiming to be snowed under, and we can also understand that occasionally balls yet dropped e.g. you miss replying to an email.

It would certainly not be acceptable to take so long to reply to an email in my department, and nor would it be acceptable to delay uploading materials when lecturing. So don't worry - this lecturer could well have already been sanctioned, and had her pay frozen (cut in real terms). Many lecturers don't have permanent contracts either, so she could have lost her job too.

Yes, there are a few poor lecturers, and she might have been one of them. But the real problem is coming from management increasing academic workloads to unsustainable levels and expecting us to take on ever more students without additional resources.

joangray38 Sat 03-Dec-16 00:03:33

You are not a customer and your nine grand a year covers a lot more than just your tutor's wages. Rather a patronising and entitled arritude to have. If you want to advance as a lecturer you not only have to teach and due to cut backs workloads have increased but also do research - might also have a certain amount stated in your contract . There are also lots of other students who want said tutors attention/ help.

Scottishthreeberry16 Sat 03-Dec-16 00:12:08

If staff are too "snowed under" to help their tuttees then perhaps they should reconsider their workloads. Staff are PAID to support students, they aren't volunteers!

^^staff have very little say in their workload. Also, I think the general expectation is that by Level 3 or above, you are supposed to be capable of independent study. The tutor is there just as a sounding board really. They will have been given a certain allocated time for dissertation supervision but it's pretty dire and unrealistic.

Booboostwo Sat 03-Dec-16 07:30:17

Direct your frustration at the governments from both political parties that have slashed funding for HE over decades. This is the end result. Academics are chronically overworked, they are expected to work evenings and weekends, catching up is for the holidays and the priority are money making activities like research.

user7214743615 Sat 03-Dec-16 08:54:07

Direct your frustration at the governments from both political parties that have slashed funding for HE over decades.

Funding for research and HE was not slashed during the Labour government. Do you remember how bad things were, in terms of research funding, salaries etc pre 1997?

And research is not money making in every field - in some fields the majority of income does come from teaching. But even in those fields it is expected that academics will meet targets for world class research and research income, in addition to their teaching loads.

LRDtheFeministDragon Sat 03-Dec-16 09:07:03

I don't think the issue is workloads, really. I'd be irritated, as a student, if my tutor were too 'snowed under' to supervise properly. I think that's fair.

The issue is, is 8 days outside the limits set by the department? There ought to be some guidelines here. I know some universities that say students should expect feedback within two weeks, and others much sooner.

JungleWait Sat 03-Dec-16 09:11:24

You have a right to be frustrated/annoyed, put a compliant in.

I used to regularly wait over a month to get a reply to an email from supervisor. In fact once I didn't hear back for 2 months. Unfortunately in academia, most people are not accountable to anyone, and some supervisors do get away with treating their students horribly

MedSchoolRat Sat 03-Dec-16 12:46:54

Wait... was November deadline for a finalised protocol for the syst review, and then you undertook a syst. review for your dissertation? What you describe completing in November was not a Syst-review.

Undergrads should not be doing syst-reviews. confused

How many words in the written plan that was due in November, was that plan supposed to be fixed in stone in November -- studies may deviate from protocol, not so unusual . We gave "formative" feedback on study protocols the other day, for big assignments due in May. No marks, just comments on 200-400 words, feasibility, appropriateness, etc. Point is that of course students had flexibility to change the study protocol. That was yr3 on a 5 yr course, though.

I can't comment if 8 days = too long, but sounds like you had poor instructions if it wasn't clear what kind of articles were eligible in your lit. search.

NotDavidTennant Sat 03-Dec-16 13:06:25

I think some of the responses on here are overly defensive. Yes academics are a bit under the cosh these days, but there are some who make matters worse by being unable to manage their workload effectively. Given that this particular academic apparently did not manage her module teaching very well, and given that the OP seems to have got on okay with her new supervisor, I would suggest that the original supervisor may at least be partially at fault here.

Knee-jerk leaps to the defence of other academics regardless of context does not reflect well on the professionalism of academics in general. Nor does taking the attitude of "Life is shit for academics these days, so suck it up students", which sometimes seems to be the subtext to responses on threads like this.

LRDtheFeministDragon Sat 03-Dec-16 13:16:48

I agree.

Plus, it gives fuel to the fire in terms of expectations. Not responding to something within 8 days is not necessarily something that needs to be excused as the laxity of a horrifically overworked academic. It could be 8+ days is a perfectly appropriate length of time to wait.

(A colleague is currently complaining on FB about a student who has sent him a full 90k draft of a PhD thesis expecting it to be read over the weekend. hmm)

geekaMaxima Sat 03-Dec-16 15:28:56

Nor does taking the attitude of "Life is shit for academics these days, so suck it up students", which sometimes seems to be the subtext to responses on threads like this.

I'm not sure that's quite the subtext; more like "Life is shit for academics these days, so don't expect an attitude of bratty entitlement to move you to top of the priority list, students".

Who knows whether the OP's lecturer was providing adequate supervision or not? There's not enough information to judge, as pp have noted.

What is clear, though, it that the OP's attitude stinks. And that, I think, is what responses on this thread reflect.

Join the discussion

To comment on this thread you need to create a Mumsnet account.

Join Mumsnet

Already have a Mumsnet account? Log in