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First meeting with your dissertation supervisor: What to expect

The first meeting with your dissertation supervisor can be a little intimidating, as you do not know what to expect. While every situation is unique, first meetings with a dissertation supervisor often centre around getting to know each other, establishing expectations, and creating work routines.


Why a good relationship with a dissertation supervisor matters

Writing a dissertation is an exciting but also intimidating part of being a bachelor’s, master’s or PhD student. A dissertation is often the culmination of several years of higher education, and the last step before graduating.

What is important to know is that the relationship that you establish with your supervisor can be a crucial factor in completing a successful dissertation.

A better relationship often results in better and timely completion of a dissertation. This finding is backed up by science. This study, for instance, points out that student-supervisor relationships strongly influence the quality, success or failure of completing a PhD (on time).

Good communication with a dissertation supervisor is key to advancing your research, discussing roadblocks, and incorporating feedback and advice.

Commonly experienced challenges in student-supervisor relationships, on the other hand, are “different expectations, needs and ways of thinking and working” (Gill and Burnard, 2008, p. 668).

Therefore, getting acquainted with each other to set a foundation for the upcoming collaboration is often what first meetings with dissertation supervisors are (and should be) about.

Getting to know each other during the first meeting

Many first meetings with a dissertation supervisor include a considerable amount of ‘small talk’. Thus, you can expect to engage in a casual conversation to get acquainted.

This conversation tends to look different based on whether you already know your dissertation supervisor, or whether you have never met them before. It could also be that you had a talk with your dissertation supervisor during a formal interview stage, but never talked informally.

Common questions to expect are:

  • How are you doing?
  • Did you find adequate housing, and did the (international) move go well?
  • Did you bring a partner, spouse or family to a new country or city?
  • What do you like to do in your free time?
  • Where and what did you study before?
  • How did you experience your degree programme so far?
  • What courses did you enjoy?
  • How did you come up with your dissertation topic?
  • What are your ambitions for this thesis?
  • What are your expectations and goals for both the thesis process?
  • What do you want to do after graduating?

You may also like: Getting the most out of thesis supervision meetings

Getting to know the work environment during the first meeting

PhD students who start their dissertation are often introduced to their lab, research group or department during the first meeting.

It is not uncommon for the dissertation supervisor to walk around with the new student and introduce him or her to colleagues and supporting staff.

Getting to know your (new) work environment is less common for students who write a dissertation to complete their master’s degrees. Though in some cases, they conduct their master thesis research as part of a lab or existing research project, and will be introduced there as well.

There may also be a discussion about accessing an institutional email address or online work environment as a dissertation student. And any questions that are important to answer to kick off the dissertation process.

Establishing a meeting and communication schedule

During the first meeting, it is very useful for both the student and the dissertation supervisor to discuss their collaboration for the coming months.

This particularly includes agreements on meetings and the frequency of communication. Even if your dissertation supervisor does not raise these issues during the first meeting, it can be helpful to raise them yourself.

Establishing a meeting schedule, or at least discussing how often you are planning to meet, how regularly, and within what time intervals, can reduce a lot of stress and uncertainty.

It can also be very valuable to talk about the frequency of communication. Does your dissertation supervisor appreciate a weekly summary of your progress? Or are you only supposed to reach out when you hit a roadblock?

Furthermore, what are the best ways to communicate? For instance, does your supervisor prefers emails? If so, check out some sample emails to a thesis supervisor! Or does your supervisor prefer you to collect all your questions until the next supervision meeting, putting them on the meeting agenda?

Discussing your research idea with your dissertation supervisor

While you can expect a lot of Smalltalk, planning, and organisational issues to dominate the first meeting with your dissertation supervisor, it is common to also chat about your research idea.

But don’t worry! Supervisors tend to be aware that you are just at the beginning of the dissertation process. Usually, they don’t expect you to provide a fully-fledged research proposal or a formal presentation.

However, be prepared to share your initial thoughts and ideas. Additionally, be prepared to explain why you are interested in the topic and how you roughly anticipate conducting your research and writing your dissertation.

Based on this information, the dissertation supervisor can already point you in the right direction, suggest relevant literature, or connect you with other students or colleagues who work on similar issues.

Discussing expectations with your dissertation supervisor

It is normal to feel slightly lost during the first weeks of working on your dissertation.

However, to keep this feeling to a minimum, it can be extremely helpful to create concrete steps and plans with your dissertation supervisor for the first weeks.

Expectations differ from supervisor to supervisor. Some may just expect you to simply get used to your work environment, read a lot and explore theories that are relevant to your dissertation. Others may want to see the first results in terms of a literature review or research proposal.

Thus, make sure to discuss expectations for the upcoming weeks during the first meeting with your dissertation supervisor. It will prevent you from overthinking what you should do.

Elsewhere, I have written a guide for first-year PhD students with some directions and advice. As a PhD student, you can use this guide as an inspiration and starting point to discuss your own supervisor’s expectations.

If you are writing a master thesis, your timeframe will be much shorter. Thus, it is even more important to define deadlines and milestones with your dissertation supervisor as soon as possible. The first meeting lends itself to making this plan.

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