In all academic programmes, students are required to write a Master dissertation in order to graduate. They pick a subject to discuss and one or more supervisors to guide them through the process. Research has shown that the relationship between the student and the supervisor is a decisive element in the success of a dissertation project. But which aspects of this relationship exactly form the basis for successful dissertation supervision?

The best supervision is situation-dependent

A good coaching approach always starts from the needs of the individual student. In this regard, the practice-oriented theory of situational leadership developed by Hersey and Blanchard offers a versatile framework to expand on. Based on the findings of the authors, we can conclude that the best support is situation-dependent, and linked to characteristics of both the student and the supervisor.

We can distinguish two dimensions in supervisor behaviour: the task-oriented and relationship-oriented dimensions.
Task-oriented supervisors will focus on the content of the Master dissertation and the methods used, and they will generally be the ones setting goals and priorities.
Relationship-oriented supervisors put more emphasis on the emotional component and attach great importance to encouraging students and creating conditions conducive to a smooth dissertation process.

Which type of support the supervisor ends up offering is not so much their own choice as it is determined in large part by the student's level of task maturity. This includes both the student's ability to perform the task and their willingness to take responsibility. Depending on these two dimensions, the supervisor will take on a more directive or a more supportive role.

The task-oriented and relation-oriented dimensions are also reflected in the dual role of the supervisor. Based on their personal scientific expertise, the supervisor will help shape the dissertation project, monitoring the quality of the dissertation and ensuring that it meets academic standards. In addition, it is essential that the student feels supported in the process. Research shows that supervisors are often torn between these two roles.

One role requires a more rational approach, so it is a matter of the head, while the other role focuses on the student's emotional experience, making it a matter of the heart. That is why supervision always involves a search for the right balance between head and heart, and this balance will be different for each student.

In the full ECHO tip we provide some suggestions concerning the head component, the heart component and the organisational aspects of supervision, based on scientific research.