10 things I’ve learned about supervising psychology undergraduate projects

sam chiversThe end of another academic year and another cohort of psychology students enter the graduate world. I have supervised undergraduate and masters dissertations before but this was the first year I accompanied undergraduate students on their research journeys from start to finish. And it was quite a different experience. Here are the things I’ve learned.

  1. Every student is different. Some students arrived with well-formed ideas and some with no idea at all. For those with ideas, I was really pleased with the level of originality. They just needed a bit of input in terms of sampling and methodology. For those that didn’t have an idea, we explored what they were interested in and went with something around that topic which seemed to work well.
  2. Awareness of university ethics guidance. Many students seem to find the ethics process daunting and annoying. In some cases, it’s like prior learning about ethics can’t be ‘transferred’ to this new context. For example, few cite the British Psychological Society Code of Ethics and Conduct (2009) on a first draft. I sit on our taught ethics panel which gives a great insight into what will and won’t be accepted – I’d recommend it! This is also how you can influence ethics panel developments if you are researching challenging topics or novel methodologies.
  3. Awareness of degree accreditation. I supervise psychology undergraduates on a programme accredited by the British Psychological Society. I had a slight panic at one point as to whether analysing media and user-generated content count. It does as the requirement is to carry out an empirical project.  However analysing ‘secondary data’ (e.g. systematic review etc) may not…although the boundaries between primary and secondary data are seemingly murkier in the days of ‘big data’ and the ‘quantified self’.
  4. Group supervision. Most of my students were happy to participate in group supervision sessions and got a lot out of them. Me too! However it adds to your time as I often had 1-2-1 sessions with students as well.  Still, I am going to do the same this year to help avoid issues of loneliness and despair. Also as there was so much overlap in topic, method, and analysis, students were often working through the same issues so it was beneficial to work together.
  5. Setting boundaries. Time will tell but I think I may have been lucky this year with the group of students I supervised. I’ve learned it’s important to establish that they are in the driving seat and how they should try to find the answers to their questions before asking me. I’m also going to place greater emphasis on promoting the university’s study skills sessions (e.g. writing, referencing, and critical thinking workshops) too.
  6. Online communication. I created a closed Facebook Group for my dissertation students which worked ok but it was a bit quieter than I expected. I’m thinking of ways to make it work better so I’m trying again this year.  Any suggestions?
  7. Setting deadlines. Even though I set deadlines for draft versions, they often went unmet. To make it easier for students, I agreed to give feedback on different sections along the way. This worked but I noticed that students wrestled with making sure that a coherent narrative ran through their dissertation. This year I am going to ask students to create a dissertation outline document to encourage early writing and making the connections between different sections of their report.  Anyone taken this strategy before?
  8. Saying no. There seems to be a fine line between encouraging students to run with their own ideas and stepping in when their idea doesn’t make complete sense. I’ve already taken a stronger stance with my new group of dissertation students this year, particularly in guiding them towards an appropriate theoretical underpinning – I hope this proves beneficial at their write up stage.
  9. Thanks or acknowledgements. Try not to take it personally if you don’t get a thanks or acknowledgement for the work you put in to help students with their research. Some students do, and some students don’t!
  10. Next steps. I’ve suggested to some of my students that they should publish their research and present at conferences.  The challenge becomes where to publish and transforming the project into a viable paper.  I think it’s also important to stress that the dissertation project is a great conversation starter and a way to showcase skills in job interviews and postgraduate study applications.   I can remember not mentioning my dissertation research at all in interviews because I couldn’t see the relevance of the research for the job in question. It’s about the wider skills of refining a problem, devising a way forward to investigate a topic, navigating the ethics process, managing workload and timescales, recruiting participants, data analysis, writing up a substantial piece of work, and providing tentative conclusions and practical suggestions for further work. I know this now but I didn’t know it then!

On reflection, I’ve been on an interesting learning journey this academic year and it’s good to get it down in a post. My supervisees produced some excellent work. I’m really proud of what they achieved. I hope they are too.



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