What is the the roles of the supervisor?

I have supervised many successful Msc theses projects, and had some failures. Now, I am Msc Thesis coordinator at Tilburg University, for the Information Management program. 

In this article, I would like to elaborate on the role of the supervisor.

Suppose you are a supervisor yourself. You may be helping secondary school pupils with their exams, or you may be training a football team to become better at defense. There are many settings, also in your work, which involve supervision. From these settings you can learn and see patterns emerge. My claim is that your master’s thesis project will improve, if you let yourself be supervised and if you do some self-supervising. And for both it is crucial that you understand the role of the supervisor. Here is the main point. It is based on my own observations, but it was confirmed by education experts, when I discussed it.

The roles of the supervisor: coach and referee
The roles of the supervisor: coach and referee

A supervisor has two roles: coach and referee. These roles are partly conflicting.

The coach helps the student reach an objective. The coach will motivate and encourage the student, and try to boost his or her confidence. This may sound like an American sports movie: “Yes! You can do it”. Like in an American sports movie, the student (hero) should overcome some set-backs and hardships. This involves effort. To put in the effort requires determination. Coaches motivate students and to be believable, they need to get involved. They are next to the student, but strictly, they need to stay off the pitch. 

The referee must assess whether the objective is actually met. By the end of the research project, the outcome will be judged on a number of criteria. And such assessment matters: it determines the grade. The referee can push some of these assessments forward in time. At intermediate points you need to know: is the conceptual framework adequate and suitable for the topic? Is the questionnaire well formulated?  Is the literature review properly accounted for? To make a fair assessment, the referee needs some distance from the student.

Figure 1 illustrates the two roles. There is a difference between ‘now’ and ‘objective’, as shown by an assessment by the referee. The coach will help to bridge that gap.

                —-coach— >    referee


             now                objective

Figure 1. Roles of the supervisor. Coach: motivate student to reach objective.  Referee: assess the work done.

   Referee: assess whether objective as reached.

The roles partly conflict. Being a coach requires involvement, but being a referee requires distance. Usually, in the beginning of the project I am more involved; towards the end I try to keep some distance. This may be surprising to students: “Last month you said you liked the idea, and now you criticize it!” “Well yes, last month I tried to encourage you and now I have to assess the outcomes”. Sometimes it is even necessary to force a ‘crisis’: “This version is not good enough!”  “There is a conceptual error in the model”. If tough messages arrive in time, the student can address the crisis and the problem can still be repaired.   

The link between the two roles is the objective. Where do objectives come from? Ideally, they come from the student. The supervisor should help in setting objectives, and once set, in maintaining them. In the beginning of a project, students are uncertain. That is normal, as by definition, the outcomes of any research project are uncertain. So we need stability from a project planning. Don’t change course, unless there is a real change in circumstances.

How can you apply these supervision patterns in your own work?

  • First, let yourself be supervised. That means no sheepish obedience, but being clear about objectives and the current state of the project. The supervisor needs material to work with. It helps to provide frequent status reports (e.g. once every two weeks). This will allow the supervisor to monitor progress and keep him or her involved. Usually, deviations from the plan signal that objectives need to be changed. Take responsibility for such changes.
  • Second, do some self-supervising. Monitor your own efforts, so you do not waste them. Once you have set the objectives, and you have broken them down into weekly tasks, you can monitor progress! Your can test how much work (e.g. how much pages, or how much interviews) you can do in a week. Based on such observations, you may have to adjust the plan.  Is it still doable? Daily issues can be solved by yourself. Problems that involve the set-up of the research need to be discussed with the supervisor.

And please be kind to your supervisor. Although they have experience in previous projects, they have never done this project with you before!  They need to learn and adjust too. Give them some space to do so, but be clear about what you expect.  

Good luck with your thesis!

About the Author

Dr. J. Hulstijn (Joris).


I am researcher with a background in information systems and artificial intelligence. My research concerns model-based auditing, continuous control monitoring and their applications, for instance in regulatory compliance. A research profile and list of publications can be found here: https://www.tilburguniversity.edu/webwijs/show/j.hulstijn.htm

I teach courses in the Information Management Msc programme at Tilburg University: ERP systems, Project management and Cyber Security. I often supervise master’s students in doing research, and I have recently become msc Thesis coordinator. If you know about a nice internship or project, please let me know!

This article (The roles of the supervisor: coach and referee) is part of the miniseries on how to do a good thesis, you can see the full list of post at the following links: