Creativity and endurance - tips from award-winning Master's thesis supervisors

The faculty of science has rewarded five notable thesis supervisors. In addition to the individual supervisions, the award proposals also highlighted the general development of supervision of theses.

In December, the Faculty of Science rewarded MSc thesis supervisors who had done an especially good job. The award winners were chosen on the basis of proposals from the directors of the Master’s programmes. The proposals for incentive awards annually granted by the university have often focused on other things than merits in teaching, so this year the faculty wanted to showcase the importance of thesis supervision with a separate incentive reward.

"We have many instructors who do a lot of work to supervise MSc theses. They may not often feel like they are receiving enough credit or encouragement for this very important work they are carrying out. In many ways, students completing their Master’s degree is the most significant objective of the education in our faculty," says Dean Kai Nordlund.

Intensified thesis supervision

Tomi Männistö is the professor in charge of the very popular software sub-programme in the Master’s programme in computer science. Männistö has examined over 40 MSc theses during the past two years, and been one of the two supervisors for a large part of them. Under Männistö’s direction, the supervision has also been made more systematic. During the research-method course, students receive a compact package on how to carry out research.

"A real-life context is included in designing software and studying it; people, business requirements, and organisational requirements. We planned the method course with our feet on the ground so that it would benefit thesis work directly," Männistö clarifies his stance.

The MSc thesis process has been improved within the Master’s programme for teachers in mathematics, physics, and chemistry, as well. Assistant Professor Anne-Maria Ernvall-Hytönen tells us that they drew up clear and coherent instructions on what is required of a Master’s thesis. Further, they created explicit guidelines on assessing theses.

"It is important that everyone is treated equally within the programme, regardless of their major subject. The students used to have incorrect notions about the MSc thesis. Now that the improvements have been made, we have to make sure that the information reaches the students," says Ernvall-Hytönen.

The objective of the reform was to bring transparency to MSc theses, especially in mathematics, since maths is primarily the subject teacher students will be teaching. This year, as before, some 50 teacher-programme Master’s theses were finished in mathematics; Ernvall-Hytönen examined some 40 of them.

"It’s a good thing I like to read. But in the end, it’s not a good thing that I’m the one examining all of them. It is important that all the supervisors interpret the assessment scale in the same way," Ernvall-Hytönen says.

Combining the thesis with working life

The basic problem in the degree programmes in computer science is that working life pulls hard on undergraduates. According to Männistö, the older students all have jobs, making it hard to work efficiently on their MSc thesis.

"Supervising them is like pushing with a rope. Sometimes, the students have time, sometimes not. The students work under pressure, and the thesis tends to fall by the wayside."

A longer pause from your studies may make it difficult to return, after the routines of scientific writing have been forgotten. Männistö has encouraged combining working life with MSc thesis work.

"It’s likely that you can write your thesis on something related to your work. At the least, you may find the research question there. And you can use the same methods at work – though you don’t need to make as detailed reports there."

The connection with working life may also motivate your thesis work.

"When working with a company, you have an external body that is interested in your thesis work. This acts as a motivator, as the thesis is not just a matter of your own passions," says Männistö.

Field work binds thesis writer to research community

In the Master’s programmes for geography, and geology and geophysics, field work is often part of the thesis work, allowing students to learn to know each other and their teachers.

"You learn to know your student pretty well while spending two weeks together in field work. Getting to know them also creates a responsibility for the student. At the same time, the students may feel a responsibility for making their thesis a good one, after having so much invested in them," University Lecturer Seija Kultti ponders.

The guiding principle for Professor Miska Luoto is to connect the MSc thesis to the work of a research group, and for students to be integrated in the research community. Field work is a conductor for this.

"Field work in challenging conditions, like the Lapland mountains, will weld thesis workers into the group. The thesis writer will internalise how to work as a part of the research community. This modus operandi forms the main competence asset, i.e. ‘silent knowledge’ on their future career path," says Luoto.

Ernvall-Hytönen also stresses the importance of cooperation. Thesis writers in the teachers’ programme have found the shared seminar with the mathematics and statistics Master’s programme useful. A thesis problem may be solved with the help of a statistics student in the seminar, and the varied themes may give surprising new ideas.

"The team spirit doesn’t have to develop merely between teacher students. It is important that future maths teachers also develop a mathematician’s identity," says Ernvall-Hytönen.

The supervisor's influence is visible in the structure of the work

According to Seija Kultti, the supervision mostly manifests in the MSc thesis in the posing of the research question, and in the conclusions replying to the research question and nothing else.

"The besetting sin of students is that they want to write down everything they know. The supervisor can help students not to get side-tracked and wasting their time. Students often think that the more they write, the better. It is often the other way around – 10 diamonds will be lost in a bucket of gravel," says Kultti.

Luoto also stresses that you should avoid side-tracking. If it is difficult for a student to pick out the common thread of the thesis, he has often encouraged the student to write a summary first.

"The summary is printed out and kept beside the workstation, acting as the main work guide. This makes it easier to focus the work and reduces the risk of the thesis bloating," says Luoto.

Tangible improvement suggestions most helpful

University Lecturer Jouni Räisänen, who supervises MSc theses in meteorology, emphasises the importance of concrete and constructive feedback.

"It’s no use telling the student to ‘make this better.’ You have to give tangible suggestions about how and why it could be better. You should also be fairly quick to give feedback. If a student sends you a text and doesn’t hear back within two weeks, the whole thing goes stale," Räisänen says.

Resonanssi, the association of students of physical sciences, has elected Räisänen teacher of the year twice. Räisänen is said to be an easily approachable and straightforward supervisor. Räisänen counsels supervisors to be sensitive of the personality of their students.

"If your student happens to be a perfectionist, who produces five pages a month, refrain from commenting on things that are not strictly necessary. The main thing is to get the student to finish the work."

"Some students tend to underestimate themselves very much, or overestimate the thesis. You have to try and tell the student what is required where. Like all other projects, the MSc thesis will feel like a much smaller project afterwards than beforehand," Räisänen says.

Adjusting the thesis objective

The awarded supervisors advise you to ask your students what their goal is with the thesis, and to supervise the work according to those goals.

"It is obvious that not all thesis writers have the same objectives or temporal resources," Ernvall-Hytönen reminds us. "The best MSc thesis is a finished MSc thesis."

The students’ objectives in their studies will partially determine the degree of difficulty in their thesis stage.

"If a student is interested in postgraduate studies, it is a good idea to ponder how the MSc thesis may be turned into the first article of a PhD thesis right at the start of the MSc thesis work. This will often considerably add to the student’s motivation, both when it comes to the quality of the work and keeping to set schedules," says Luoto.

Luoto emphasises the importance of encouragement and spurring and support, also for thesis writers who are not striving for top marks.

"Too often only the students who have finished their degrees with the best marks, and their successful supervisions are highlighted. We have to give special attention to students with problems in their studies, their health, or e.g. life management, and give them extra strong support," says Luoto.

Advice for problems on time

The supervisors stress that thesis writers should not be left pondering problems that seem insurmountable for too long on their own. Often problems can be solved by supportive contacts and regular meetings.

"If you hit a snag, you shouldn’t sit back and wait too long for it to resolve itself. While waiting couple of weeks, the threshold for reaching out just keeps on growing," Ernvall-Hytönen says.

"The main thing is not to leave students alone with their thesis work in a difficult life situation, but offer flexible support with a sensitive ear for the situation," Luoto says.

The MSc thesis is an endurance sport. Good work routines will also help to keep up creativity.

"Writing a thesis is very creative work, we must not let creativity be lost through a bad work rhythm. If your thoughts are stuck and you cannot proceed with your thesis, a walk in the woods or run along the beach may open up the locks in your mind," suggests Luoto.

Concrete benefit from teaching

"Being approachable can be a psychologically significant factor in the supervising relationship. I try not to seem too important to students," says Räisänen.

According to Räisänen, there is an inevitable hierarchy between the thesis supervisor and its writer.

"Especially the younger students look up to an older university lecturer, however friendly you’re trying to be."

This autumn, Räisänen supervised his contemporary’s thesis, when TV weatherman Pekka Pouta decided to finish his degree.

"Pekka would arrive at the supervision meetings with a cup of coffee in his hand and throw his coat in a corner. It is fun to supervise the theses of older students without the reverent kowtowing," Räisänen says.

Räisänen values teaching and spends time with it. In practice, this means that he spends less time with research than many others.

"You can be quite sure that teaching produces actual benefits, while research is always a lottery, more or less. The people who have graduated from the university are a large part of the real benefits produced here," Räisänen says.

MSc thesis supervisors rewarded by the faculty in 2020:

Associate Professor Anne-Maria Ernvall-Hytönen
Master’s programme for teachers in mathematics, physics, and chemistry, Department of Mathematics and Statistics

Professor Miska Luoto
Master’s programme in geography, Department of Geoscience and Geography

University Lecturer Seija Kultti
Master’s programme in geology and geophysics, Department of Geoscience and Geography

Professor Tomi Männistö
Master’s programme in computer science, Department of Computer Science

University Lecturer Jouni Räisänen
Master’s programme in atmospheric sciences, INAR

Tips for supervising MSc theses
  • Ask the students about their goals with the thesis and supervise the work accordingly.
  • Give concrete suggestions for improvements.
  • Help students avoid unnecessary side-tracks.
  • Give feedback quickly to keep it fresh.
  • Set intermediate goals for the thesis and checkpoints for how it is progressing.
  • Encourage, support, spur them on. Do not leave the student alone.
  • Integrate the thesis work into research or the student’s job.
  • Encourage the student to develop work routines and take pauses and days off.