Lisanne Wilken, Associate Professor, School of Culture and Society

What’s the advantage of writing your thesis in collaboration with a Company?

“I think that the most important thing is that students gain confidence from knowing that what they do during the thesis process is useful, and that other people find it interesting. Things are difficult for students and graduates of the humanities these days, because many of them have to work out how to sell themselves. They learn some really good things at the university, but studying the humanities doesn’t necessarily provide you with specific tools for the labour market. I think that doing your Master’s thesis in collaboration with a company can teach you that you really can analyse and collect data. You’ve actually got the skills that your degree programme says it’s going to give you! Sometimes I look at the data the student has collected and find a few things that are particularly interesting for the company. For instance, you could easily perform an academic analysis of the Master’s thesis I’m supervising at the moment. But you could also turn it into a genuine project. So it could be used to apply for a job – although this varies from one thesis to the next, of course. I also imagine that working in this way makes you more confident, making it easier to apply for your first job. So I think that students writing their thesis in collaboration with a company or organisation are better equipped to deal with their first job interview than other students. This kind of thesis helps to bridge the gap between the university and the labour market.”

“I think students benefit from having someone other than their supervisor involved in their thesis, someone who cares about it and asks questions about it. I know that my students are often told that their company isn’t interested. Although their thesis might be interesting at university, it’s not necessarily interesting for the world outside. This doesn’t mean that they should abandon their project, but it does help them to think more carefully about what they’re doing. It can lead to some useful discussions about their academic identity. This isn’t always what happens, but it does offer the potential for learning things that can’t be learned in a standard thesis. All Master’s thesis students probably wake up once in a while thinking ‘what on earth am I doing?’ But students doing their thesis in collaboration with a company have to go to work, doing a job which is related to their thesis. And some of the people they’re working with will undoubtedly find their work interesting. I think this makes a big difference.”

What does it take to supervise this kind of thesis?

“Basically, I don’t think there’s any difference between supervising this kind of Master’s thesis and any other kind. On the Master’s degree programme in European studies we invest a lot of energy in the students in the build-up to their thesis. For instance, we discuss the criteria stated in the academic regulations and elsewhere. The thesis I’m supervising at the moment didn’t have to be produced in collaboration with an organisation – it could easily have been written in exactly the same way in the form of a standard thesis. But the presence of a final reader still makes a clear difference, obviously. I try to teach my students that their thesis isn’t just the crowning achievement of their academic education, but also a kind of starting point for making job applications. That’s why I’m always telling my students to think about who they want to read their thesis once the co-examiner and I have read it. Who is it they want to impress? With a Master’s thesis produced in collaboration with a company, this discussion becomes much more specific during the supervision process because the ideal reader is actually part of the thesis. The actual supervision process doesn’t change, because the students still need to pass in relation to the academic regulations.”

How involved are you in the start-up phase of the thesis process? Are there any points you need to be particularly aware of?

“As a general rule, I try to make sure that all three of us (the student, the external partner and me) have a meeting before the process starts. At this meeting we discuss how we are going to collaborate, and I explain my requirements as a supervisor. These requirements mean that the thesis must comply with the academic regulations, the student must have the right to use the data they collect, and we must all agree about sharing the results and ethical rules. These are very general points, and everyone is usually very keen to reach an agreement. But for the student’s sake, I think it’s very important to get the agreement in writing. And finally, I also like to discuss the student’s right to be critical of the company or organisation involved.” 

Extract from an interview with Lisanne Wilken, Associate Professor, School of Culture and Society