Becoming a supervisor

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For my story, we have to travel half a year back in time.

When my professor asked me, if I would like to supervise a Bachelor student my first thought was like: “No way! I just started two weeks ago!! I will never manage to take care of someone else”. But actually, at that time point, I had already survived my first year of the Ph.D. and was not really a beginner anymore. However, I thought that taking care of someone else’s career is a responsibility I’m not ready for, yet. I know it’s “just” a bachelor thesis but I mean wasn’t that the moment where we realized if we like working in the lab or not? Finding out if asking relevant scientific questions is our ‘thing’? My biggest fear was, that I would fail to motivate her and fail to give her the chance to gain positive experiences and associations in the lab. It could have happened, that she stops her career in science, just due to the fact that I was a bad supervisor! That’s quite a lot of pressure, isn’t it? So I was afraid like hell but I agreed and I can already reveal: She did really well! We were a great team and had a funny time and if I would have to make a guess, I think she will stay in science.

But let’s start from the beginning. I mean supervising is actually the same as taking care of your own project. First, you have to define a project. Then, you have to plan and organize the experiments. During the experimental phase, you have to make decision, handle failures and motivate yourself. And last but not least, writing a THESIS. The only difference here is that you do all this for someone else who has no experience about this, yet.

Okay so first we needed a project. I had an idea in mind but was not sure whether it is good enough or not or if the experiments I planned were too little or too much for 5 months. Thus, I discussed it with my professor and surprisingly: He liked it! Of course, he had some comments and the general question “is this clinically relevant?!” but that’s the standard procedures during our meetings and overall he agreed that this can be her project. First hurdle: check ✔︎

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My Mini-Me (how I liked to call her) started and I cannot emphasize enough how lucky I was. We got along pretty well and she was the most motivated person I have ever met, for real. So, keeping the motivation up during difficult experimental times was not an issue at all. Of course, she still had to learn a lot about laboratory stuff and keeping an overview about the different questions, experiments, conclusions and how all our findings can be linked together but I mean, I still struggle sometimes with this as well, so all in all she mastered all tasks pretty good. In the beginning it was unfamiliar to always have someone around following you but I would say you get used to it. And with time she got independent and could do things on her own which was a real boon. Second hurdle (experimental phase): check ✔︎

But then, probably the most difficult part started: writing the thesis! I realized that calculating the time you need to write everything down is a big thing you have to learn during your bachelor thesis. I would say that this was the only thing I really struggled with as supervisor because writing that damn thesis was not my task anymore. This, she had to do on her own and I was super nervous, that she might run out of time and then has to take night shifts to submit in time.

So the thesis was no longer in my hands and I was doing probably the most unhelpful thing, a supervisor can make: Giving advises like ‘If I would be you, I would start already with the Introduction’ or ‘Be aware, the Material and Methods part will take time’. But of course, if you do not have a feeling for time yet, it’s difficult to judge about it and as I said, it’s an experience you have to make yourself and then learn out of it.

Indeed, it got a little bit stressful at the end, including meeting at my place the evening before submission to discuss the last points and proofreading the last changes an hour before printing but hey… Third hurdle: check ✔︎ and she did an awesome job!!

My Mini-Me hadn’t even left when my professor asked me if I would like to supervise a master student. Although, I appreciate the trust he has in me, I am really looking forward to be some months on my own. To be honest, it was a lot of additional work to my own thesis but nevertheless it was a great experience for me. I learned a lot about myself and I gained confidence in my skills which will definitely strengthen my scientific career. Moreover, it is really a great feeling if you can see a young scientist grow and experience the joy of research.

So what would be my tips for those who are just reading this article and face the scary task of supervising a student?

  1. Look closely at your possible Mini-Me during the interview. Are you on the same wavelength? Do you think you have a similar character? Then everything will go well. Sure, it can go in the lab sometimes haywire. But if the chemistry is generally right, then you will manage all the hurdles together.
  2. Always calm. The most important thing is to explain to the student what we are doing in the lab and why. One is tempted to skip steps because it is already clear for oneself, but one forgets that a student has not so much experience at the beginning of his scientific career.
  3. Make sure your student really understands what’s his/her job. Sometimes they say “okay, I’ll do it” but the “okay” sounds more like an “oooooohhkaaay?!?!” And that should be a warning signal to better go through it together again.
  4. Always keep in mind that you will learn so much from this experience as well! You can only improve your supervision skills by supervising. So don’t be afraid! 🙂

Author: Nina Kessler