Supervision of students – curse or blessing?

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At some point during your PhD studies, you reach the point where you are told that you will supervise your first student. You might start by supervising a student for a lab rotation or be directly asked to supervise a thesis.

You might still remember relatively well what it was like to get into a new lab as a student. A feeling of excitement and curiosity to learn new techniques and participate in science – but maybe also some stress and personal pressure to perform well and to fulfil your supervisor’s expectations.

And suddenly you’re on the other side: Now you are the supervisor!

As a member of a small working group, my list of students grew very quickly and ranges from conducting group practical courses to supervising lab rotations and several theses. Meanwhile, I can claim to have grown into the role of a supervisor. However, I remember clearly the uncertainty I felt about how best to supervise a student. Don’t we want to perform just as good as we aimed to as students?

But what makes a good supervisor?

The most important criteria can be identified if you think about what you would have ideally wished for as a student.

Core competencies, such as cooperativeness, attention, and sympathy seem almost self-evident. Especially, the importance of other qualities usually becomes clear during the supervision process.

  • Be organized and elaborative -It’s one thing to plan your own experiments and structure the day. But planning for someone else is completely different.
  • Be flexible – Every student is different and you might need to adapt to your student’s needs. Sometimes it is not easy to find the balance between close guidance and independence. But don’t worry, you will learn to appreciate this better over time.
  • Ability to explain – In addition to completing the relevant study module, students should primarily expand their theoretical and practical knowledge. As a supervisor, you not only pass on technical skills to the student but also have to explain in an understandable way. You might need to find different ways to explain the same thing.
  • Be patient – Patience is one of the most important but (at least for me) one of the hardest skills to learn as a supervisor. Your student may take much longer than expected to perform things and you may also have to explain things repeatedly. In my eyes, a good supervisor tries to remain calmand friendly no matter what happens.
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The list of desired skills can probably be continued forever and can especially not be answered blanketly. Every student is different and needs different support and assistance. And just as you learn something new as a student in every internship and with every additional laboratory work, you also learn something new and improve with every student.

But regardless of your skills, you might consider whether you want to supervise a student at all. You may have heard the wildest stories from other PhD students and may wonder: Is it desirable to supervise students, or should you try to keep it to a minimum?

I am happy to share with you some advantages and disadvantages I have experienced while supervising students.

A student – your friend and little helper

  • Generation of data for you – This is probably the most prominent point that comes into everyone’s mind when thinking about a student. You get a helpful person who takes some of your work you have to do – not only pipetting but also data analysis. Handing over to a student might especially seem desirable if you don’t feel like repeatedly performing an experiment by yourself or if you have a very time-consuming data analysis, such as some investigations with Fiji.
  • Passing on knowledge and technical skills – Certainly, preferences and personal ideas about the perfect job vary. For my part, I found out that I really enjoy teaching and especially the passing on of knowledge and skills.
  • Personal and content-related exchange – New ideas for the PhD project do not only emerge through research but also by discussion and exchange with others. Besides colleagues, you get a direct exchange partner with your student; you can share your knowledge, ideas, success but also frustration. Especially with a thesis, which lasts almost half a year, a personal bond might develop through the amount of time you spend together. And you never know, maybe you also get a new friend outside of lab life.
  • Learn to take responsibility and organize yourself – The PhD period generally promotes you to become more organized and independent. Planning for one more person requires even a higher level of organization. Supervising a student also means that you are responsible for ensuring the proper use of the equipment and other materials and it trains your leadership skills.

Or just a waste of time?

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  • Time-consuming – Especially at the beginning, you have to invest a lot of time in a student to train him or her. The longer students stay with you, the more they can potentially give back to you afterwards. However, explaining, showing experimental work, and discussing the results often take more time than you think beforehand.
  • Hard to assess – Before students join your lab, you usually can hardly estimate their knowledge and skills. Learning speed and capacity vary immensely; some need one-time explanations – others you have to show and explain things again and again.
  • Confidence in results – If you perform and evaluate your experiments yourself, you know that everything went right. But can you trust the results from somebody else? Create trust and be empathetic. If you are grumpy and angry when your students tell you about mistakes, they won’t tell you next time. Trust and communication are essential.
  • Less flexible in your time organization – Usually, you are very flexible in your time planning during your PhD. When you carry out which experiment, but also your daily rhythm or holiday planning is your decision.

So what is the outcome? In short, you can’t say in advance what your student will be like and supervision is highly dependent on the preferences and characteristics of the supervisor. I for my part really enjoy supervising students up to a certain amount. However, permanently supervising students without breaks in between can be exhausting and stressful in the long run. You also need times of the year when you can just plan freely.

A general remark from my side: Communication and feedback are the keys. A little advice: for theses, I do a feedback session for both sides after about 6 weeks. This gives the student and you the opportunity to improve and relate better to each other.

And now it’s on you to decide – to supervise or not to supervise? 🙂

Author: Laura Schlautmann