Questions I had when I started supervising student projects

Supervising student projects has been one of the most rewarding but also one of the hardest things I’ve done during my PhD. It was hard, because I had no previous experience and little guidance. There is this general sense in (Dutch) academia that you just gotta figure it out. Perhaps not the most effective approach, but luckily everything worked out. Fifteen fun, exciting and very different student projects later I know a little bit better why it is so hard, and since I know I’m not the only PhD who struggles with this, I want to share some of the stuff I have learned along the way.

Why supervise a student project?
It’s fun! All students are different, and they bring a lot of different ideas to the table. It’s great to get to see your work reinterpreted by someone else’s perspective. It also makes you a better researcher. Having to explain to students what your work is about and get them to be excited about it forces you to be very clear on what your research is about. And, I’ve found that reading student theses has made myself a lot better at identifying flaws in structure and argumentation.

Supervising is fun! Picture from Cam Bowers via Unsplash.

Am I doing OK as a supervisor?
When I started supervising, I thought it was my fault if a student wasn’t doing so great. I felt incredibly (overly) responsible for the projects my students were working on, and I wanted them to have a great experience (still do!). So if something wasn’t going well, I was always wondering if I was doing something wrong. Why are they not getting it? Am I explaining it wrong? Was I not giving enough help? This was hard and it resulted in a lot of self-doubt. Of course I was explaining things ineffectively sometimes, you don’t get any training in teaching when you start supervising students. On top of that, most of the time I am also just figuring out my research as I go. But now I also know that a student having trouble with the project can have many causes, that always have anything to do with me. I try to just be kind and understanding, and if am not able to help with an issue myself I ask if they need help finding someone who can.

Am I doing it right? Picture from Charles Deluvio via Unsplash.

How much should I help?
Should you spend many hours trying to fix your students thesis or help them understand a complex concept? Should you answer all their questions? When I asked for help on this matter, the answer was no. Because it is a learning process. In some cases (read MSc), a very high level academic learning process. When it comes to subject-related questions, I don’t give answers, but show the road to get to the answer. Which is hard, because just giving the answer is often a lot easier and a lot faster.

When it comes to the thesis, I tend to give an overwhelming amount of feedback. I know this can be hard for students, so I warn them upfront that this is just my style and they did not mess up. I give both content-related feedback and feedback on style. I do the latter also for myself, because I usually have to mark the work in the end and I like to mark something that’s easily readable (which is weird, the marking bit, it feels a bit conflict-of-interesty). But I don’t (try to) change the whole text. Instead I show only for a few paragraph what the changes could look like.

In the end, it also depends on the type of project. In the Netherlands, there are applied university internships (not the same as university), which are less academic and more applied. At the university level there are bachelor’s theses, bachelor’s internships, master theses and master’s internships and they all have different requirements, which also differ accross universities. Personally, I believe that the master’s thesis requires the highest level of academic independence and I will give less help here than when it comes to a bachelor’s internship.

Let me tell you many wise things. Nope, just kidding, I also don’t know what I’m doing – these results are just as new to me. Picture from Alexandry Rotario via Unsplash.

How much can I ask for?
There are two types of projects: low-stakes and high-stakes. Low-stakes are quite easy, they’re fun side projects or a side question that’s not so important and you don’t have time to answer yourself. In these projects, it’s not so stressful if a student is having trouble with producing good quality data. High-stakes projects are another story. They are projects where you depend on the results to move your own work forward (of course better to avoid, but sometimes you have work that you simply can’t do on your own). So if a student is producing not so great work, this has direct consequences for your own PhD.

So if a student is not producing good results, it’s going too slow or the work is sloppy, how to deal with that? Or what if a student is not keeping agreements and not handing in results that you need? How much pressure can you put on someone? Or can you ask a student to work overtime a couple of nights because an experiment needs to get done? These are the kinds of questions I still find really hard. If it is a low-stakes projects and I have given all the advice I reasonably can, I leave it be. But if it is high-stakes project, it’s hard and it’s stressful. Since there are no guidelines for this, I deal with these situations case-by-case by asking around how others are dealing with similar situations to figure out what’s reasonable.

I don’t know if this dog is a good student, but he showed up when I searched for good dog. Picture from Diana Parkhouse via Unsplash.

Don’t forget to stay positive!
Academics are trained critics, which is essential for science but criticism can be stressful if it’s coming from someone more senior. Even from fellow PhD’s it can be hard sometimes, because for some reason we often forget that positive criticism is also necessary if we want to give a balanced review of someone’s work. We often focus on ways to make something even better, not what’s already good. But it is important to be careful with this, because it can be tough as a student to only hear what appear to be negatives about all the hard work they just carried out. As a wise fellow PhD colleage once remarked when we were supervising a student together and kept coming up with more improvements: “You’re actually doing great, I hope you realise that even though we’re giving a lot comments!“.

Positive critisicm dog! Picture from Joe Caione via Unsplash.

When in doubt, be kind
When I started supervising two years ago, there wasn’t much information out there (or I didn’t know where to look). I’ve just based my supervision on what I’ve experienced during my own academic projects as a bachelors, masters and now PhD student. Luckily, I’ve had some exceptional supervisors, and the most important thing I’ve learned is that when in doubt, be kind.

Looking for more information? Terry McGlynn is a US-based Professor of Biology that I followed on Twitter for a while when I discovered he has a blog about college teaching: smallpondscience.com. It’s quite US-centric but I’ve found it informative sometimes, so if you are looking for better advice than my tiny experience can provide I’d recommend having a look. He also brought out a book last year on academic teaching called ‘The Chicago Guide to College Science Teaching‘. I haven’t read it yet, but it sounds promising. Have fun supervising!

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