Tuesday, 23 October 2012


Posted by Jean Adams

If you think being an epidemiologist is a difficult job to explain, you should try being a lecturer with 85% dedicated to research. “Me? I'm a lecturer at the university....Well, no, I don’t actually do much lecturing....”

I think I only give two classic, big lecture theatre, lectures a year. I do a bit more classroom-based seminar teaching. But most of my teaching is one-to-one with students doing research projects.

The big (anatomy) lecture theatre at Leiden
I generally look after one or two undergraduate students doing final year projects each year, two or three masters students doing their dissertations, and I have four ongoing PhD students. We tend to supervise in teams, so I am not solely responsible for all of these people and two of the PhD students are due to submit in the next few months. Hopefully one will be replaced by someone else I am currently helping to work up a doctoral fellowship application.

Research projects were the part of being a student that I enjoyed the most, and I enjoy supervising research students. But despite the advice from students, and some mock bravado on my part, I don’t always find supervising students that easy.

The great thing about supervising is how different each journey is. Every project is different, with different challenges, and every student struggles with different things. For me this keeps the task interesting and engaging. But it also makes it difficult. Just like it is vaguely ludicrous to suggest that there could be a simple list of ‘rules’ for how to be a successful research student, so there is no simple rule book for how to be a supervisor.

I particularly struggle with how much direction and feedback I should give.

Student research projects are rewarding because they allow students to guide and own their work. Particularly at undergraduate level, they are one of the few parts of university learning that truly belong to the student. Having a supervisor that spends most of the time saying “do this”, “do that”, “definitely don’t do that” seems almost like robbing the student of this precious experience. But it is not uncommon to get a bit of a blank response when I ask what should, or even could, been done to solve a problem. Perhaps it is not a question that many students are used to hearing as an undergraduate. And when someone is nearing a deadline and feeling stressed enough already, sometimes “well, what do you think?” can push them right over the edge. It can be a tricky balance to get right.

Recently, however, I have been struggling with almost the opposite problem: how many times I should give the same feedback before becoming insistent that my suggestion is acted on.

Perhaps the problem is the very terminology of ‘suggestion’. I often tell my students that they don’t have to do what I say, that my comments are just ‘suggestions’. But clearly they aren't always. Every now and then a project will get stuck and, as far as I can see, there is only one way to unstick it: my way.

Sometimes it doesn't matter if the student and I dance around the issue for a month or two – there are other things to be getting on with, the deadline is still months, if not, years off. Other times, something has to be done right now. I don't like being insistent – it is just the sort of supervisor (person) I don't want to be. I don't want to lecture. But if the situation really is critical, then perhaps I am letting the student down by not insisting?

One of the common things that students do is to get personally and emotionally wrapped up in their work. I hesitate to call this a 'mistake'. I did it when I was a student. I do it now that I am not. I try not to be personally offended when my grant applications fail to get through to the short-list, or my papers are rejected without review, but I still am - a bit, sometimes. It can certainly mean you experience more of a blow than strictly necessary when things go wrong. But it probably also helps drive good quality. So maybe a 'risk', more than a 'mistake'.

What I hadn't quite realised was the risk of getting personally and emotionally wrapped up in my students. I have found that it matters to my personal sense of my professionalism that my students do well. The rare ones who do badly feel like failures. At least in the short term, until I have convinced myself that I did all I could: often including rather desperate lectures on standards expected and taking responsibility.

1 comment:

  1. Great piece, and one I can relate to. One of the toughest skills to master is management, and it's something we're definitely not taught in our studies. Learning how to manage people and meet deadlines without being autocratic is an incredibly difficult skill to develop.