Supervision - tips for PhDs supervising bachelors or masters students for the first time

Supervision - tips for PhDs supervising bachelors or masters students for the first time

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One part of the PhD process that students are not always aware of when they begin is their role in the supervision of bachelors or masters students.

Postdocs and professors have limited time and busy schedules, so often enlist the help of their PhDs in the supervision of more junior students. You may be called on to manage the research project for a bachelors or masters student: this involves helping them plan their research, choose a methodology, showing them how to collect and analyse data, and providing feedback on their written work. While supervision can be an interesting and rewarding experience, it is one for which PhDs often feel unprepared. Today we're sharing some tips on the supervision process to help you through your first time supervising.

Choosing the right student

Straight away, it's important to consider whether you are a good match for the student in question. To be an effective supervisor you need to be interested in the student's project and to have some experience with the sort of work that they'll be performing. You should be able to communicate with your student and develop a healthy rapport, and you should look for indications that the student can think independently and bring their own ideas and insights to the project. You should also have support from more senior postdocs or professors who can support the areas of knowledge or skills which you lack.

Management: setting the correct level of involvement

Everyone's had the experience of an overbearing boss who wants to micro-manage every aspect of the work which you perform, and knows how frustrating this can be. You don't want to be a micro-managing supervisor, but remember that your students will need specific guidance. Start off by setting them small, specific tasks, and give them clear step-by-step instructions. Once you have seen the quality of work that they can produce, and you can estimate their ability to work independently, you can start to set them larger tasks and to allow them to approach a task in whatever manner they choose. Be as clear as possible with your students about your expectations regarding time frames and the allocation of tasks.

The importance of feedback

It's important for the motivation of your students that you recognise the work that they have performed, and give them praise when they have completed a challenging task well. Don't underestimate the value of just smiling and saying "well done"! In some ways, it's even more important to give negative feedback when it's required. If your student has made a mistake or an error, you need to let them know so that they know not to do that in future. There's no need to be harsh or critical, but you do need to inform them about their mistake and show them how to correct it. If you can support them through the process of revise or re-doing work you can help to ensure that they don't make the same mistakes in the future.

The importance of communication

Make sure that you're available to your students, either by phone or email or in person, so that they can come to you with questions if they're unsure how to proceed. Some students can be shy about admitting that they don't know how to do some tasks, so try to be open and understanding if there's something that they are unsure of. It's up to you to set the tone of your interactions, so strive for a professional but friendly manner in your communications. Try to get into good habits, like replying to emails in a timely manner, and your students will follow your lead.

Supervision can be an interesting and rewarding process, and you can learn as much from your students as they can from you. It's also a chance to practice your management skills, which are valuable both within and outside of academia. If you're looking for opportunities for PhDs or for more junior student positions, check out open positions here.