Leading & Supervising Postgraduates

Written by Prof Maddy Parsons, Professor of Cell Biology, Randall Centre for Cell & Molecular Biophysics

I think one of the most enjoyable and rewarding parts of being an academic is having the opportunity to supervise and mentor postgraduate students (Masters and PhD) who are undertaking their projects in our team. In deciding to do a postgraduate degree programme, these students have already defined themselves as being committed to the field, interested in learning more about an in-depth subject area and developing new skills. This enthusiasm and genuine appetite for knowledge is essential in any research environment, and as such, students can have a really positive impact on the team as a whole if they are mentored properly. However, providing effective leadership to postgrad students can also present some significant challenges. In my 12 years as a group leader, I have supervised or co-supervised over 40 students and I suspect I’ve probably made all the mistakes you possibly can along the way! However, I think (hope!) I have also learned a few key things that might be helpful to consider:

  1. Good communication is essential. It might sound obvious, but establishing regular communication with new students is absolutely critical. Face-to-face is always best; I try really hard to make sure I have an allocated time to meet students every week and discuss progress and plans. Ad hoc or ‘open door’ policies tend not to work well, particularly if the student lacks the confidence to ask questions and discuss ideas spontaneously. This dedicated time is also important to develop mutual trust and respect that is essential to any student:supervisor relationship.
  2. One supervision style does not fit all. A senior colleague told me early on in my career that I should adopt one leadership style with students and stick to it. I realised very quickly that this was very bad advice! Everyone is different and you have to adapt to make sure they are getting the right level and type of support that works for them and for you. This can only be learned through good communication and developing an understanding of what each student needs in terms of leadership and mentorship.
  3. Micro-management kills innovation. All students need closer guidance when they first start, but after this it’s important that they take ownership and develop the project using their own ideas. This can be particularly tricky if you have pre-conceived ideas about where a project should go. Providing enough guidance and feedback to enable students to develop their critical thinking skills and pursue new avenues is essential.
  4. Encourage collaboration, open discussion and interactions. Postgraduate study can sometimes be a lonely business; it’s really important that students develop a network of peer support through regular interactions with other team members, other students within the department/College and externally through attendance at meetings and conferences. I really try to encourage these types of interactions as it has a huge positive impact on confidence and is an essential part of career development.
  5. Get excited! All research has its ups and downs; celebrating the successes with students (however small) and providing encouragement through the harder times is really important in maintaining confidence, momentum and commitment.