Many members of research staff are asked to manage or supervise others. You might be asked to take responsibility for a postgraduate or placement student, or provide supervision for a junior member of staff who is new to the job. You may even be asked to design and oversee research projects alongside your own.
It is common for researchers to be nervous when taking on this role for the first time. Common concerns include “My career isn’t well enough established – what right have I got to be doing this?”, “I’ve had no training” or “Is my own work going to suffer?”
These are all valid concerns. On the other hand, in many ways this is an area where the only way to learn is by doing. If you plan to apply for research funding in the future, you will probably be hoping to employ a researcher to work with you. So getting some early experience of how to supervise a junior colleague will be invaluable training for later in your career. It will also help you learn how to prioritise your own workload alongside the needs of your trainee.
Think back to when you first started as a researcher. You were probably entering an unfamiliar environment for the first time. The advantage YOU have as a supervisor is that you can still remember what that is like. Many academic supervisors are much older than the people they are supervising. They may not have been involved in the day-to-day aspects of research work for some years. You are much better placed than they are to help a junior colleague through the pitfalls of getting started in research.
Your exact role as a supervisor will differ depending on your university and your discipline. In a scientific discipline it is most likely that you will be working alongside the trainee in a lab. You will teach experimental techniques and ensure that Health & Safety requirements are met. In an arts or social sciences discipline you might be required to teach research skills, assist with literature searches and interpretation of data. You might be asked to help the trainee plan a report or dissertation – although you shouldn’t write it for them!
Some duties are common across disciplines. As a general rule, you will normally be required to:
- ensure that your trainee meets co-workers and other key staff with whom they will be interacting
- ensure that the trainee understands what is expected of them
- meet regularly with the trainee on a formal basis, as well as any informal day-to-day interactions
- ensure that your trainee knows how their research fits into the ‘bigger picture’ of what you and the research team are trying to do
- give guidance on any relevant university policies and procedures (e.g. Health & Safety, data management)
- ensure that the trainee knows who to go to if they need any specific training (such as how to use instruments, databases or particular methodologies)
- help the trainee develop their critical thinking
- provide constructive feedback on written work
- give feedback on the trainee’s overall progress
- help the trainee set realistic deadlines.
Every supervisor has a different approach. How you interact with your trainee will depend on your personal style and the trainee’s needs. You might find it helpful to be aware of how different working styles and cultural differences can influence a working relationship.
Your line manager, or another senior member of academic staff, will have ultimate responsibility for the trainee’s welfare. There are bound to be times when the help you can offer the trainee is limited. At such times, be willing to involve your own manager so that you can both benefit from his or her greater experience.
Most universities provide training for staff who are new to managing others. Your university’s staff development programme will have details of available training. Make the most of this guidance and support.