Praise and encouragement goes a long way towards building confidence in laboratory work

By Charlotte Slaymark, Biogeochemistry Technician and PhD Candidate, University of Glasgow

A person with long hair adn heir back tot he camera, engages in scientific work at a lab bench

Supervision may be the most important aspect of a postgraduate’s experience during their masters or PhD programme. Supervisors are there to teach, guide, develop, support, and empower postgraduates into becoming independent researchers and highly skilled people. The experience is formative, and it is likely the candidate will remember it for their entire life.

Supervision in physical sciences often comes from several people to provide different expertise, training, development, and support. I think it is important all aspects of supervision are considered for a successful postgraduate experience which is why I took time to reflect on my supervisory practice by taking part in the UK Council for Graduate Education Associate Supervisor Award.

This blog piece is about my day-to-day experience as a research technician (and part time PhD candidate), supervising on post-graduate projects in the School of Geographical and Earth Sciences at the University of Glasgow and on the value of obtaining the UKCGE Award.

Supervision day-to-day

I have a technical role in all levels of projects (undergrad to PhD), usually being the person to teach laboratory and field skills to candidates. I am in a complementary position to the primary supervisors because I provide the practical training in the laboratories and am often the person PGRs see on a daily or weekly basis. I am given the responsibility for inducting candidates to the laboratory, supervising the development of candidate’s practical skills, assessing data quality, explaining analysis techniques and the scientific basis of equipment and analysis.

As technicians, we are often the people who resolve problems; during the contact time in the laboratory. PGRs often confide in me not just about practical problems, but also issues of writing, and of personal, professional and career development, so a lot of supervision is carried out in this space.

Some of the additional work I carry out for groups of PGRs can be classed as a type of mentoring style supervision as well. For example, I facilitate a climate science reading group which develops PGR’s reading and writing skills, develops their knowledge and their critical thinking. I organise school wide seminars tailored to the PGR experience. These have helped PGRs to build confidence in presenting their research and the seminars provide opportunities for PGRs to learn from each other about the additional career-building experiences you can have in a PhD programme for example internships, organising conferences, and working on committees.

My experience of going through the Recognised Associate Supervisor Award

Before taking part in the UKCGE Recognised Associate Supervisor Award I didn’t have any way of characterising or reflecting on how I contribute to postgraduate supervision. Over the 3 months I worked on the Award I read literature around postgraduate pedagogies and experiences in higher education. I also drew from my own experience of being supervised during my PhD. Something that has stuck with me is how we supervise across all the different ways people learn new techniques. PGRs need to ask their own questions as they are cementing knowledge and practical skills. I think it’s important for us as supervisory mentors and trainers to be in the laboratory frequently in the first few days of this process, not only to observe new PGRs’ skill development and provide answers but to empower and encourage them to work independently. I think that praise and encouragement goes a long way towards building confidence in laboratory work.

I was the only technician to apply to the Award at the University of Glasgow when we took part in the 2021 pilot. Perhaps others in similar roles to me need some encouragement to apply, or to see themselves in that supervisory space. I hope this reflection shows what technician careers and the higher education sector stands to gain from more technicians taking part in the Award.

Supervision, as I hope this piece has shown, is a shared endeavour. Please see here, and here for two more stories of Associate Supervisors gaining the Award, both UofG post-docs, and both offering up their own unique expertise to support our PGRs.

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