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From researcher to supervisor: my experience of mentoring a sixth form student

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to step into your supervisor’s shoes? For the past three years, Cardiff University has been inviting sixth form pupils onto campus to get a taste of research life. Ken Yan Wong (School of Healthcare Sciences) is one of the PhD students who supervised a sixth former in the most recent intake. Here, he shares his experiences of being a mentor…  

The Nuffield Research Placement programme is a widening participation project which provides students who do not have a family history of going to universities, or those students from low-income households, an opportunity to engage in research projects in the university environment. Through these projects, students (typically 16-18 years old) develop their skills in research and their analytical acumen whilst immersed in a relaxed yet supportive setting.

Ken with his student

In 2017, Cardiff University had an intake of 44 students, making it the second largest project provider in the UK. Many schools within the University took part in the programme, including the School of Psychology, the School of Earth and Ocean Sciences and the School of Dentistry. I took part in a programme hosted at the School of Psychology, where there was a total of nine participating project providers (current PhD students and research staff included) offering research projects ranging from developing objective measures of fatigue, to understanding dexterity, to social mindfulness. A total of 17 students took part in these research projects, as junior researchers themselves, research participants and research assistants.

As a project provider, I took on a student who was interested in applying for a dentistry programme at Cardiff University. To foster her interest, we designed a literature review project together to explore reflective practice in dentistry; it was an amalgamation of both her interest and my research area of interest. Over four weeks, I trained her on research methodology and guided her on her project while affording her space to express her own creativity and pursue her interest. At the end of the placement, she produced a report on her project and a research poster which she presented publicly along with other participants of the Nuffield Research Placement programme. At the presentation event, she was also awarded her certificate of completion by Sir Martin Evans. As well as supervising her project, I also wrote a testimonial for her, in support of her university application and to validate her hard work. The report and poster she produced also helped demonstrate her knowledge and interest in the dentistry profession.

Students at their presentation event

For me, the most enjoyable part of the programme was introducing a student to the world of academia and research. While teaching opportunities are available as a PhD student, this programme goes beyond teaching and afforded me an opportunity to develop a student’s interest in higher education and thus become a positive influence on their future education or career decision. As Professor Rob Honey has commented about the programme: “We want to give all young people the opportunity to experience university life first hand and share in our passion for research.” This is definitely something the Nuffield Research Placement programme has achieved, not only for the benefit of the students but also for us as the project providers.

The most difficult part of the experience was letting go of absolute control over the project, to step down from being a researcher and take on the role of a supervisor. As PhD students, we are accustomed to managing our own projects, however, being a supervisor, I had to recognise that it was the student’s project and not mine. There was a propensity for me to teach rather than guide and it took some time to get used to providing ample space for my student to be creative, make mistakes, problem-solve and learn – similar to how we grow as researchers.

I would certainly recommend that PhD students get involved in the programme or seek out similar opportunities. In addition to the altruistic purpose of these widening participation programmes, the personal and professional development opportunities available are valuable and sometimes lacking in our daily work. The most important skill that I have picked up is learning to guide and lead others on a project. It will definitely be useful when I become a supervisor, leader or a manager myself in the future, where mentoring and coaching becomes an important component of the job.

Find out more about the Nuffield Research Placement programme on their website or get in touch with Andrea Meyrick (Regional Coordinator of the Nuffield Research Placement for Wales) at andrea@techniquest.org

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