My teaching experience as a Marie Curie ESR fellow in the eCHO network
The PhD is a transition point for most students that want to pursue a career in academia or in industry. You get there having been “the student” all your life and you find yourself very fast being responsible of your own project. In addition, most PhD students have to teach at some point during their early research career. Suddenly, you become the teacher. Some jump straight in from the start, others have some adaptation time until they are put in front of their students.
I recently went through my first “solo” teaching experience in the lab by supervising a 4th year student during her 8-week project at NICB. I anticipated this would be a challenging task and indeed it was. I had already demonstrated in the lab last year, and had experience tutoring high school students in the past. However, having somebody full time under your watch turn to be a very different challenge I would like to share.
Expectations: From a result-based motivation to feeling part of the wonderful experience of teaching
It all starts with knowing you will supervise a student. You are excited. You are given a topic and a good amount of freedom to plan a short project. At this point, as usually when doing research, the project becomes your baby. You are told not to plan everything, as this is as well a task for the student, but you cannot help it, some planning needs to happen. First, you need some planning to be sure everything is ready: order reagents, check equipment, etc. Second, the more you plan, the more you develop expectations for the project. It becomes more and more yours. You try to keep in mind the student will only be here for 8-week. That’s a very short time, more in a project working with living organisms. You try to keep it simple, sacrificing a good bit of “great ideas”. Maybe it won’t be everything you initially thought, but it will be fine. Finally, the student starts working, you realise he/she needs to learn to be independent. This implies he needs to be on his/her own and figure things out. You can’t control everything and this might impact the outcome of the project. As in every learning process, things do not work at first. This means the more the end approaches the more you see the great results you originally envisaged will never see the light. A little disappointment appears. However, you also realise that you start enjoying the improvements you see. Results become less important. The most important is he/she learns. At the very end, you do not want to get a wonderful plot, but you want to see your student walking out the lab knowing a bit more, doing a bit better.
Dealing with frustration
Another of the challenges during your PhD is dealing with the frustration of experiments not working out as planned and of not getting the results you expect. That’s science, true, but it is still disappointing to invest long hours at the bench and not to get anything out of it. Supervising a student makes you revisit this feeling from a different perspective. 4th year students come without much practical knowledge on the specific techniques they perform during their project. They sometimes also are not aware of the frustration that comes with not getting good results. Over time, watching their progress, it is possible to spot such frustration slightly showing up under their skin, however, you also see a massive improvement in their lab skill in a very short period of time. Reflecting on that is encouraging as you realise that what probably happens to yourself, and this failing over and over again is not in vain after all.
A source of self-improvement
Finally, my experience teaching has definitely changed my perspective. Supervising a student has been a challenge in many aspects of my laboratory life. My time management skills have improved, not the same to plan for one, that for two. I developed a new look and basic techniques that I was probably doing as routine. Having to explain the background, together with experiencing several failures on the way, forced me to deeper understand those techniques and therefore improve my own skills.
As a final note, I would definitely recommend to everybody to take any opportunity you have to supervise students. It is definitely worth the effort.
Written by: Ricardo Valdés-Bango Curell