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Reflective Practice in the Biosciences – PhD Supervisor Awareness Workshops, by Jenny Tullet

In the dynamic field of biosciences, where advancements and discoveries unfold at a rapid pace, it is the supervisors who play a pivotal role in nurturing the next generation of researchers. The relationship that the supervisor has with their student can be one of the most defining and heartwarming of a students’ post graduate study. However, despite good intentions all round, challenges on both sides can sometimes mean that the relationship between supervisor and student becomes strained. Amidst the pursuit of scientific excellence and existing in a laboratory setting, it’s often too easy to overlook the human element on both sides, and the work described here aims to bring that back.

At SoCobio we have developed a bespoke ‘Reflexivity in Research’ Programme for our students that supports general wellbeing and promotes a positive research culture within our institutions Reflexivity for the Biosciences: SoCoBio’s new initiative to support PhD student wellbeing is published in eLife . Using a variety of reflective methods, this programme delves into the complexities of modern PhD life. One of the key areas that we touch on during this course is the relationship between student and supervisor and this session often brings up challenges and concerns. Overall, the students undertaking this programme found it incredibly useful for managing these challenges as well as more broadly in their professional and personal lives. But what they really wanted was for their supervisors to know what they were learning in these sessions and see its benefits. Their hope was that this would encourage more PhD supervisors to support and advocate for this approach in the future and as such, more students could engage with and benefit from the programme.

We thought that the students had an excellent point so to achieve this, in Spring 2024, we ran three ‘Reflexivity Awareness workshops for SoCoBio Supervisors’ across our sites. Myself, together with Emma Hargreaves, Jill Shepherd and Jennifer Leigh (all of us, trained reflexivity facilitators from the University of Kent) travelled the South East armed with art supplies, jelly beans and the knowledge that we were trying to do a good thing. Groups of PhD supervisors participated in these workshops to learn about the role that reflective practice can play in supporting PhD work i.e. fostering inclusivity, understanding and setting expectations, managing stress, and generally improving students’ happiness within the biosciences. Supervisors were taken through the background to the programme and how we set it up, but as the cornerstone of our successful biosciences reflexivity course is creating a safe space for open dialogue and introspection – we made this the main focus of the workshops. Through interactive and creative activities (yes, we got the Lego and felt tips out) alongside facilitated discussions, supervisors were encouraged to look at all aspects of their supervisory roles. By acknowledging and discussing the worst and best of the challenges they face they identified practical and achievable routes to improve challenging scenarios with their students.

Afterwards, supervisors were surveyed for their feedback and all respondents reported that they found it valuable and would advocate for their students signing up and attending the ‘Reflexivity in Research programme that SoCoBio offers. They also said that they would recommend it to colleagues who were not able to attend. The feedback is summed up well by this comment “[The day] was an opportunity to reflect on my own interactions with the PG students under my supervision and to formulate strategies to improve this in future”.

Ultimately, the success of these supervisor awareness courses for supervisors lies in its ability to inspire meaningful action and allow a culture of reflective practice to flourish within our research community. Our hope is that encouraging supervisors to embrace self-awareness, empathy, and inclusivity, will in turn support our students and their generation of scientists to continue on the exciting scientific path they have chosen.