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Supporting in-lab supervision as a PhD student

By Jack, a Molecular Microbiology PhD student

Undertaking a PhD is a development programme. Throughout that time you learn how to conduct research, communicate your work and disseminate your knowledge in a number of different ways. You can often gain experience and earn some money as a demonstrator in undergraduate labs to support teaching. Alternatively, as a senior member of the lab, you may be involved in supporting supervision of project students. In Bioscience, we tend to have final year undergraduates annually, sometimes even postgraduate or summer project students depending on luck or funding.

This year, I was fortunate enough to work alongside both Undergraduate and Master of Research Students. Working in coordination with my supervisor, I planned what experiments I thought were feasible within a 10 week and six month project that ran parallel with the research conducted in our lab. This gave me really valuable insight into planning projects where I wasn’t the researcher.

During my Undergraduate and Master’s degrees, I worked as a lifeguard and then as a swimming teacher, so I’d had experience working to lesson plans and with a syllabus to produce progressive practices for learners. All learners have to meet the same outcomes but may need different activities and amendments to help them to succeed and thrive.


Students were massively impacted by the pandemic, so the amount of practical experience they had was lower than in pre-pandemic years. Therefore, the first week was spent just learning the basics which are essential for a microbiology project. This included pipetting using a micropipette (moving small amounts of liquid), aseptic technique with and without a Bunsen burner (preventing contamination), making and using agar plates. The step from a one-hour practical to a day in the lab is fairly steep so factoring any breaks in was also important.

I set progressive and achievable outcomes to gradually increase the workload whilst maintaining the high-quality output. These incremental goals were essential in improving confidence and self-efficacy.

Often projects can be repetitive tasks such as just looking at bands on a gel (fig. 1) or line graphs, but we have some quite novel additional experiments in the microbiology toolbox. There’s selective media, such as MacConkey agar, where colonies turn different colours depending on whether they use a particular sugar (red colonies if they ferment lactose). We have motility plates where you can measure how a bacteria ‘swims’ or ‘swarms’ by using a special agar and measure the distance they’ve travelled. And my particular favourite are luciferase-gene reporters, which light up when the gene is switched on. All these experiments fall under the ‘von Restorff’ effect where something is more distinct in a list, it’s more easily remembered.

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Fig. 1

Teaching and guidance:

Understanding how people learn in a fairly short period of time can be difficult, so I utilised the time-honoured medical practice of ‘See one, Do one, Teach one’. This really helped bank some decent results early on in the project but also meant the students could make their own notes on top of pre-written protocols. We rely on results in triplicate in science, so ‘See one, Do one, Teach one’ provides a strong foundation for learners in a time-efficient manner. By the time they’ve taught one, the stabilisers are off and they’re conducting research and replicates of their own accord. The understanding and insight gained then supports them during their dissertation write ups. Many of us have had to do the exercise where you write down instructions on how to make a cup of tea, and even something seemingly that straightforward rarely goes to plan on the first attempt. Teaching someone how to do something requires a greater deal of clarity and specificity than just doing it yourself.

A blessing and a curse of laboratory research is that when we’re doing novel frontier research we cannot be certain what we’re going to see. There’s not a firm right or wrong result and that can be difficult to face when you’re used to academic success. I found in designing the project, the balance between preliminary work that we ‘knew’ what the result would be vs questions we were interested in was quite easy. However, communicating this to students didn’t provide the same comfort.

Discovery is the most exciting thing in research so allowing the students the opportunity to develop understanding in experimental design, change aspects of their experiments and then interpret the findings, was brilliant.

We are only working with these students for a limited amount of time, but life outside continues whether we’re in the lab or not. That means sometimes, you have to make additional adjustments as the project goes on to accommodate different personal circumstances. The lab becomes a community, and we support one another to get experiments finished or set up for the next day. Like many other academic roles, you also become someone that signposts; whether that’s to the supervisor or to careers services or interesting opportunities.

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What do we gain as supervisors:

I found the supporting student project supervision incredibly enriching. It forces you to put the research into perspective, have an understanding of your own time management and be able to adapt your expectations to what is manageable for a learner. You also have to have a solid grasp of the literature, in the early stages to answer questions but in the latter to lead towards their own independent study. There are extrinsic opportunities also, Advance HE offer accreditation through fellowships. This is great experience and many lecturers these days have accreditation from AdvanceHE to at least associate fellowship level. I was also very fortunate to be nominated for the Newcastle University Students' Union (NUSU) The Education Awards – Taught Supervisor of the Year 2023 by the students I was helping to supervise. Both of these additional activities bolster your CV. If you’re lucky the research can also contribute to a manuscript or your thesis work providing the relevant parties are credited.



We have the privilege of supporting individuals at the earliest of stages of their career journeys. Many of us are where we are today because of the encouragement of supervisors, lecturers or other role models. Through supporting students, we can pay some of that forward.