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Working with Volunteers or Assistants

At some point in your career you may be asked to supervise students, research assistants, or volunteers working on your project. 

Some of the hints and tips below may help you to get the best out of your team.

button  The role of the supervisor

Your main role as a supervisor is to empower a student or volunteer to achieve their research goals. These goals might contribute to a wider project that you are all working on, or just to their own piece of research. The process is the same though - through providing a mixture of advice and guidance on research approach and problem solving, training/development for key skills, and general encouragement and support during the research process.

The most important aspect is communicating clearly throughout the process.

button  Giving effective advice

  • Make sure everyone has a clear understanding of how their work fits into the overall research project. This is especially important when working in a large team, or when you’re not often face to face. In particular, you may need to assist with setting the research objectives/hypothesis or framing the research questions.
  • Do give appropriate independence and freedom for the student/volunteer to do their work.
  • Do encourage the use of innovative approaches to solve problems.
  • Don’t necessarily stop people from making a mistake here and there along the way – you can both learn from them.
  • Do inform your team when there is an important issues that affects the research work.
  • Don’t be afraid to receive constructive feedback in return
  • Do keep track of progress.  It’s your responsibility to ensure that the work is completed on time – look for potential challenges along the way and work with the student/volunteer to overcome them.

button  Communicating effectively

Have regular meetings, but allow enough time between them for the student/volunteer to produce work for review. Let them take the lead in describing what they did and how, and then discuss the findings and implications together.

Use a variety of methods of communication – don’t rely just on email or phone, get face to face occasionally. If you cannot be face to face, consider using Skype or other free web conferencing. If you are working on a report together, consider the use of online tools for sharing and editing, so that you can both see what you are working on.

You will need to instil confidence and trust in your team – they need to be able to come to you with questions or challenges, even if they are the result of mistakes they have made.

button  Find a mentor yourself

You don’t have to work alone – find yourself a mentor so that when you do need help, you’ve got someone to turn to. If you don’t have someone in your research field that you can approach, consider asking for assistance in finding one from one of the learned societies working in your field (see useful links).

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