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Nurture supervisees

In today's job market, a doctoral degree may not be enough. You may also need the kind of management and leadership skills MBAs acquire. While lone-wolf researchers are still out there, it's more common for research psychologists to run labs funded by millions in grant money, oversee postdocs and graduate students who are running many studies simultaneously, and collaborate with far-flung researchers.

If you're thinking of going the practice route, you'll need managerial skills to supervise postdocs and support staff, says industrial/organizational psychology professor Richard Kilburg, PhD, of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

"You've got to think about [leadership] as a fundamental piece of what it is you're trying to learn in graduate school," says Kilburg. "This is going to be one of the success differentiators for you in your career."

Chances are, you're already supervising undergraduates in research labs or overseeing less-advanced graduate students in practicum settings. As you learn these roles on the job, here are some tips to help you become a better manager:

  • Establish your expectations early. When Elizabeth Simpson, a sixth-year neuroscience student at the University of Georgia, interviews undergraduates who want to work in the Infant Research Lab of Janet Frick, PhD, she makes sure they know what they're getting into by explaining the type of work they'll do and their hours. Simpson studies how children learn to recognize faces, work that often involves very precise — and sometimes tedious — coding of children's behavior.

  • Help supervisees see the big picture. Your staff might become bored with mundane tasks, such as transcribing interviews or entering data, says Gloria Luong, a social psychology graduate student at the University of California, Irvine. Help them appreciate the importance of their work by explaining how they fit into a larger project, she says.

  • Match the talent with the task. Keep students motivated by aligning their interests and abilities with the jobs you give them, says Jennifer Audet, a former research coordinator at the University of California, San Diego's Language Development Lab, where her supervisees worked with children. Audet was careful to assign newer students to interview older children and more experienced students to work with the younger, often more difficult children. Also, Audet found that more experienced students have a better idea of what they're interested in, so she met with each one to try to match them with specific projects.

  • Cultivate student development. Chances are, your research assistants could make more money waiting tables. They are in your lab to learn, so find out what their goals are, says Simpson, who is co-authoring a guide called the "S.U.R.E Notebook" (Specialized Undergraduate Research Experience) with fellow graduate student Erin Colbert-White to help students and mentors keep track of learning goals. During the lab semester, the supervisor should meet periodically with the student and review the student's progress, Simpson says.

    To cultivate student research skills, University of Oregon psychology professor Elliot Berkman, PhD, tailors assignments to their learning goals — and leaves how to complete the task open-ended. "You're trying to teach your students to self-teach," he says.

    To foster practica students' ability to use the therapeutic approaches they've studied in class, American University clinical psychology doctoral student Laura Kushner asks them what they think is going on with a client. "Just trying to elicit their own curiosity is really important," Kushner says.

  • Make yourself available. Sit down every week with your supervisees, says Berkman, who asks for an update of a student's work. During the meeting, he's listening for any problems in the data collection or analysis that need to be fixed. "Whatever the problem happens to be, it's an opportunity to give them feedback and help them course-correct before it's too late," he says.

    Also, keep regular hours, informally check in on students when you are in the lab or practicum site, and let your students know how to contact you by e-mail, Berkman says.

  • See mistakes as learning opportunities. When a student makes a technical mistake while trying to videotape an interview or shows up late for a study participant's appointment, take it seriously but try not to be too critical, says Krisztina Varga, PhD, a psychology professor at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va. Instead, analyze what happened, help students correct assumptions or misconceptions that may have underpinned the error, and walk through a task step-by-step to ensure that they understand it, she says.

  • Establish trust. Building trust is important when working with any supervisee. Supervisors working with grad students who conduct therapy or administer psychological assessments for the first time should reassure their supervisees that they won't make them feel ashamed or embarrassed about the difficulties the students encounter, says Miriam Rose Frankel, a doctoral student and practicum supervisor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. To build trust, Frankel explains that what's discussed during their supervision sessions is private and won't be shared with fellow students.

  • Build confidence. In practicum settings, starting to move from theory taught in the classroom to dealing with clients in person is a difficult transition, and supervisors need to emphasize positive support, empathy and constructive criticism when dealing with practicum students uncertain of their nascent skills, Kushner says.

    In her sessions, Kushner and practicum students review audiotapes of portions of therapy sessions where the students felt they were struggling — and normalizing that feeling for the students is a key step to building confidence, she says.

    "In the very beginning of doing something unfamiliar, you don't feel confident about it, and that's part of the process, and that's OK," Kushner says.

Another critical lesson for supervisors in practicum settings is to ensure that client care doesn't suffer as a result of supervisee mistakes or omissions. If your supervisee isn't handling a case correctly, point out the error immediately and correct it. If a client's problems are beyond your collective skills, tell your supervisor and perhaps suggest referring the client to a more experienced therapist, adds Theresa Wozencraft, PhD, of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

"The supervisor has to be willing to be assertive and be the advocate for the patient," says Frankel.

Further reading

  • "The Nature of Managerial Work" (Prentice-Hall, 1983)

  • "On Being a Mentor: A Guide for Higher Education Faculty"(Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2006)

  • "Mentoring at Work: Developmental Relationships in Organizational Life" (University Press of America, 1988)