Reflecting on Supervisory Practice with Professor Christine Le Maitre

Doug Cleaver

Director of the Doctoral School and Professor of Materials Modelling, Sheffield Hallam University

Christine Le Maitre

Professor of Cell Biology and Tissue Regeneration, Sheffield Hallam University

In this Q&A, Professor Christine Le Maitre, a UKCGE Recognised Research Supervisor and nominee in the Outstanding Research Supervisor of the Year category at the 2020 THE Awards, talks to Professor Doug Cleaver of Sheffield Hallam University, about the influences on her supervisory practice, her collaborative approach to supervision and how reflection helped to enhance that practice.

Q&A Transcription

DC: Hi, my name’s Doug Cleaver, I’m Director of the Doctoral School at Sheffield Hallam University, and I’m on the executive committee of the UK Council for Graduate Education for UKCGE. I’m also co-chair and Deans of Directors of Graduate Schools Network.

I’m joined today by Professor Christine Le Maitre.

Christine is Head of Research Degrees in the Faculty of Health Wellbeing and Life Sciences. But we’re going to talk today about Christine’s supervision. Christine is an outstanding supervisor.

She’s won our Institutional Outstanding Research Supervisor Award twice. And a few weeks ago, we found out that she’s been shortlisted for this year’s Times Higher Education, Outstanding Research Supervisor Awards.

So welcome, Christine.

CLM: Hi.

DC: Hi. Can you give a quick potted CV for everybody.

CLM: Yes, certainly. So I did my degree at Manchester University and then a while I was studying for my degree, I did a sandwich placement, which I actually did in one of the research labs in Manchester.

I really enjoyed research. So that’s what kind of got me into the research. And they had a PhD position going. So I did my PhD in exactly the same lab. I didn’t really move very far. Then did five years a postdoc in still in the same lab. So people say you have to move. You don’t necessarily.

And then I moved not very far away over the Pennines to Sheffield in 2008 to take a senior lectureship position. I got promoted up to Reader in 2014, and Prof in 2017.

Right from joining Sheffield, I started picking up PhD students, I was successful in getting an internally funded PhD student and two international students back in 2008, which is really good experience of getting multiple students at once.

When I got promoted to reader, I then took on the postgraduate research tutor role in the in the Biomolecular Sciences Research Centre. And then just after the day after I got Prof, I went for my interview for the head of research degrees, which I was successful in.So that’s how I got to the position. I’m in, now.

DC: How many completions have you got now?

CLM: Fifteen now.

DC: What do you say are the main influences on your supervision?

I think probably the variety of different students that I’ve had experience of is a big one. So, when I first started up with PhD supervision, I had a home student but then very rapidly, like two months later. I also had two international students. And the difference in the way those students needed supervision, the difference in the way they came up with ideas and the collaborative working and their backgrounds was really interesting. You know, it actually showed that you can’t just treat each student the same, but you have to watch tailor supervision to them.

And then also, I’d say a big influence is listening to other supervisors talk about their interactions with students and also students talking about their interaction with supervisors. So the forums that we have for training a lot of those and kind of talking shops, really for students and supervisors to share experiences.

That really does open your eyes to what effect different activities can have on students. Makes you think about how to supervise better.

DC: So it’s very much a kind of practitioner focused answer.

CLM: Yeah, I think so.

DC: a challenge, particularly in the early stages of PhD supervision, how do you set or establish what the reasonable expectations are for supervisory teams. How do you go about calibrating students expectations?

CLM: I think the key thing is having a conversation early on with the student about what they want to get out of the PhD or Prof Doc. It’s not just about the project. It’s actually about what experiences and things they want to do. What do they want to do afterwards, if they know yet? Do they want to get an international experience? Do they want to go to conferences? Do they want to do scientific writing? What do they want to get out of it? So then you can make those opportunities.

DC: And those kind of things can also change in the middle of it.

CLM: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I had one who was that said that she wanted to become a teacher. Then she got more into the research. Well she wanted to do the research first as well. She got more into the research, she got really interested in the research aspects.

But then going to conferences and talking about the science, particularly talking to clinicians, she found that excited her even more. And actually then she got headhunted for that particular type of role – a medical science liaison role where you actually talk to clinicians all the time.

So it’s kind of working alongside with the students to develop their skills as they go. And every student is different, really. So it isn’t just a one size fits all. I think that’s a key thing.

DC: So you research in the sciences, specifically biomolecular sciences. How do you use feedback in that context?

CLM: So there’s all kinds of feedback, really. I mean, I think the key role of the supervisors is to develop the student to become an independent researcher. I probably say. So you don’t want to just to tell them exactly what to do.

And again, it depends on the student as well as to how fast you can move from the stages. But normally, the start of a PhD, they need a lot of feedback to help them design the practical work. Look at the results and interpret those results. And then on the writing, a lot of the feedback, I guess I always make sure I give it orally, the first time. Sometimes there can often be misconceptions if you just write it down on an e‑mail or send it using track changes and things like that. Plus, as you go on, you can do much more work electronically.

But also I get the students to reflect on their own development and practices. So, for example, let’s say they’re giving a presentation before I actually start giving my feedback of what I think, I ask them how do you think that went?”. So they can actually sort of reflect on it and come up with what they want to change or what things they thought went really well before I then sort of step in and start saying things that really.

DC: Its pushing towards autonomy.

CLM: Yeah, yeah. Because that’s the best thing is, you know, you need to make sure when they go out with their doctorate they’re ready to be independent and act as a supervisor for role for students, if you want to stay in academia or, you know, lead research groups and industry or whatever role they want to do.

DC: Quite often feedback when you’re giving feedback, not necessarily when it’s feedback is no flashing lights on that its feeding back to you at this point.

CLM: Yeah, it’s much more it’s a discussion, really, of how that can develop and how they can improve rather than, you know, you must do this sort of thing.

And I always say as well that when I do give the written feedback at the later stages, if there’s anything they don’t understand or don’t agree with then to discuss it, because it’s their thesis, it’s their work, they need to take the ownership. So if they don’t agree with what I’m saying, they should argue back. And that’s absolutely fine. Sometimes it’s a bit harder with certain cultures, but we get there. Yeah.

DC: My students have to learn how to read my handwriting. An additional very high-level skill that.

CLM: I use track changes, But say let’s discuss if there is anything which is not clear. it avoids my spelling mistakes.

DC: I’m sure there are lots of different styles of supervision. Well, what approach do you prefer?

CLM: I’d probably say a collaborative one. So I think it’s very important for the doctorate to be a collaborative piece of work. So the development project is done in collaboration.

The majority of the projects that I supervise are ones where I’ve attained external funding or internal funding for specific projects. But, that doesn’t mean that it’s not the students project. So to start off with, would go through, this is the idea of the project, they see the bigger picture and then things can change as they get results. They read papers or come up with their own ideas. It often goes off in tangents to things.

So I think it’s very much collaborative, but also supportive. So I’m not just there to support the project development or their skills development is also very much the pastoral support as well and encourage an open relationship.

So they feel they could talk to me about whatever they need to to make sure they can succeed and look after themselves, really.

DC: How do you try to get your students to open up sometimes?

CLM: One of the things is so always so be empathetic with them, discuss of the experiences that I’ve had that I can relate to and things.

So, you know, if they’re struggling on particular aspects, I’ve got a young family, so I’ve had a number of students who have kids or have maternity breaks in the middle. And actually, I’m very open to them about my family, you know. And often, actually, when I was on maternity leave, my daughter came with me and with me quite a bit. So that they could see that you can still do things and be a good mum as well.

And the other thing, I guess, is sort of being open about difficulties and struggles that I’ve had. So they can see that they can open up to me. So, you know, I’m dyslexic. I’m absolutely open about that, you know, and that often leads to students being open to me and getting the support that they need and things as well.

DC: Yeah, life and research careers are not a monotonic gradient. Being professor Le Maitre now, wasn’t always obviously on the cards.

CLM: No, I mean, I always say it’s strange, actually, because when I was doing my postdoc, she was also my supervisor, but my boss at that point, she got made a Prof when she was 40, and that kind of gave me the drive. It showed it could be done.

So that gave me the drive that I wanted to be a Prof by 40 and I made it by 38.

DC: I think I remember seeing her at your Professorial Lecture.

So as I mentioned at the beginning, you. You’ve got the UKCGE Research Supervisor Recognition Award. You got that because you took part in the pilot operation of that award.

Can you just let people know how you found it, what you did with it?

CLM: Yeah. So and so during the actual pilot, it was actually a bit of a bigger beast than it is now.

So there was 10 areas that you need me to reflect on. I found it a really useful sort of exercise, actually, thinking back on my experiences, what made me do what I do, a supervisor and how I work. Actually sort of reflecting on what all the practises were , what were the students that have made those influences and things, but then also linking into the literature.

It was really good with the UKCGE. They actually give you kind of a guided reading list, which is useful when you’re extremely busy that it wouldn’t ever dream of doing that in the research area. But it was very useful for that. You know, it sort of said all these papers are quite good and it’s quite reassuring, actually, when when reading the literature on the topic, you know, it actually kind of read is quite common sense.

It did seem sensible. And I was already doing the practises and also made me think maybe I should have written some of those papers, but I dont have the time.

DC: Your busy writing other ones. Yeah, There’s still time. I know you put a lot of time for mental health and wellbeing researching, for example, leading that activity for us. There is a big push for that. Yeah.

Of the 10 elements of the programme, I think the team based one was one you thought was important.

CLM: Yeah. So I mean I’m very for a team based process for supervision.

I think it’s really important that a student doesn’t just have a loan supervisor because that can cause or can cause all kinds of issues. But also they’re not developing as much what you want to get with a student.

They want to actually be able to develop the skills on a number of different avenues

I do a lot of interdisciplinary research, which, by the nature of the research means you have to have supervisors who can bring different aspects to the PhD.

So I think it’s it’s really important to have a number of supervisors on teams, but also that they meet the students regularly, that they don’t work in isolation is actually a real team based effort.

I mean, I’ve seen a number of the issues that I’ve had to resolve as head of research degrees, where supervisors meet students independently and then they only see each supervisor separately and it just causes issues. So it’s a collaborative approach that should be the student and all supervisors together.

DC: So they genuinely just need to be a discourse across the entire team. And there are some things where there isn’t an obvious answer.

CLM: Yeah. And it should be, and normally I mean, with any research that’s never sort of generally right or wrong answer to any direction, it’s normally a discussion. So I think it’s really good to get the student engaged in those discussions early on.

I think one of the things you do have to be careful when you’ve got lots of experienced academics in the room is that the supervisors don’t take over the conversation and leave the student out. And that is something that I am quite conscious of sometimes, that we all get excited and you start talking about the research to actually have to sort of go back, you know, what and say what do you think?

DC: Yes in the end its the Students Thesis.

CLM: Yes. But Its good to get excited about it as well.

DC: Yes, that’s good. So last question. What do you like most about research?

CLM: I think that the most rewarding part of research, supervision, is seeing the difference it makes to a student.

So seeing how they come in, you know at the beginning of the PhD and how much they really do develop over that course of three, four, seven years, depending on whether they’re doing it full time or part time. That, you know, often students come in, you know, sometimes straight from a degree, sometimes from a career elsewhere. Sometimes with, you know, coming from all different backgrounds.

But the amount they actually develop as a person as well as all the skills, I think that is probably the most rewarding thing and the thing I really enjoy about supervision.

DC: Yeah. Yeah. Some fantastic testimonies from your former students.

CLM: They made me cry.

DC: I see what you like about it not what makes you cry.

CLM: No. Makes no tears of happiness. Yeah.

DC: Yeah. Great. Well, thanks for your time Christine. I think we’ll draw a line there.