Community Acuity (17): Academic babysitting – what to expect when you’re expecting (to take on maternity cover)

This is a guest post from Dr Rob Moorehead, Research Technician (and previously acting Lecturer) in Dental Materials, University of Sheffield.

A few years ago, the opportunity arose to cover an academic colleagues maternity leave. I jumped at the chance and with little time to organise changeover, I’d gone from being co-supervisor of 2 PhD students to being the primary supervisor of 7 students; 3 writing up, 2 in the middle and 2 new starters (And thats without mentioning becoming the module lead on an undergraduate programme).

I don’t think I’ve ever felt so overwhelmed in my work life. To start with I got angry, upset, frustrated and sad. Could I do this? With lots of understanding and advice from my wife I knew that to get through it I had to make a plan. I took each student and analysed what stage they were at and what support I thought they required. I then had meetings with each student individually to discuss what we thought. This was a real help; each student’s own needs, and the approach I had to take was completely different!

Some students were taking the project in the right direction and just needed me to set deadlines so they didn’t slack off. Others needed me to give them a direction in their research and to find their originality. Others had more challenging problems. Problems at home, problems with the co-supervisors, problems with motivation, medical problems, problems with their mental health. These are all very familiar to anyone who has done a PhD but how to help them is a completely different kettle of fish.

I struggled with a lot of this for a while, but lucky for me I was also completing the University’s Certificate in Learning and Teaching course. On this course they taught us about all the support services the University has for students. I finally understood that, whilst I would try to help solve the problems that their is support out there for supervisors and that it is not up to you to be the solution to all problems. You don’t have to do it all yourself. The University has some excellent support for students through student support services and when it comes to mental health issues through the Student Access to Mental Health Support (SAMHS) system.

This changed everything for me. I worked with the students through their issues and managed to get all 3 students that were writing up to finish, get the new starters moving and those that were in the middle to be positive and progressing well toward writing up. There were plenty of bumps on the way but we managed to get through them successfully, together.

Despite all the problems these 10 months doing maternity cover were easily the most rewarding that I’ve ever spent. If I was to offer 3 take away points from this they would be;

1. Assess and address individual needs, take one problem at a time;

2. Seek support for yourself in the form of formal training, a mentor, or a network of colleagues;

3. Know when and where to signpost on, you don’t have to solve everyone’s problems.