A Conversation with Dr. Tania Watts

Dr. Tania Watts is one of this year’s recipients of the JJ Berry Smith Doctoral Supervision Award. Read more about the award.

When she first began to supervise, Dr. Tania Watts recalls, her overriding objective was to ensure that the doctoral students under her supervision completed their research with the best results possible. In the intervening years, she has realized how important it is to encourage students to focus on their strengths and allow them to also develop their own interests. “My students are learning about themselves as they work in the lab, so it is only to be expected that they may change their paths or their minds as they progress through a program,” she says, adding that it is important to try to accommodate their career goals while also seeing the research through to completion. Moreover, because her lab offers different streams of work, from basic mouse models to more applied human-focused research, her graduate students have many opportunities to discover where their interest lies.

The Lab Family

Dr. Watts likes to think of the lab as a second family. Students working in a research lab spend a lot of time together and it is important to have a supportive and collaborative environment. She is quick to celebrate successes, such as a student’s first publication. She also encourages her students to talk with her and other members of the lab about experiments that “do not work”: it’s an opportunity to brainstorm about new approaches and learn from errors. In her view, “it is important to maintain a culture of openness about failures, so that no one is afraid of making mistakes from which we can learn.”

Advice for Supervisors

As a supervisor in the lab sciences, Dr. Watts says, “you need to balance your own priorities in terms of getting your research advanced and respecting your students’ interests and life commitments. The University is not industry; this is a learning environment.” Supervisors should also try to remember that “your students are not you”: students will have other strengths and weaknesses and need different forms of guidance than you once did. Being a good supervisor “requires flexibility and a willingness to listen to students.

Dr. Watts also emphasizes that supervisors must interact frequently with their graduate students, in addition to the regular committee meetings. Not only does this help keep the research focused, but it can also help faculty recognize the early signs of graduate student “burnout” and presents the opportunity to guide students towards supportive resources and services.

Finally, she points out it’s important for faculty to realize that, as a supervisor, “you don’t own your student’s time.” If a student expresses interest in volunteering in another capacity (for example, joining a student group or contributing to a student initiative), they should not be discouraged from pursuing this initiative. And while hard work is essential, so are breaks: Dr. Watts encourages her students to take their holidays.

Like Dr. Arthur Ripstein (who also received a JJ Berry Doctoral Supervision award this year), Dr. Tania Watts clearly sees supervision and mentorship not as one of her many roles and responsibilities, but as an activity that is completely integral to who she is as a professional and researcher. In her words, the relationship between a supervisor and their graduate student should be one of “mutual respect.”

Summing up the contributions of her graduate students to her life and career, Dr. Watts says simply: “We owe our students a lot—I would be nowhere without my graduate students.”

Read about Dr. Arthur Ripstein, another recipient of this year’s JJ Berry Smith Doctoral Supervision Award.

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