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As an early-career faculty member and advisor, I feel I could learn much from my PhD students' feedback about my mentorship style, how I could better support their learning and career development, the lab dynamics that I have fostered, etc.

I am interested in what the best way would be to invite constructive feedback from students (as well as other lab staff members) on these topics. I am well aware from teaching that students can be reluctant to provide feedback in face-to-face conversations. For this reason, I lean toward emailing individual students saying that I would welcome feedback on these topics, and they can feel free to provide it by responding to the email, or by letting me know they'd like to discuss in person. I suppose another option is an "anonymous" Google Form with a feedback box, although with a small research group, it really wouldn't be very anonymous in practice. Last, I could have an open feedback session at a lab meeting: this provides strength in numbers and a chance for discussion with other lab members, but obviously no privacy.

What practices have others used successfully or unsuccessfully?

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    Related (from the "Related" bar): How to ask for feedback from research students on my supervision abilities? Nov 1, 2023 at 8:17
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    Is there anything in place in the department already? If there's someone responsible for research postgrads, as there often is, there may be a route for anonymous feedback - it may even be collected routinely. Of course direct communication is likely to be more informative and timely
    – Chris H
    Nov 1, 2023 at 15:56
  • @ChrisH, there's an annual anonymous feedback system. However, students know this comes from the department and is used to evaluate faculty for tenure, etc., so I think students might be less likely to provide negative feedback (if they have any) through this system.
    – half-pass
    Nov 7, 2023 at 0:11
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    @half-pass fair enough. Systems like that can be very variable in how well they capture suggestions for improvement. If there's a clear scoring section (we end up reduced to a score but that happens anyway) and free text "any other ways the course could be improved" or better "any areas of the course that were particularly challenging" you can get some useful stuff in some cases. But the design is of course or of your hands
    – Chris H
    Nov 7, 2023 at 6:31
  • And where I am, routing issues through second supervisors (which are now the norm) or even the department's director of postgrad studies is a good way for feedback that's not major complaints. Anything from quality of training on equipment to timeliness of feedback, etc.
    – Chris H
    Nov 7, 2023 at 6:36

3 Answers 3

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Similar to how we ask undergrads for feedback in course surveys, it's often better to ask about specific things than a general "do you have any thoughts on my mentoring style":

  • Are we meeting often enough?
  • Am I sufficiently available between scheduled meetings?
  • Do you usually understand my explanations?
  • Do you like working in our lab? How do you get along with everybody else?
  • ...

Make a list of things you want to know, and slowly work through it in conversations with your students (and I mean really slowly - you are working with your students for years, you have time!). Contrary to other answers, I have always found private conversations to work better than asking in a group setting (but your milage may vary - if you don't have the kind of relationship where people are opening up much to you in individual conversations, then try in a group meeting). You are more likely to get useful answers if this discussion happens in an informal setting rather than as part of some "official" advisory meeting - over the years I would say I have received the best, most honest, feedback on my advisory during family barbecues, nights out, or gaming nights (and very rarely at the office).

However, as usual, be prepared that you may hear things you do not like or did not expect. Do not argue and do not hold their opinion against your students - even if you do not agree. You are not expected to to change just because somebody in your group finds aspects of your advisory suboptimal, but you are expected to accept their opinion.

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  • That's an interesting point about doing this in informal social settings. I hadn't considered that.
    – half-pass
    Nov 7, 2023 at 0:12
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I think a sensible way to approach this is to have a talk with your students (as a group as they might feel more confident) and tell them that you would appreciate their feedback and ask THEM in what way the would prefer to give you such feedback. Not everyone will feel comfortable with the same methods and what works for the group of people you are supervising now might not work for the next one. Also different people from the current group might even feel different methods work better for them.

In general, you need to create a work environment where everyone can be sure that constructive criticism is ok and appreciated and a necessary tool for personal and professional development. That way people will not be so reluctant to give you genuine positive and negative feedback.

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    I agree, but you could also say that you invite anyone who wants to speak about this privately to come and do so.
    – Buffy
    Nov 1, 2023 at 13:30
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Exit Interviews

This was my first thought upon reading your question. Of course, if you're super early in your career, then you don't have any students graduating yet.

Exit interviews are used extensively in industry. You can probably get lots of pointers and ideas for how to frame questions and how to accept feedback from the literature on this topic.

The plus side of scheduling exit interviews with departing students is that they have spent plenty of time with you and are in a good position to reflect on the good, the bad, and the ugly. They've also been around long enough to hear stories about other students' advisors and will be in a better position to put their experience with you in context.

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    If some students with really bad experience, I doubt they are willing to do those kinds of interviews. It seems to seek feedback sooner rather than later. Nov 3, 2023 at 13:40
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    @JustTryToGraduate, you're probably right. Many bad experience students won't be too keen on giving feedback. And ideally getting feedback sooner could benefit mentor and mentee. In my mental model, both parties in an exit interview are more likely to be ready for feedback to happen. And I think many bad experience students might give some feedback.
    – bfris
    Nov 4, 2023 at 17:00
  • Excellent idea.
    – half-pass
    Nov 7, 2023 at 0:12

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