As the lone experimentalist in my group, I end up supervising most of the students (M.S., B.S. and high school) who do experimentation-focused research in my lab.

I am always trying to improve my mentoring and supervision skills. So I would like to ask my current students for some feedback at the end of the summer.

However, I want to make sure they don't feel pressured in any way by this request, that they are assured there will be no negative or positive consequences to them, and that they understand that I really want honest answers. (I'm not fishing for compliments.)

And, I am looking for specific feedback that I can use to improve or build on, not just general complaints or reassurances that everything was fine.

Given the goals stated above, what's the best way to ask for this kind of feedback? Should we speak face to face in an "exit interview" kind of thing, or should I ask them to write something in an anonymous form online, or something else entirely?

What specific questions can I ask to get focused, helpful feedback on my supervision and mentoring abilities?

Does anybody here have experience (as either supervisor or supervisee) with this kind of assessment, and have useful techniques to share?

  • 2
    I can only up-vote once, but this is a great question about a very honorable initiative.
    – Cape Code
    Jul 30 '14 at 23:00
  • 1
    Related question about feedback (about teaching, not supervising): academia.stackexchange.com/q/18816/2692
    – earthling
    Jul 31 '14 at 6:19
  • 1
    Unless you have many students (5+ at least) that you're getting feedback from at the same time, any anonymity (via online forms or otherwise) is illusory, and it will likely just detract from the quality and detail of the feedback.
    – E.P.
    Jul 31 '14 at 12:04
  • 1
    Have you tried the Start-Stop-Continue?
    – adipro
    Jul 31 '14 at 20:40
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    @adipro Nice resource! Maybe you (or someone else) can write an answer specifying how to apply it to this use case (asking supervisees/mentees for feedback), which I'm sure will involve some modifications to the classroom use case scenario.
    – ff524
    Jul 31 '14 at 20:42

Set the Stage

At the start of each relationship, let each student know that you value feedback, that you are adaptable/flexible in your approach to supervision, and that you will be asking for their feedback both during and at the end of the end of the supervision period.

Reinforce the Message and Values

During the supervision period, look for opportunities to demonstrate your adaptability, your interest in feedback, and it is OK for them to offer feedback even if they might feel a bit uncomfortable. (Some people resist giving feedback to supervisors, including for gender/age/cultural reasons. They need to experience the process working successfully to overcome that resistance.)

Asking for Feedback

Aim for a face-to-face meeting, though it's fine if some people prefer to give feedback in writing. Before you ask for feedback, first ask what is important to them in supervision relationship. You need to understand their frame of reference and values. Then ask: "What worked well for you? And what didn't?" Then you can ask the feedback question: "For those things that didn't work so well for you, what would have worked better for you?" You are asking how things could be different for them, within their frame of reference. You aren't asking them to step into your shoes and advise you on how to be a better supervisor.

  • 1
    +1 for Set the Stage - if you have done this properly, they will be more likely to feel comfortable that you will not punish them and that their feedback will actually be valued. I would add that if they submit in writing, you provide a way to make that anonymous.
    – earthling
    Jul 31 '14 at 6:21
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    From the answers proposed so far, this seems to be by far the most useful and relevant to me. +1
    – xLeitix
    Jul 31 '14 at 8:21

I (am) was in a similar situation as you are. I ended up supervising a team of BS and M.Eng/MPS students for a project. Most of the work for them involved programming and data visualization.

After the end of the semester/year, I took them out for coffee in a casual setting and asked them how I needed to improve my supervision skills. Since I worked with them closely throughout the semester/year, we were on friendly terms and I got some very constructive feedback. This helped shape my supervision in the next semester.

I did not ask anyone for help but this was what I had observed my previous adviser(s) doing with me so I followed their example.

  • Any specific questions you asked that you found helpful?
    – ff524
    Jul 30 '14 at 22:17
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    Something to the order of - "Hey guys! I am a n00b trying to find my feet in organizing and managing projects. I did my best over the last year but was hoping if you had anything to add. I would really appreciate it and it would help me sharpen my supervisory skillz"
    – Shion
    Jul 31 '14 at 2:09
  • Did you award ice cream for every constructive item of feedback you agreed with?
    – Raphael
    Jul 31 '14 at 14:19
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    @Raphael : no need for sarcasm here. I agree with the OP, an informal meeting is a good way of having some good discussion and honest remarks, if you are somehow close with your students. It would be more awkward than anything if that's the first time you speak to them in an informal way though.
    – strnk
    Jul 31 '14 at 14:24
  • @strnk I agree. I did not employ sarcasm. You might call it a hybrid of "honest question" and "attempt at humorous suggestion", rooted in the experience that honest, constructive feedback can be slow in coming even in an informal climate/setting. Ice cream is a well-known motivator.
    – Raphael
    Jul 31 '14 at 15:01

I tend to have a group lessons learned session, either periodically or at the end of a project/phase. Phrasing questions in terms of the project, what worked and what didn't, sets up a stage for a frank and constructive discussion. Since it is not about you, you can participate as well.

  • Any specific questions you can suggest?
    – ff524
    Jul 31 '14 at 8:05
  • @ff524 Open ended questions, Start for example with the project successes because it is the easiest to talk about (what were the biggest successes, and why)? Then move to what didn't work, what were the biggest problems? Offer something to start the discussion, i.e. meeting times were not communicated, so we never knew when to meet. What is a solution to that? Use a Google Calendar. Lastly ask, what the areas of improvement are. You might hear things like, a new building. But that's OK, your job as a successful mentor is to remove the roadblocks, here you learn what the roadblocks are.
    – Orion
    Jul 31 '14 at 14:06
  • @ff524 Ideally, you keep probing for these questions throughout the mentorship/project management and if you did your job right there won't be surprises at the end. You can read more at: projectsmart.co.uk/lessons-learned.php
    – Orion
    Jul 31 '14 at 14:11

The bigger question behind your question is: How can I be a more better/professional manager? Right?

And to answer that, it's probably not as simple as posing a question on SE.

I would ask you: Why do you think you need extra feedback? Do you think your students are hiding their thoughts or fearful of voicing their feelings to you? Because otherwise you should be fairly "in sync" with them while you're interacting, presuming your not managing from afar. That is the key indicator for supervisor performance, and there's no boilerplate that you'll be able to make for every situation and every type of person. If you try, you become the another PHB.

As a former manager, I know that if your employees aren't voicing their true thoughts or concerns to you, there's already a problem. And it's not necessarily them.

So the other key item, if I've guessed your intentions properly, is how do you develop this skill(s)? And for that you need to listen and dialog fluidly in each situation you encounter so that you never miss a step and always stay on top of things. That takes courage (because you will fail) and time (because it takes a diversity of experience), not technique.

  • "Why do you think you need extra feedback?" - for people who do a lot of research, this seems quite normal, even expected.
    – earthling
    Jul 31 '14 at 6:16
  • I don't have any reason to think anything is wrong now. I always operate on the assumption that I can improve, and that explicitly solicited feedback can be a useful tool for self-improvement.
    – ff524
    Jul 31 '14 at 8:05
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    I am not sure that being a good supervisor is very similar to being a good manager. I have certainly met people that were good managers but terrible supervisors, and vice versa.
    – xLeitix
    Jul 31 '14 at 8:20

You can do an anonymous survey. Ask them to rate you on certain criteria(that you mention in the survey, and want to get a feedback on!) Have them add additional comments too after the survey so they can add things that they feel, you should know about. This would be completely anonymous so they won't be too afraid to be honest. But on the other side they might still hesitate to open up completely as no one wants their boss to be mad at them just because they spoke the truth.

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    This basically reiterates some of the concerns I brought up in my question, without giving any specifics or new information, so it's not very helpful to me.
    – ff524
    Jul 30 '14 at 21:31
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    If one is asking for feedback from a single student a semester, then any anonymity is illusory.
    – E.P.
    Jul 31 '14 at 12:25

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