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Since over a year, I've been involved in almost everything my supervisor does and seem to have gained her trust, which is very gratifying.

There have been instances where I was asked to review and directly comment on other research lab colleagues' work who are involved in writing/research tasks. In many cases, I often felt like there was some kind of implicit resistance after a while (e.g. not meeting deadlines, not addressing my comments even if my supervisor wants them addressed, etc.).

On paper, my colleagues often have a stronger research background than I (e.g. coming from research-oriented field or PhD student) while I'm MA level and coming from an arts background, which I feel might influence the situation. However, at any moment, if the supervisor does not agree with my comments, she can step in, as we usually work on shared files online.

What could we do to ensure things go smoother and decrease the resistance?

  • Are you a PhD student yourself? – astronat Aug 2 '17 at 6:17
  • @astronat No, I'm an MA student at proposal stage – curious Aug 2 '17 at 13:00
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    I'm a little unclear on what this situation is, maybe partly because of the word "assignments" which makes it sound like a course situation rather a research one. Are these your colleagues in a lab? Why are there "assignments"? – Bryan Krause Aug 2 '17 at 15:44
  • @BryanKrause I used the word assignments for lack of thinking a better word at the moment, maybe research tasks would be more appropriate. Writing/research like literature reviews, annotated bibliographies for later uses, research grants, etc. – curious Aug 2 '17 at 16:09
  • @BryanKrause And yes, these are lab colleagues. I've edited my question to better reflect the situation. – curious Aug 2 '17 at 16:10
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If possible (given your knowledge of the subject, the regulations at your university, etc.), it might help if you get officially announced as these students (second-)advisor for their paper/thesis/... So the supervisor states that you are responsible for it, you are the one to contact with questions and (important!) your opinion will be important when deciding grades.
Right now, there is no reason for the others to listen to you, as you have no influence on their work/grades/... If the supervisor wants something, she will eventually say so and then they might do it, so why should they listen to you?
By making it clear that you are the one responsible for that and that the supervisor should only be contacted in case of severe problems, they will have motivation to listen to you, as you will be the one the professor asks in the end: "Well, I didn't read every last one of these 200 pages of the thesis and I hadn't as much contact with the student as you did, so what grade would you suggest?"

You don't even need to change anything in your working process, as you already said that the advisor reads your comments and only steps in if she disagrees, so you seem to already be responsible, you just don't have the power (over grades, etc.) yet to make them respect you.

  • Since the context is that of a research lab, the issue is probably not that of grades. – Massimo Ortolano Aug 2 '17 at 10:08
  • @MassimoOrtolano Still, there should be something similar, e.g. the decision who is allowed to visit the upcoming conference, etc. The supervisor surely has some "power" to hand over. – Dirk Aug 2 '17 at 10:10
  • @DirkLiebhold Like Massimo emphasized, it's in research lab assignments (e.g. identifying gaps in literature reviews). There is an impact ultimately on the student when they don't address my comments (e.g. supervisor gets annoyed because she wants them addressed), not in terms of their work or their grades but, in my understanding, in terms of if they are more or less likely to get future lab work. – curious Aug 2 '17 at 13:23
  • @DirkLiebhold Usually I'm asked if I'm ok with reviewing, and the students get an email saying I will be offering feedback on the work in which I am CCed. – curious Aug 2 '17 at 13:24
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In this interaction, you are essentially a peer. You are offering input, but you have no responsibility for the success of the student who's material you are reviewing. That should influence how you decide to proceed.

People will receive critical review differently, and as you get experienced at this sort of thing (meaning, at the moment, as your mentor puts you in more and more of these situations) you will be able to tailor your behavior to meet the given situation.

At the moment, though, the person you are interacting with does not seem to welcome your input, and this is the issue that should probably influence your interaction the most.

Without bothering to try to figure out if your input is constructive, valuable, of the appropriate tone, etc., it's very difficult to advise you. However, it is unlikely that this person's attitude toward your contributions in review will change -- certainly if you don't change your input style, and probably not even if you do. The relationship has been drawn by your history.

Take a step back, and realize that there are many roads to a successful conclusion of a writing or research task. I'd recommend, given your situation, holding your input to instances that you feel are truly important -- gross errors, flaws in logic that will result in a wrong conclusion, and the like. Try to avoid picking nits. There's a chance that if you back off of the little stuff, your colleague will realize that your input is valuable, and adjust the attitude accordingly. If not, and you're facing unpleasantness anyway, at least you're doing it for the important stuff.

Also, try not to limit your comments to stuff that needs work. Try to highlight whatever strengths you see in whatever you're reviewing. Many grant reviews, for example, open with a section on "strengths", followed by a section on "weaknesses" Forcing yourself to focus on strengths first will make you weight weaknesses more appropriately. Sometimes you just forget how much telling your colleagues "good job" can mean to them. When it's largely a good job, don't be afraid to say so, loudly and publicly.

Lastly, there is such a thing as "new reviewer syndrome". It's horrible when it effects who gets funding. If you tell a room a whole list of really nitpicky criticisms, and then try to give that grant a high score because the criticisms are not particularly important ones, that can really kill a grant.

UPDATE:
Given your comment, it's clear that you actually have some responsibility. Then, you are what's referred to as an "Accidental Manager" in a great book by Heerkens: https://www.amazon.com/gp/search?index=books&linkCode=qs&keywords=9780071818520 -- you have responsibility, but no authority over your team, which might be (a) peer. You can't hire or fire, offer bonuses, provide input into their employment decisions or actions, punish, etc. I recommend taking a peek at that book. It's a good read, and might provide you with some better insight to your situation.

The advice offered above still holds, but there are some additional management issues you should consider. Actively think about your management style during your interactions. http://vault.theleadershiphub.com/blogs/conflict-styles presents cartoons of some conflict resolution styles. Before people overly criticize -- these are JUST cartoons, but they raise some interesting points.

For the interaction you seem to be in, I'd recommend avoiding the styles where things need to proceed your way, sacrificing for the good of the overall project. The person you're working with might feel like they're at the losing end of a win-lose proposition. Thus, you probably need to avoid being the Shark. If Shark is called for, it's probably you're boss's place to do it. You don't want to be walked all over, either, so Turtle is probably wrong.

Just as a word of caution, I'm still not sure of your absolute status. If you're a Master's student in a lab, "I have a responsibility to my supervisor to make sure the work done in the lab meets certain standards" does not quite match your role. You have a responsibility to make sure your work in the lab meets certain standards. If you try to make sure that somebody else's work meets some standard, you might well be overstepping your role, and that might be contributing to the reticence to accept your input.

  • +1 for emphasizing how/what to give feedback on. I've been teaching for a while in another field and giving feedback is a huge part of my job so I'm aware of many of the things you mention, though it's an ongoing process to remind myself to not just hammer on the issues and also highlight the good parts of a work. – curious Aug 2 '17 at 16:29
  • "You are offering input, but you have no responsibility for the success of the student who's material you are reviewing." Indeed, but I have a responsibility to my supervisor to make sure the work done in the lab meets certain standards, this is where it becomes a problem. – curious Aug 2 '17 at 16:34
  • @Emilie -- aah, that wasn't perfectly clear. You do have responsibility. I'll update the answer a bit. – Scott Seidman Aug 2 '17 at 16:36
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As a peer, deadlines and things aren't really your responsibility, they are your supervisor's.

If you have personal deadlines set (e.g., "I can review your grant if you get it to me by Tuesday, because starting Wednesday I need my time to go toward my own proposal"), and peers can't meet those deadlines or negotiate with you ("I can't get it by Tuesday, but would you be able to review it next week instead?"), that's another matter. In that circumstance, if they can't meet your time constraints, you simply don't review their paper.

That leads me to my next point: the quality of their work is not your responsibility (this might be different if you are coauthors). If you have given substantive comments and they refuse to use your suggestions, that is impairing their work, not yours. Again, let your supervisor handle this. You are a peer, not a lab manager.

For your last question about how to reduce resistance, I think @ScottSeidman's answer is excellent. There are lots of resources on how to "sandwich" criticisms, and the general point to emphasize both strengths and weaknesses is a good one. You can also change your tone to make weaknesses sound like strengths: "You make a really good point here about _____, can you emphasize that more?"

The second point is to get feedback about your feedback, both before and after. Find out from your colleagues what they are most concerned with. Maybe they are worried they are missing some relevant references: spend less of your time editing their grammar and more time looking at each citation, and cross-referencing that with the literature you know. Maybe they are a non-native English speaker writing in English, and they could really use a hand in proofreading their writing. Maybe they are having trouble articulating their points in their introduction. Maybe they have been working on this project so long they just need feedback on whether it logically flows, because it's hard for them to step back from their own writing.

Whatever it is, try to tailor your critiques to their needs, and ask for feedback on your comments. "Can you let me know which types of comments were most helpful so I can provide you similar help in the future?"

Lastly, be wary of "golden student" status: http://phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=1019

An add-on, since there is a discussion in another comment thread about your responsibility in the lab. I was sort of assuming you are a peer, rather than having a formal or informal role in the lab. I don't think your status as a favored student of your supervisor gives you any responsibility directly. I don't think your supervisor asking you to review papers is particularly special: all peers in a lab should be reviewing each other's work. You say you are an MA student at the proposal stage: this potentially makes you a very junior member in the lab. Unless your supervisor has explicitly delegated responsibility to you, I would just be careful that you aren't thinking you have responsibility that you don't actually have; this might come across in your tone, as well, and make your peers resentful of you.

To be clear: your responsibility is to provide good feedback, not to make sure that feedback is heeded.

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    Great answer! I'm not literally responsible for the final outcome but I feel responsible at least. I wasn't aware "golden student" status was a thing! I might have been on my way to acquiring this status but I fixed that by having a kid. :-) More seriously though, I am one of the most "senior" member of the lab regardless of my "juniorness" in academia because the supervisor is fairly new faculty. So students with more research experience can start working in the lab but are not as aware of the work that has been done since the beginning. – curious Aug 2 '17 at 17:16
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    @Emilie Got it. No problem with feeling responsible: I think that's the mark of a good collaborator (i.e., someone who isn't just out for their own publication record), just know the limits of that. You will have to navigate the egos of the newer members of the lab, and also remember that you have to build a relationship with them as well - your supervisor might trust you, but they don't yet. I would advise you to be careful with your seniority status, to keep it in your head that you are still a peer, just with a little more experience. That will help you automatically shift your tone. – Bryan Krause Aug 2 '17 at 17:34

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