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Employment

Jen Heemstra on why it’s important to give and invite feedback

Constructive criticism works best when it’s a 2-way street

by Jen Heemstra
January 28, 2020 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 98, ISSUE 5

 

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Credit: C&EN/Shutterstock
Don't make a habit of rejecting feedback.

You’ve mentioned on Twitter that you solicit anonymous feedback from your lab group, and your lab members also provide peer-to-peer feedback. Why do you think it’s important to engage in this kind of practice, and what kinds of practical tips can you give for a principal investigator hoping to implement the same practice in their lab? —Katie

Feedback is a gift. When we’re receiving feedback on our job performance, we may be tempted to look at it like that ill-fitting sweater we received for our birthday last year and ponder the question, “I wonder if I can return this?” Receiving critical feedback may feel uncomfortable in the moment, but if we want to become more effective in our workplace, it’s essential to know what we’re doing well and where we need to make changes.

For those who work in industry or many other areas of the public or private sector, performance evaluations are routine and provide the opportunity to give and receive feedback at regular intervals. However, this practice is far less common in academic labs because we simply don’t have systems in place to do this. The good news is that we can solve that problem. If you are a faculty member, a significant part of your job is creating assignments and exams to assess students’ performance and then providing feedback to each student via the grading process. So you already know how to give feedback, and you can apply that same skill when it comes to leading your research lab. But before we dive into the how, let’s spend a little more time talking about the why.

Why should faculty provide their group members with feedback? We all want to be good at what we do, and while few of us enjoy receiving feedback that is critical of our performance, it is far better than not knowing how we are performing. This is especially true for graduate students. After years of receiving feedback at regular intervals­—through those assignments, quizzes, and tests that I mention above—graduate students finish classes and transition to full-time research, and this feedback system abruptly evaporates. In its place, they are handed an open-ended, multiyear task of completing thesis research, and the only formal evaluation may be in the form of occasional thesis committee meetings. Arguably, earning a graduate degree is largely about developing the research and leadership skills needed to tackle such an open-ended project. However, nobody should have to work for multiple years without knowing whether they are on the right path. As we address the mental health crisis among graduate students, we may think that providing critical feedback would make things worse. However, I frequently hear from students that an even greater source of anxiety is not knowing how they are doing and where they stand with their adviser. Moreover, feedback is not just for pointing out areas for improvement; it is also a great chance to help people see what they are doing well and offer praise for their hard work and dedication.

Why should faculty invite feedback from their group members? Even the most well-trained leaders and managers have blind spots and areas where they can do better. Given that I started my faculty job with almost no training in leadership or management, it’s fair to say that I had significant areas for improvement. Even though I’ve now received formal leadership training, it is the feedback from my group members that has driven the majority of my growth. After all, they see me doing my job every day and directly experience the effects of my leadership and mentorship. They want to see me grow and improve in these skills, and they have the best insight into how I can do that. At first, I was afraid that I would lose respect by admitting that I had areas for improvement. However, nobody is perfect, and I feel that I’ve actually gained more respect by showing that I’m willing to own my mistakes and learn from them. Beyond the practical benefits, inviting feedback can also have a symbolic benefit. There is an intense power structure in academia where tenured faculty can appear untouchable while graduate students and postdocs feel highly vulnerable. When we as faculty are willing to make ourselves a little bit vulnerable by inviting feedback from the students and postdocs in our groups, we take an important step toward correcting that power imbalance.

So how do you create a system for giving and inviting feedback? My group uses online surveys that we set aside time to complete twice per year. In our system, everyone in the group exchanges feedback with one another and has the option to remain anonymous. The important part is that this format was designed by the group and evolves as we experiment with new approaches and discuss what works best for us. Talk with your group about what might work best for them, and be adaptable to change. Ultimately, the foundation of an effective feedback system is trust, and that comes from everyone having ownership in the system and feeling comfortable with speaking up. That’s truly a gift.

Jen Heemstra is an associate professor of chemistry at Emory University who shares advice on Twitter @jenheemstra. Find all her columns for C&EN and ask her questions at cenm.ag/officehours.

Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.

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