Educated Woman, The Grad-School Adventures of Micella Phoenix DeWhyse Chapter 42: Fear and Loathing in Las Laboratory, Part 2



I'm back for another installment as summer comes to a close. Last time, I talked about my fear of screwing up my life and how the lack of feedback from my advisor about progress, achievement, areas for improvement, and so on feeds into this fear. Apparently I struck a nerve, because I received a lot of feedback, including some great advice on how to deal with the issue.

To catch you up on the situation, here's how things work in my department and my research group.

  • There are no formal reviews, verbal or written.

  • The only formal feedback you receive from your committee occurs when you meet with them, and that usually happens when you are already defending something.

  • Written assessments are at the discretion of the advisor, but I don't know of anyone in my department who has ever gotten one before.

  • In my group, expectations are likely to be left unspoken, maybe because Jeff, my advisor, still hasn't quite figured out how to voice them, or maybe he thinks he is voicing them but even if that's true the rest of us aren't hearing them.

Let's be real people: I have yet to meet anyone who would say, please, tell me how bad I am, tell me how bad I screwed up, or how I might do it better. I'm sure such people are out there, going without sleep for days on end, stapling their fingers, going to graduate school in science--but I don't know any of them personally, and I don't particularly want to. Few people--including those seeking advanced degrees--relish being told they're wrong, that things could be better, that if they had done something differently it would have worked, rather than imploding into a nasty greenish muck. No one likes to get sub-par reviews on a paper or proposal. That blood-red ink reminds us of high school English or Calculus assignments and the teachers who failed to see the genius that our mothers saw in us so clearly.

Criticism is hard to take, even if it's constructive. Even when we look critically at ourselves, it isn't easy to see those flaws--or the good stuff--accurately all on our own. We see an incomplete picture in the mirror, at best, and sometimes a false one. And of course we lack the subject-matter expertise needed to evaluate the quality of our work, and the experience to determine how well we're working, relative to others. We need help.

When it comes to accepting criticism, I'm pretty average. My parents kept me humble enough that I wasn't blinded by the reflection of my fabulousness. Grades were not the ultimate measure of success. But they snuck in enough praise to let me know that I was doing well. At the same time, I was the kid that didn't like too much red on my graded assignments. I knew exactly what I was doing, please let me just get on with my business. Who cares if I forgot to carry the 2 while multiplying rapidly, you know what I meant! Put that mirror down! I can accept criticism if it's offered, but I'm not one to seek it out. Actually asking for the red pen of criticism/correction/commentary to be scrawled across my forehead is beyond my comfort zone.

Alright, I digressed, a lot, but the point is, I need feedback. I could accept constructive criticism if it was offered, but it rarely is. But I'm not one to seek it out unless I absolutely have to. So what should I do? Easy: ask the readers.

Thanks again to those of you that wrote in. I appreciate your taking the time to share what you've learned from your own experiences in graduate school and as postdocs. Everyone who wrote in emphasized the importance of obtaining feedback--whether it was from an actual advisor or from someone that you interact with--on a regular basis. But how?

A number of readers said something like this: "Ask him for feedback; it's his job to provide it." Okay, good advice, even if it's easier said than done. Once I suck it up and figure out how to do it, I'm going to ask him for constructive criticism. A few readers suggested asking for a 30-45 minute meeting with him to talk about my progress and where I need to improve. Letting him know the topics in advance will take away some of the anxiety, they suggested.

One reader suggested I write my own review, including areas of strength and areas that need improvement, and then to develop a plan for how this can be accomplished. A great Web site from the U.K. has hints for developing a research plan that helps students assess their progress. "On the Record" is a Next Wave article about the site. I plan to tackle this task before I meet with Jeff so that I have a clearer picture of what kinds of things I have accomplished as a researcher.

Once I've thoroughly prepared for the meeting and am ready to sit down with him, I'll need to contemplate the fact that we're likely to see things differently. I hate to stereotype, but in my experience, many men, especially male scientists, aren't terribly emotionally sensitive to people like me who could use some encouragement every so often. It's as if we're in TV Land reruns. "Just the facts, ma'am," don't bother me with that touchy-feely stuff.

A female professor wrote that it works the other way, too: in many cases, male students want facts while female students want encouragement and warm and fuzzy feelings. Jeff fits the pattern; he seems to deal best with clarity and facts better, and not so well with emotions. As a woman taking an honest look at my own wants and needs, a little warm-and-fuzzy now and again wouldn't hurt. But I'm dealing with a person who doesn't hand those out often, so I'll have to create those feelings for myself.

Here's one other comment that was common in the replies I received: if I can't get feedback from Jeff, many agreed, then I must find someone else to provide it. Many students feel trapped into thinking they can only talk to their advisors. Not so! There is a big wide, world out there, and it's up to us to meet and greet the neighbors. While I can't quite say to another professor that my advisor isn't the greatest at giving feedback (trying not to offend anyone), I can ask them if they have time to watch a practice presentation or read over a proposal and from there see if they might offer any useful input...Ah! I do have options!

That's all for now folks. Any other comments on how to get constructive feedback from advisors would be greatly appreciated. I hope you've had fun at some point this summer! Vacation is good for you . . .

Comments, questions, and *feedback* (smile) can be sent to

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