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Want to become a better mentor? Ask for anonymous feedback

Last month, David Mobley took an “emotionally difficult” step: The associate professor of chemistry at the University of California, Irvine, sent an online survey to his research group, asking for anonymous feedback on his mentoring. He was inspired to figure out ways to improve after reading posts on Twitter that discussed the importance of good mentoring. “If you want to get better at something, the best way to start is to find out where you’re doing it badly,” he says. “Here I am 10 years into my faculty career and I haven’t ever done that.”

So far, only three members of his lab—out of 18 total—have filled it out. But the responses have already helped him start to zero in on things he can do to improve his mentoring. For instance, a few trainees said they’d prefer to be offered regular face-to-face meetings, instead of meeting on an as-needed basis—which is how Mobley currently schedules meetings with those who haven't asked to meet regularly. Mobley also learned that some trainees would like him to enforce firmer deadlines for completing data analyses, manuscripts, and other tasks. The feedback has helped him see that “I need to not have a one-size-fits-all management style,” Mobley says. “I need to figure out what people need and make sure that they get that.”

Mobley is one of a handful of faculty members adopting this type of approach. Jen Heemstra, an associate professor of chemistry at Emory University in Atlanta, started to ask her research group for feedback in 2015, around the time she went up for tenure. Up to that point, she’d thought that “if I know what sort of culture I want in my lab, if I know what kind of mentor I want to be, I can just lead from that notion and everything will work out,” she says. (Heemstra’s Twitter feed was Mobley’s main source of inspiration in his quest to become a better mentor. She’s “the queen of the mentoring Twitterverse,” he says.)

After 5 years as a faculty member—at a point when Heemstra’s research group had grown and become more established—she had gained enough experience to realize that setting out to be a good mentor “helps, but that only gets you so far,” she says. To become a truly great mentor, “it really takes a lot more intentionality; it takes a lot of intentional learning and growth and things like critical feedback.” So she sent out an online survey, asking the members of her lab for constructive ideas about how she could become a more effective mentor.

Some of the responses had easy fixes. For instance, she learned that trainees sometimes became frustrated when they weren’t aware of her travel schedule. So she set up a group Google Calendar, where everyone in the research group now logs their travel and vacation time.

Other feedback was tougher to confront. Trainees told her: “We’ll be in a meeting and you’ll suggest that we try this experiment … and then we’ll be back in a meeting a few weeks later, reporting out on what happened, and you will say, ‘Well, I don’t know why you did it that way,’” she recalls. Her lab members phrased it nicely, but she translated their comments to mean “I have a terrible memory.” The feedback prompted Heemstra to acknowledge to her group that she was “incredibly guilty of this”—but she also told group members that, with 15 or so lab members and various other responsibilities, she would never remember every detail of every conversation. Instead, she pledged to alter her approach in situations where she has questions about a trainee’s methodology, first asking why they did an experiment a certain way. She also asked her trainees to respond honestly, to tell her when something was her idea in the first place, even if the experiment went awry.

“It’s been so useful,” she wrote in a tweet about soliciting anonymous feedback. “The first time was definitely the toughest, and now I really look forward to the feedback, even when it’s critical.”

This approach can be useful beyond the lab, too, as Courtney Sobers, an assistant teaching professor at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey, has found. A year after Sobers became a faculty member in 2017, she started to ask for anonymous feedback from graduate students and undergraduates who served as teaching assistants (TAs) under her supervision, distributing pen-and-paper surveys to roughly 30 TAs at the end of each semester. Her goal was to find out how she could be a better leader and manager.

“You don’t get taught management in grad school,” she says. “You have maybe an undergrad or two you’re responsible for, but even that’s different because at the end of the day they report to your adviser, not you.” 

So, she thought, implementing an anonymous survey “is a good way to check myself while I’m still early in my career,” she says. “I need to know how they really feel so I can make changes that mean something, as opposed to me just going ‘OK I’m doing everything fine’ and secretly they’re all complaining about me behind my back.”

Sobers has been surprised by the survey responses. TAs often bring up things that she didn’t realize were a problem—that she spent less time observing their teaching and giving them feedback this past semester, for instance—and they’ll fail to mention things that Sobers agonized over. “There are always things where I’ll cringe, and they’ll hover over me,” she says. She once criticized a first-time TA in front of other TAs—a decision that haunted her for weeks, even though she apologized to the TA afterward. But after reading the surveys, she realized that the TAs weren’t bothered by her critique; in fact, they appreciated that she was willing to give them feedback.

TAs also frequently tell Sobers that she shouldn’t talk so fast. She now makes a concerted effort to slow down when giving instructions to her TAs, many of whom are international students—though she’s not always successful. “I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to talk slower; that’s a personality trait,” she says. But the feedback “reminds me to be patient with my TAs [when they don’t understand something] because it may be that they didn’t keep up with me, not that they weren’t paying attention.”

Heemstra hopes that more faculty members will take steps to get feedback from students and postdocs under their supervision. “One of the biggest challenges we have in academia is this incredibly intense power structure,” so a lot of trainees are hesitant to criticize their adviser. Opening yourself up to criticism and offering opportunities to give anonymous feedback, Heemstra says, can help create a healthy workplace. “Anything we [professors] can do to model vulnerability and be authentic and be human—that’s incredibly helpful for the culture.”

When Mobley posted on Twitter about his survey, responses from current and former graduate students were overwhelmingly positive. “I wish my mentors would have done this along the way,” wrote one scientist. “Low-key jealous of your group for having a mentor open to constructive criticism,” wrote another.

Seeking feedback isn’t just a selfless act, Mobley notes. Professors also stand to benefit from taking steps to become better mentors. Take recruiting, for example: Prospective trainees don’t want to work in a place that “chews you up and spits you out,” he says. “If you do a better job mentoring people, I think in the long run that’s going to result in more strong people coming to you wanting to join.”

How to do it

There’s no one correct way to seek anonymous feedback from people under your supervision, but here are a few tips based on things that worked—or didn’t work—for the professors Science Careers spoke with.

  • Online survey tools, such as SurveyMonkey, make it easy to generate and distribute surveys. Trainees may feel less confident in their anonymity if they’re asked to fill out a paper survey.
  • If you have a small lab group, trainees may be nervous that it’ll be obvious which comments came from them. Including recent alumni in the survey can help beef up the number of potential respondents; alumni may also feel more comfortable sharing constructive feedback. You can also include undergraduate lab members, in addition to grad students, postdocs, and staff scientists. If your group is still too small, Mobley notes that a similar survey could be administered at a departmental level, with feedback provided to faculty on the whole.
  • Potential questions include: What’s working well? What am I doing (or not doing) that’s hindering my ability to be an effective leader and mentor in our group? Do you feel like you get enough of my time and attention? Do you spend much time stuck (if so, why)? Anything else you’d like to comment on?
  • After the survey is complete, Heemstra recommends presenting the feedback to the entire group. She shares excerpts from the survey responses and gives her honest take on what she thinks can—or cannot—be done to solve a given issue. “If there’s something that I don’t feel I should have to address, I talk about that too,” Heemstra says.
  • It’s helpful to repeat the survey on an annual or biannual basis. Heemstra makes slight tweaks to her questions each round, often asking trainees whether she has improved on something she pledged to work on after receiving feedback in a previous survey.

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