Receiving and giving feedback is the heart of any educational experience, whether it be formal education or work training. As an undergraduate, you’ll receive feedback primarily through grades on assignments and exams. In graduate school and beyond, you’ll receive feedback on your ideas, communication skills, and scientific knowledge during key stages like your proposal defense and qualifying exams.
Feedback from other scientists is what can take your ideas to the next level and ultimately make you a better scientist. We are the sum of our closest mentors and peers that challenge us and force us to grow, and this growth comes from compassionate but tough criticism.
Despite feedback being a critical component of any scientific graduate experience, no one receives training on how to give and receive feedback so that it can be effective and constructive. Instead, there is an unwritten rule in academia that whoever receives feedback should have “thick skin” and just take whatever feedback comes his/her way. However, this kind of approach essentially removes any responsibility from the feedback giver.
Feedback is a joint communication, an exchange, where both receiver and giver have responsibilities to uphold. Giving feedback is not a free pass to be cruel or critical - it’s an opportunity to contribute to another person’s development by challenging and encouraging them with focused and detailed questions. Likewise, the person that receives feedback should contribute by asking follow up questions, asking for clarification, and actively listening.
With this in mind, here are some tips to both giving and receiving feedback on your work.
How to ask for and receive good feedback
- Be specific and clear about what you want feedback on. If you are handing your committee a draft, guide them as to what sections you need most help on and what they can ignore. For example, you can say “I'm including the introduction for completeness, but please focus on the results section and note that the paper isn't properly formatted.” Because everyone is pressed for time, others will be grateful they know where to invest the most time.
- Guide the discussion. Especially in meetings with multiple people, a group can get stuck on one part of your work. Take control and redirect. “I've gotten enough feedback on introduction and will incorporate them before I continue on, but for the sake of time let’s move the discussion to the experimental design”.
- Actively listen and don't interrupt. It’s normal to be nervous or jittery when receiving feedback, so you might be tempted to interrupt whoever is talking, especially if they have misunderstood or misinterpreted your work. Let them finish, and then calmly say, “Let me clarify, what you are saying was addressed on page 6.” Instead of putting the person on the defensive, letting them finish their thought sets the tone for a calm and respectful conversation.
- Take notes. Students that don't take notes seem disinterested. Even if the feedback is terrible, jotting down key points makes you seem engaged and like you are taking the feedback seriously. It can also help ground you if feedback turns nasty, and force you to stay calm, rather than interrupt or react immediately.
- Ask for clarification. Often, feedback is vague or unclear. Don't be afraid to say so in a respectful manner and guide the person. “I know you said I was talking too fast during the presentation, but was there a specific part where I sped up?” Often, people need to be prompted to elaborate on what they mean. This approach allows you to get more helpful feedback while also gently teaching others what kind of feedback that is most helpful to you.
- Thank everyone afterwards and follow up. If someone, even a peer, gave you feedback, follow up. A quick email that updates the person while thanking them will go a long way and will make them want to help you again! For example, write, “I submitted the grant and will hear back on July. Your feedback really helped strengthened the methods. Thank you again.”
- Remember to evaluate your feedback. Don’t just blindly follow what others have said. You are likely to receive contradictory, confusing or unclear feedback. Part of being your own scientist is figuring out what needs to change and what doesn’t. Take your time to ponder over the feedback, seek additional feedback, and go over comments with a trusted advisor or peer. This part of the process is essential and will help you grow as a scientist.
When giving feedback, the rules are the same but reversed. Keep in mind many people are uncomfortable receiving critical feedback on their ideas, particularly if they have been working on something for a long time. Additionally, keep in mind that especially in meetings, you may have additional challenges if you are a woman.
- Ask what to focus on. Don’t be afraid to ask what the person wants you to focus on or where they need the most help. If handed a manuscript, ask what journal it will be submitted to. If asked to listen to a practice talk, ask about the audience. Often, knowing context will enable you to focus on the most important part of the work.
- Be as clear as possible. When giving feedback, give concrete examples of where improvement is needed and explain why it's important to you. Often, people might disregard feedback if they don’t understand why it matters. For example, you can say “As an ecologist, I needed to hear more about the environmental conditions to interpret your results.”
- Don't use the sandwich method. You may have heard it’s good to pair positive and negative feedback, but it’s actually not effective. Focus instead on helping the person grow and learn, even while giving negative feedback.
- Be direct. In meetings, women will start off their comments with filler words, “Well, maybe it's just me…” or, “Maybe I've misunderstood.” State your opinion clearly and stand by what your feedback. The message will be clearer and you will not undermine your own opinion. Read more more on this topic here.
- Be constructive and kind. If you are passionate about something, it's ok to say so as long as you can constructive and helpful. For instance you may say, “I'm passionate about not using this kind of analysis with such low sample sizes, I can send you sources that explain in detail why it's incorrect.”
- Read the feedback receiver. If you sense that the receiver is not paying attention or getting upset, then your feedback is no longer helpful. No matter how well-meaning, precise and constructive the feedback is, if the person is disengaged, it simply won’t matter. Ask the person if they want to take a quick break or come back to a specific section.
Be heard. Unfortunately, if you have to give feedback in a group setting, you may be interrupted or have difficulty getting a word in, especially if you are a woman. Especially when I was starting out, I often just never found the opportunity to share my thoughts, which was discouraging. It’s perfectly appropriate to follow up afterwards, in person or via email, and share your feedback. For more advice on how to deal with being interrupted during meetings, check out this article.
Julie F. Charbonnier is a 5th year PhD candidate in Integrative Life Sciences at Virginia Commonwealth University. Her research focuses on amphibian and population ecology. She is also interested in scientific writing and science policy. You can follow Julie on Twitter @modernecologist.