“How am I doing?” Too often grad students have no idea how to answer this question. Am I doing well? Am I doing what I should be doing?
Most of the time, it is hard to be sure. We go through the day without much feedback. When we do get feedback, it usually emphasizes what is wrong. We learn what we should change and do differently.
But it is equally important to get feedback about what is going well. What should NOT change. What should continue. I call this “feedback for continuation.”
Feedback for continuation is rare. Silence usually means that things are going ok.
But you wonder.
Does silence mean that no one has the time or inclination to offer feedback for change? Does silence mean that no one has noticed you at all?
These questions are particularly gnawing when you are new. When you are doing most things for the first time. The need for feedback for continuation is especially great during the first years of graduate school. (If you think that you are the only one who feels this way, you are not. This is a form of “Pluralistic Ignorance.”)
What Is Feedback for Continuation?
You may think of feedback being either “positive” or “negative.” I prefer thinking of “feedback for continuation” and “feedback for change,” because these terms focus attention on the outcome that the input intends to elicit. The behavior should continue or change.
Feedback for continuation—when it is done well—is specific and detailed. It tells the recipient exactly what they did well, and tells them why.
It goes beyond general affirmations like “great job,” “awesome,” or “you are doing fine.”
Feedback for continuation is crucial because it:
- Tells you that you are on the right track. Your confidence goes up and your anxiety decreases.
- Specifically describes positive and desirable behaviors so that they can be repeated.
- Tells you why that behavior is desirable to that you can generalize and adapt to other situations.
- Takes some of the mystery and guess work out of grad school.
Here are two basic scripts for Feedback for Continuation with examples:
“Thank you for [describe behavior] because [reason why this is helpful to others].”
“Thank you for organizing the dinner with grad students for the prospective postdoc to our lab. The candid conversation will help that person decide whether this is a lab she wants to join. When we hire people who fit in with our culture, we are more productive scientists.”
“You did well when you [describe behavior] because [reason why this is helpful for the student’s own development].”
“You wrote an excellent literature review. What made it excellent was that you didn’t just summarize what each article said, but you found common themes and noted where there were contradictions. This is a skill that you will use over and over as a researcher and scholar.”
You can see that there are two parts:
- What: Describe the behavior in detailed and concrete language. Unpack general adjectives like “good” or “effective.”
- Why: Explain the positive impact of the behavior. Provide the rationale for thinking that this is behavior that should be continued. The “Why” details a particular positive impact for the team, the person giving the feedback, or the recipient.
In grad school and academia it is not customary to give feedback for continuation. Probably because it is assumed that expectations are clear. Not true! Unfortunately, expectations are rarely stated explicitly. University of Kansas professor, Bruce Hayes, observes that students crave more feedback. Barbara Lovitts’ research, published in Making the Implicit Explicit, showed that expectations about dissertations was rarely explicit.
Solicit Feedback for Continuation
You can ask for feedback for continuation directly. Try these questions:
“I am not sure that I am spending my time wisely. Can you tell me some things that I am doing that I should be sure to continue? Can you explain why these are helpful things to do?”
“I want to be a contributing member of the lab. Since I am new, I am learning how to do that. What are some things that I am doing that are making a positive contribution? Why are those actions helpful to the lab?”
You can pair your requests for feedback for continuation, with requests for feedback for change. This signals that you are ready to improve. By pairing the requests, you indicate that you are a learner. You want to keep what is good and change what could be improved.
Many universities provide structured opportunities for graduate students to get feedback from their advisors. These take the form of annual progress reports and required conversations. Some examples are at the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Missouri, the University of Michigan, Stanford University’s biosciences programs (Biosciences students and advisors are required to meet every year. The forms are tailored for students in year 1, year 2, and years 3-5.) Even if your department doesn’t have this requirement, you can ask your advisor to meet with you to discuss an individual development plan (MyIDP is excellent) or a progress report you have written (Stanford has a customizable Annual Doctoral Student Degree and Career Progress Meeting Worksheet).
When positive feedback is given, it is often dismissed. Too often, the recipient deflects the praise and won’t accept it. “It was nothing.” “Others deserve the credit.” “I didn’t do much.” When you refuse to hear and accept that you are doing well, you deter the giver from giving positive feedback in the future
Practice accepting feedback for continuation, when you get it. Simply say, “Thank you.” Even if you didn’t ask for it. Embrace the praise you earn. Listen hard and learn from it. Feeling like you don’t deserve praise is a feature of the Imposter Syndrome.
Provide Feedback for Continuation
Develop the habit of giving feedback for continuation.
You can provide feedback for continuation to all of your professional connections. Just as you can build connections in three directions, you can provide feedback for continuation to your peers, those who are following you, and even to those who mentor you.
- Those you mentor and supervise:
- Undergraduate research assistants
- Graduate students who are new in your programs
- Lab mates
- Members of your doctoral cohort
- Team members on group projects
- Your mentors and supervisors:
- Your advisor (surprise!)
- Research or teaching assistantships supervisors
- Your boss
- Instructor for a class you are taking
Providing feedback for continuation to those who mentor you is a way of getting the mentoring you need. For example, suppose you drafted a fellowship application and your advisor provided detailed written feedback. Helpful feedback. The kind of feedback you want to get more of while you are a student.
Does your advisor know? Suppose you say “thank you for the feedback.” Can your advisor determine what kinds of feedback are helpful to you?
Use the two-part formula: Specifically describe what was helpful and explain why.
“Thank you for the feedback on my application. It was particularly helpful to me when you suggested alternate wording for describing my research project. This helped me to learn how to sound confident but not boastful. I also saw how to make the project sound important. These models are ones that I will be able to use in the future. You are making me a more successful student.”
Feedback for continuation is underrated and underused. Build it into your repertoire: ask for it and give it. With less time spent wondering whether you are doing the right things, you will be more successful.