PhD Advising Tips: Group Assimilation Exercise

Feedback is a Gift

Like all relationships, the one between professor and advisee needs regular tending, with clear lines of communication and avenues for feedback. However, one of the hardest things for PhD students & postdocs to do is give their professor constructive feedback. Without such feedback, the relationship can accumulate problematic habits & norms. All the while, the professor may not even realize that something is wrong (or, worse, is in denial).

Group Assimilation Exercise: Structured Mechanism for Feedback

The Group Assimilation Exercise is a structured mechanism for the group to give feedback to the professor. The activity centered around a worksheet and comprises two main sessions.

Session 1: group meets without the professor.

  • Group works through a predefined series of questions together (discussed below).
  • People should feel free to speak openly; what is said in the session stays in the session.
  • A designated group leader (or pair of leaders) helps capture the feedback in the most constructive framing possible.
  • Group leader should make sure everyone has an opportunity to speak.
  • Recommended time is 2 hours
  • I like to treat my students to a group dinner afterwards (w/o me).
https://twitter.com/YueLabCaltech/status/1447957986001833986

Session 2: professor goes over responses with group

  • Professor should respond to every question & request.
  • It is OK for professor to not have capacity to accommodate all requests.
  • It is OK for professor to disagree with a request (requires explanation).
  • Typically, there should some brainstorming and to figure out prioritization of what changes are most important.
  • Professor should maintain a list of action items that can be reviewed throughout the year.
  • Recommended time meeting with group is 2 hours
Link to Worksheet (includes example comments & responses)

The worksheet can be found here, including example comments & responses from previous years done with my group.

The worksheet starts with some softball questions, just to get the group into the flow of the activity. It’s also nice to build a little rapport with the professor through those questions.

The first critical question is asking about what isn’t working well. This part should not prioritize recommending changes.

The next set of questions revolves around expectations. An important feature of a healthy relationship is both parties being clear on expectations for one another. Oftentimes, articulating these expectations is as useful as giving feedback, and helps both parties understand why certain things are done a certain way. For instance, a big discussion point in my group was the level of “hands-on” the professor should be (including both frequency and level of granularity, as well as some other dimensions).

Next, the worksheet pivots to more immediate action items, which are usually concrete and targeted.

The worksheet concludes with a final softball question, since the whole discussion can become a bit intense (usually in a good way), especially during Session 2 when the professor responds.

During Session 2, the professor can keep a list of action items that is updated throughout the discussion.

Benefits & Drawbacks

The main benefit of this exercise is that it empowers to group to have a dialogue with the professor as a collective. Not only is there strength in numbers (making the feedback feel safer to give, and harder for the professor to dismiss), but the collectively distilled feedback should be much more constructively framed than if individuals try to do it alone. Moreover, the group may find new common ground amongst themselves through this shared experience.

The pre-defined questions in the worksheet also have benefits similar to those found in relationship therapy sessions. For instance, many of the questions are geared towards affirmation of what is working in the relationship.

The main drawback is that the feedback is the collective feedback of the group, and may not reflect that of any given individual’s. There are two inter-related aspects to this limitation. First, if the group isn’t large enough, then it may be obvious which piece of feedback comes from which student/postdoc (I suspect ~4 is the minimum size threshold). Second, if one student/postdoc has a very different experience than other members of the group, it may be difficult for that person to even speak up, let alone integrate their comments into the collective feedback.

Why is Feedback Hard?

There are many experts who write on this topic, so here are just a few challenges that the Group Assimilation Exercise is designed to help address.

It is scary to give feedback to a professor. The professor has significant influence over a mentee’s success. Given this power dynamic, it can be very risky to jeopardize the relationship with the professor.

It is easy for feedback to sound like a personal attack. It is important to frame the feedback in a way that is as constructive as possible. But oftentimes feedback can come off as a personal attack, making it harder for the feedback to be construed as constructive.

Fear of disappointment. The upshot of the above points is that there can be huge barriers to students & postdocs giving feedback. Thus, making the effort to overcome those barriers can be a huge investment. If there isn’t a reasonable expectation that such feedback will lead to positive changes, then what’s the point of going through all that trouble?

Concluding Thoughts

Everyone needs feedback. Many companies implement some kind of 360 review, and one can think of this exercise as a version of that for the professor. Of course, no one likes hearing criticisms about themselves, and so this whole process works best if everyone buys in and approaches it from a place of compassion.

In terms of timing, I found that the best cadence for my group is to do this exercise once a year around the beginning of the school year. It is also a great way to get new members more comfortable with the rest of the group.

Looking back on previous years, I found that I successfully acted on roughly 50% of the action items. Some action items became less important over time, and others slipped my mind until I reviewed the worksheet (which I do about once every 1–3 months).

Finally, I also found that the exercise reveals gaps in terms of expectations between the professor and the group (in both directions). Moreover, the exercise helps me articulate to myself what I want for my group.

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