Study Finds Women Undergrads in STEM Facing “Chilly” Campus Climate

by Pearl Stewart

Study Finds Women Undergrads in STEM Facing “Chilly” Campus Climate

by Pearl Stewart Research published this month found that as women students remain underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses, they are being subjected to an unwelcoming, “chilly” atmosphere in these male‐dominated fields. In an article titled “Identity, Campus Climate, and Burnout Among Undergraduate Women in STEM Fields,” Purdue University professor Dr. Eric Deemer and Ph.D.

Research published this month found that as women students remain underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses, they are being subjected to an unwelcoming, “chilly” atmosphere in these male‐dominated fields.

In an article titled “Identity, Campus Climate, and Burnout Among Undergraduate Women in STEM Fields,” Purdue University professor Dr. Eric Deemer and Ph.D. student Laura Jensen wrote that respondents often described an unpleasant campus climate “associated with increased emotional exhaustion and cynicism, although not decreased academic efficacy.”

“My goal behind conducting this study was to look at environmental factors that impact women’s retention in STEM,” Jensen wrote in an e-mail to Diverse. Deemer remarked that Jensen “did most of the work. It was really her study.”

Dr. Eric Deemer

Jensen said her goal in developing the study, published in The Career Development Quarterly, was to examine environmental factors affecting female students in STEM. “Often it feels easier to look at internal factors for why women are not pursuing or [are] leaving STEM fields,” she said, “but I think that ignores just how big of an impact our institutions have on students.”

The researchers surveyed 363 female undergraduate STEM students to examine the potential moderating effect of chilly climate on woman–scientist identity interference and academic burnout. Deemer, an associate professor of counseling psychology, told Diverse that the term “woman – scientist identity interference” refers to the extent to which identity as a woman and identity as a scientist are incongruent.

“We found that woman-science identity interference was correlated with emotional exhaustion and cynicism and negatively correlated with academic efficacy,” Deemer said. “In other words, it increased the bad stuff and decreased the good stuff.”

Some highlights of the study:

  • As women experienced incongruence between their identities as women and as scientists, they felt more emotionally drained, more skeptical of the importance of their work, and less competent as students.
  • Results highlight the importance of improving the campus climate for female scientists, as well as the need to assist female scientists in identity development.
  • Future studies can assess perceptions of STEM climate from the perspective of students of different racial identities “because perceptions of predominantly White women do not represent the experiences of all women.”

The authors noted other limitations of the study, including the impact on first-generation college students. “Similarly, data included all students who identified as “female” in one gender category. The experiences of trans women may differ from cisgender women, and students who identify as transgender may experience a more unwelcoming climate in STEM.”

The study stated that educators “can use the results to create academic environments that minimize gender bias and promote attitudes that encourage the entry of women into STEM fields.”

It also noted that results of the research can be used to assist counselors in helping STEM students challenge stereotypes and other challenges as they navigate hostile academic and work environments.

“Awareness is the first step to addressing the chilly climate for women students,” Jensen said. “We won’t be able to retain women until we make a more welcoming environment for them.”

‘Now I know I’m not alone.’ Study highlights challenges LGBTQ workers in STEM face

By Katie LanginJun. 13, 2019 , 3:55 PM

Taken from https://www.sciencemag.org/careers/2019/06/now-i-know-i-m-not-alone-study-highlights-challenges-lgbtq-workers-stem-face

“I’m living a double life.”

That’s what Sandra (a pseudonym), a transgender woman and professor of chemistry, told researchers when she was asked to describe how she navigates her personal and professional identity. “Many of my colleagues have never even seen me presenting as a woman,” she added.

Sandra is one of 55 STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) workers—including faculty members, students, and staff—who were interviewed for a study about what it’s like to identify as LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) in STEM. Since the study was published last month in the Journal of Homosexuality, the authors have received a slew of responses along the lines of, “Thank you for doing the work, because now I know I’m not alone,” says Allison Mattheis, an associate professor of education at California State University (CSU) in Los Angeles and the lead author of the study.

This Pride Month, Science Careers spoke with Mattheis and her co-authors—Daniel Cruz-Ramírez de Arellano, a senior instructor of chemistry at the University of South Florida in Tampa, and Jeremy Yoder, an assistant professor of biology at CSU in Northridge—about their study and what can be done to better support LGBTQ workers in STEM. This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.

a hand painted with a rainbow flag

Q: What challenges do LGBTQ people in STEM face?

Daniel Cruz-Ramírez de Arellano: In the STEM workplace, there has been this expectation that you should not bring in aspects of your personal life—that it has to be exclusively about the work and about the project you’re working on and nothing else. It’s exhausting for some people to have to separate their work and personal identities in such a way. What we found with our interviews is that if people could bring their whole selves to the workplace, without any sort of reservation, not only were they happier, but they did better work.

Jeremy Yoder: To highlight one example, one gay male astrophysicist said that the reason he was not particularly open about his gay identity at work was because everybody was trying to give the impression that they didn’t have a life outside of work; they thought that talking about their personal life would make them seem less competitive for postdocs and faculty positions. So that sort of work culture effectively put him in the closet, even if he wasn’t explicitly concealing anything.

Cruz-Ramírez de Arellano: We also had participants saying, “If I’m the best in my field, it won’t matter that I’m also gay.” It feels like you have to be the absolute best to counteract the fact that you’re gay. That resonated with me because I went through a stage like that.

Allison Mattheis: Support from departments and advisers is also a major factor. For example, I interviewed two trans students in math who had completely opposite experiences. When one student started to transition, they emailed their adviser and the next week, when they showed up on campus, everyone was using the correct pronouns; there were gender inclusive bathrooms on the same floor. So, the burden wasn’t on the trans person to figure everything out themselves.

But, for the other person it was a struggle. They had to go around and explain their identity to every single person as they started to transition. They didn’t have any senior faculty stand up for them. They once told an adviser that, when teaching in a lecture hall with 500 students, they were laughed at after someone misgendered them. Their adviser gave them a response along the lines of, “I’m here to talk about math. And maybe you’re just not cut out for this because you’re not able to focus on math”—just really cruel things.

That to me was a real example of how someone can be encouraged if they’re provided with some basic support and advocacy—and how hopeless people can feel if they don’t get that because it’s so exhausting trying to get a Ph.D. while also defending your identity for years.

Q: You’re all faculty members who identify as LGBTQ. Is it important for you to be “out” at work and with your students?

Cruz-Ramírez de Arellano: Yes. I’ve decided that being visible is really important to me, particularly after analyzing all of the interview data. So many people said that they’d never seen an out person in their field who was in a more senior position than them. 

When I teach, I come out in the first 15 minutes of my first class. I have this slide where I speak about things that I like, for example video games or TV shows. And then I also have a picture of my boyfriend and me, and I say, “This is my boyfriend. His name’s Aaron. We’ve been together for 2 years. And now let’s talk about the syllabus.” I don’t linger on it; I don’t spend 20 minutes talking about how gay I am and how many drag queens I know. But I make it a point to come out explicitly because I might very well be the first gay scientist a lot of my students get to know.

Yoder: I don’t explicitly come out in class. But I have tried to be really deliberate about making sure I introduce myself with my pronouns, which is something that I should be doing regardless of my sexual orientation and gender identity. It signals that I’m someone who is thinking about diversity in the classroom.

I also sometimes wear things that signal my identity. Today, for example, I’m wearing a shirt I got at yesterday’s Pride run. And for years, I wore one of those little silicone rainbow wristbands everywhere, which is not the same as coming out exactly, but it is a signal that registers to people who are looking for it, which is almost as good.

Mattheis: I generally do come out to all my students at the beginning of class, but I have a really different context than Daniel and Jeremy. I teach graduate students who are already working in education or who want to work in education, so they generally are already aware of diversity issues. But because I work at a campus that’s 90% students of color, I always feel like my racial identity is one that I need to address first. If I don’t make it clear that I’m aware of the fact that I’m a white woman and that that really impacts my experience, I’m not going to be able to be a mentor to my queer students—who are mostly people of color—because their race is such a salient part of their identity and something that impacts them every day walking down the street.

Q: How can faculty members become effective allies, even if they’re not LGBTQ themselves? 

Yoder: A really straightforward option that’s available on many, many campuses is “Safe Zone” training. That’s something that faculty can take themselves. If they want to go the extra mile, they might also consider making sure that it’s available and encouraged for all members of the lab. For instance, they could tell postdocs and graduate students that they can do the training on the clock—that it’s important for the work in the lab.

Cruz-Ramírez de Arellano: Afterward, you get a little Safe Zone sticker that you can put on your office door, which communicates to the campus community that you have gone through the training and that you are an ally. You can also put diversity statements on your website and in your syllabi, and list your pronouns in your email signature. That makes people feel like they are being included and addressed.

Mattheis: I think it’s also important for professors to model that they are humans. There’s this extreme perfectionism that’s prevalent in STEM, and it’s really hard for young folks. Sharing things that you’ve struggled with or messed up with—those are the things that make students think professors are accessible. And once you’re accessible about some aspect of your identity, students will come with questions about a lot of other things.

The other thing I would say is, don’t just say, “Oh, I found a queer student; let me point them to the one queer person I know across campus.” That’s really awkward. The student needs to have an advocate who also is aligned with their other interests. It’s important to demonstrate that you can be an ally to students who don’t share the same identities as you and that you’re willing to learn from them.

For more online safety tips see here:

Most LGBTQ are Cyberbullied. Here’s How to Stay Safe Online

Table of contents We at vpnMentor conducted a survey in which we asked 695 LGBTQ+ people worldwide about their experiences online as they relate to their sexual orientation and gender identity. The results – referenced throughout this article – illuminated the unique challenges faced by the LGBTQ+ community.

The Emotional Toll of Graduate School

Mental health disorders and depression are far more likely for grad students than they are for the average American

By Prateek Puri on January 31, 2019

From https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/the-emotional-toll-of-graduate-school/

A recent Harvard study concluded that graduate students are over three times more likely than the average American to experience mental health disorders and depression. The study, which surveyed over 500 economics students from eight elite universities, also concluded that one in 10 students experienced suicidal thoughts over a two-week period, a result consistent with other recent reports. While these findings are alarming to some, as a current graduate student myself, I regard them as hardly surprising. But to understand the struggles graduate students face, you have to understand the structure of graduate school itself.

Most people probably lump doctoral students into the same category as undergrads or students in professional schools such as law or medicine. The reality is their lifestyle and the nature of their work are fundamentally different. In the STEM fields where I have personal experience, as well as many other fields, graduate students are really hardly students at all. For most of their programs, which last over six years on average, they aren’t preparing for written exams, taking courses or doing any of the tasks usually associated with student life. Instead they are dedicating often over 60 hours a week towards performing cutting edge research and writing journal articles that will be used to garner millions of dollars in university research funding.

While graduate students are compensated for their work by a supervising professor, their salaries substantially lag what the open job market would offer to people with their qualifications, which often include both master’s and bachelor’s degrees. For example, graduate student salaries are typically around $30,000 a year for those in STEM—and can besubstantially lower for those in other fields.

Further, unlike many professional school students, doctoral students do not leave their program with job security or even optimistic financial prospects. In fact, according to a study in 2016, nearly 40 percent of doctoral students do not have a job lined up at the time of graduation. Even for those who do snag a job, mid-career salaries can be significantly less than those for individuals who graduated from other professional programs.

So if doctoral students are underpaid and overworked, why do over100,000 students—more than the number for dentistry, medical and law schools combined—complete these programs every year?

There are many answers to this question, and they vary from department to department, individual to individual. For some, graduate school is a convenient next step, a way to inch towards adulthood while keeping your career options open and remaining in a familiar university environment. For others, graduate school offers something they simply cannot get elsewhere. These students enter graduate school because they are extremely passionate about their field—passionate enough that they are willing to dedicate over six years to studying off-the-wall research ideas in excruciating detail.

Universities, with a commitment to intellectual freedom, are one of the few environments capable of providing the funding and resources necessary for this type of work. So, we put up with the hours, put up with the pay, and put up with the dwindling career prospects in the hope that we can pursue research we are passionate about—and then we cross our fingers and hope the rest will work out.

Unfortunately, as the study pointed out, it often does not work out. Mistaking casual interest for passion, many students realize halfway through their degree that they aren’t as enthusiastic as they thought about their research. Still several years away from graduating, they have to deliberate between grinding through the remainder of their program or exiting early and entering the job market in an awkward position: underqualified compared to other doctoral graduates and inexperienced compared to others who joined the workforce directly after college.

Even those who are interested in their work have to grapple with seemingly infinitely postponed graduation dates. Unlike other programs, there is no “units threshold” you have to meet in order to graduate—instead your graduation date is overwhelmingly determined by the amount of novel research you perform. No matter how hard you may work, no results will likely mean no degree. Even the best researchers can see years slip by without any significant results as a result of factors completely out of their hands such as faulty equipment, dwindling research budgets or pursuing research ideas that simply just don’t work.

Even for students who are lucky enough to produce results, frustratingly, individual professors have their own standards for what constitutes “enough research” to graduate. Is it four first-author research articles? What about one review paper and a few conference presentations? The answers you hear will vary widely, and ultimately, a student’s supervising professor usually has sole power in determining when a student graduates. At best, this creates a confusing system where students perform substantially different amounts of work for the same degree. At worst, it fosters a perverse power dynamic where students feel powerless to speak out against professors who create toxic working conditions, even resulting in cases of sexual exploitation.

Then there’s always the existential, “what even is my purpose?” mental black hole that many graduate students fall into. Yes, research has historically produced innovations that have revolutionized society. But for every breakthrough there are many other results without any clear social application, and given the slow, painstaking process of research, you may not be able to tell which is which for decades. As a student, it’s can be easy to doubt whether you’re pursuing work that will ever be useful, producing a sense of meaninglessness for some that can facilitate depression.

Clearly, if nearly 10 percent of the graduate population is experiencing suicidal thoughts, something is not working right in the system. Still, progress on these issues has been slow, largely because the people who are most affected—graduate students– are often the ones with the least agency to spur change. As a student, by the time you’ve seen the cracks in the academic infrastructure, you’ll likely only have a few more years until graduation. Do you really want to dedicate time towards fixing a system you’re leaving soon when you could be performing career-vaulting research instead? Are you willing to risk upsetting professors whose recommendation letters will dictate your employment prospects? For many, the answer is no.

Granted, the issues surrounding graduate student mental health are much easier to describe than to solve. But if academia is good at anything, it’s tackling complex, multifaceted problems exactly like these, and there are number of starting points for both students and administrators to push forward. For example, universities could require multiple advisors within a student’s field to evaluate degree timelines, preventing labor exploitation by a single professor with vested interests in prolonging graduation dates.

Departments could also streamline their graduation criteria to reduce disparities in student workload amongst different research groups and to increase transparency of degree requirements. Further, administrators could increase funding for popular student mental health services and subsidized housing that help graduate students offset cost-of-living expenses. Some universities have already adopted these policies in earnest and others only in name, but the point is academic institutions need to be making a concerted effort to improve the graduate student experience. For all the research they have done, graduate students deserve to start seeing some results.

CASE in point: Graduate science students seek public policy training

Anne Q. Hoy, 26 Apr 2019

Taken from https://science.sciencemag.org/content/364/6438/345

Chris Bolden, a Ph.D. candidate researching drug addiction, was thrilled with the outcome of two Arkansas congressional delegation staff meetings as part of an American Association for the Advancement of Science workshop on the role of science in public policy-making.

The capstone meeting with a staffer for Rep. French Hill (R–AR) resulted in an invite to serve on an Arkansas regional advisory board on the state’s methamphetamine epidemic, a focus of Bolden’s research. At a later meeting with aides to Sen. Tom Cotton (R–AR), Bolden was asked to provide a tour of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences lab where he conducts research. “I said, ‘Yes,’ of course.”

“Scientists in this generation want to increase our advocacy beyond the bench, and the best start is to get involved in policy,” said Bolden, one of 173 upper-class undergraduate and graduate science students who participated in intensive activities over 3 days as part of AAAS’s Catalyzing Advocacy in Science and Engineering (CASE) workshop, a crash course for science and public policy-making in the federal arena.

In recent years, the CASE workshop has experienced steady growth that aligns with increasing interest and engagement in policy-making and its impacts on the scientific enterprise among science, technology, engineering, and mathematics students.

Chloe McPherson, an associate in AAAS’s Office of Government Relations and an ambassador to CASE workshop participants, attributes growing workshop participation to the increasing formation of student-run, campus-based public policy and science organizations and outreach networks.

“More science policy groups are forming on campuses around the country, and a lot of graduate and Ph.D. students are looking for different ways to be involved and different options for what to do once they graduate,” said McPherson. “That has been a big factor.”

In 2018, CASE marked the greatest year-over-year jump in attendance when participation shot up to 193 students, the largest group to date, from 93 participants in 2017. In 2014, its inaugural year, CASE drew 64 students. Attendees of this year’s March workshop in Washington, D.C., also came from 28 different states across the country.

The number of scientific societies and universities that support student participation in the workshop also has climbed. Sixty-four institutions and organizations supported student attendance this year, up from 33 sponsors in the workshop’s inaugural year.

CASE has become a go-to workshop for scientists eager to understand science policy-making, particularly in the legislative and executive branches. Speakers addressed forces that transform legislatiion into laws, complex pressures behind annual federal budget proposals and spending decisions, and the operations of federal agencies.

Attendees attribute their interest to the need to expand their professional opportunities and gain knowledge of and participation in public policy-making that favorably impacts scientific research and contributes to public recognition of science’s value to public well-being and economic growth.

“Scientists are displaying a higher interest in learning about public policy because these policies affect our progress at and beyond the bench,” said Bolden. “Policies help influence which public health concerns funding invests in.”

The workshop’s Capitol Hill visits generated extensive enthusiasm among CASE attendees, reactions widely reflected on their Twitter posts with expressions of gratitude for being given platforms to advocate for science, engage in science policy matters, share stories about their research, and make cases for federal scientific support.

Jacy Hyde, a Ph.D. candidate who studies deforestation and energy development in the Brazilian Amazon and a founder of a University of Florida science policy student organization, said her meetings with the staff of Reps. Bill Posey (R–FL), Neal Dunn (R–FL), and Michael Waltz (R–FL) were an important step in building relationships with the state’s delegation, a goal of her university’s student policy organization.

“Both the workshop and my meetings reinforced the idea that simply bringing knowledge is not enough, but that you have to explain why someone should care about your work, and that enthusiasm, passion, and finding common ground really make a difference,” said Hyde.

The workshop also featured CASE alumni. Danielle DaCrema, a Ph.D. candidate in cell biology, now participating in a 12-week science and technology policy fellowship at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, said that the CASE workshop helped jumpstart her science policy work by providing resources and a network of contacts. The program’s federal budget training segments by Matt Hourihan were especially valuable, she said.

In sharing his story with attendees, Drew Story, another CASE alumnus who holds a Ph.D. in chemical and environmental engineering and now serves as a AAAS Science & Technology Policy fellow in the office of Sen. Chris Coons (D–DE), said he got his start by attending a AAAS annual meeting in 2015. Continuing involvement led him to the CASE workshop and now AAAS’s year-long public policy fellowship program. “Anytime I was involved in AAAS my network grew,” Story said.

The CASE workshop was founded in 2014 by the AAAS Office of Government Relations and five other scientific societies and higher-education institutions to answer increasing calls from students to better understand the bridge between science and policy-making and to gain training in science communications.

“Graduate students have taken an increasing interest in policy because, more than in the past, they want science and evidence used to inform and shape federal policies,” said Toby Smith, vice president for policy at the Association of American Universities, one of the program’s founding organizations.

Smith, a CASE speaker, underscored the need for effective advocacy from student scientists and praised the establishment on campuses of science policy groups and communications networks to enhance student participation in the public policy arena. Among topics they need to address, he said, are growing pressure on discretionary federal spending that is equivalent to potential cuts for key science agencies and programs, and legislative provisions that can block effective and efficient science.

A proposed tax provision in an early version of the 2018 Tax Reform Act, for instance, would have greatly increased educational costs for graduate students, said Smith. Instead, it served as a wake-up call for them to get more involved in public policy-making and led many to join or establish student-run policy groups. “What they learned from that experience was that if they mobilized, they could make a significant difference in the final outcome of major legislation,” he said.

Throughout the workshop, networking and coalition-building among participants were on full display, as was their energy, enthusiasm, and dedication. As if on cue, the 173 CASE participants quickly stood up at the beginning of each break and launched into conversations with those seated around them.

Staff from the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy, Senate and House lawmakers’ offices, congressional science committees and NASA, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Science Foundation shared executive and legislative branch perspectives.

In workshop remarks, Sam Love, an aide to Sen. Cory Gardner (R–CO), advised the community to help lawmakers stay informed about science. Samantha Warren, an aide to Rep. Bill Foster (D–IL), said of policy-making, “If you’re not part of the conversation… not there to be influencing it, it will happen to you, rather than with you, so you might as well get engaged.”

Teresa Davies, a National Science Foundation senior adviser, rallied CASE participants to leverage their value as the nation’s new generation of scientists. “You are critically important. I am hoping that when you get outreach opportunities, you take full advantage.”

Also addressing the workshop were Rush Holt, AAAS chief executive officer, and Shirley Malcom, AAAS senior adviser and director of SEA Change, a program designed to help academic institutions attract, retain, and advance underrepresented minority groups in science. “Laws let things happen. People have to make things happen,” Malcom said.

Showing CASE participants how to be a scientist and engaged in public policy, Holt traced his career as a Ph.D. physicist, college professor, federal employee, assistant director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, 16-year member of New Jersey’s delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives, and now AAAS’s chief executive officer and executive publisher of the Sciencefamily of journals.

Graduate students, Holt said, need to stop science from being ignored, seek out evidence, and connect with audiences by telling “the story of the evidence. Evidence-based thinking leads to more reliable knowledge and that reliable knowledge is what you should base your further research on and any public policy decision-making that you’re going to be doing.”

  • Andrea Korte and Tiffany Lohwater contributed to this story.

Want to become a better mentor? Ask for anonymous feedback

By Katie LanginApr. 29, 2019 , 12:15 PM

taken from https://www.sciencemag.org/careers/2019/04/want-become-better-mentor-ask-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 ScienceCareers 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.