"Piled Higher and Deeper" by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com http://www.phdcomics.com/comics.php?f=1781 Reprinted with permission

“Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham
Reprinted with permission

Stuck in a rut with your research project? Experiments not working? Or maybe you are generating lots of data, but you’re not sure if you’re heading in the best direction? Chances are you could use more feedback. Feedback is helpful for you to progress and improve, and research almost always involves pushing the boundaries of what we know (or think we know). However, the structure and culture of the academic research enterprise can sometimes lead us to hole up in the lab by ourselves, trying to figure it all on our own. Putting our work out there and asking for help can be really terrifying; it opens us up to the possibility of being wrong or feeling stupid. However, without putting our ideas out there to be tested, we will not improve, or, importantly, ever publish a paper. Don’t let the peer review process at a journal be your first and only feedback. If you seek feedback early and often, you may save yourself a great amount of time and will almost certainly improve your research.


Here are some tips on how to get more and better feedback on your research projects:

  • Getting constructive feedback starts with your own attitude. You have to be willing to look critically at your own work as well as be receptive to input. Resist the urge to respond defensively when others question your work. The feedback you get from different audiences may not always be something you have to act on, but regardless, you can usually learn something from any question asked about your work.
  • Take full responsibility for your projects. Make sure you understand why you are doing your experiments and be able to explain your choices to others. Sometimes, in the lab, we have to do experiments that are not our choice, but ultimately, you have to take responsibility for negotiating those differences of opinion. Answering questions you may get by saying that your PI made you do it will not help you get good feedback. Though dealing with differences of opinion can be awkward and difficult at times, finding a place of compromise is essential to moving your research forward and is a necessary part of the research process.
  • Be your own project manager. Your mentor may not notice that you’ve spent a year trying to troubleshoot something, but you should keep track by making a list of what you have tried. If you’ve been hitting a roadblock and would like to go in a different direction, you should bring it up and present your evidence as to why.
  • Check your own work against published data. Are your numbers in a reasonable range for this method? Are there better methods? How are figures presented? While your needs may differ from what has been previously published, it helps to have a frame of reference.
  • When seeking feedback, ask a lot of questions. If someone brings up a point you haven’t considered and you’re not sure how it applies, ask why they think it is important. Have the confidence to admit when something is not clear, and you will learn—and sometimes others around you will too. The more you learn, the better questions you’ll ask in the future, but if you don’t start somewhere, you won’t improve.

How to get more feedback from your mentor and other lab members:

  • Schedule regular meetings with your supervisor(s) dedicated to talking about your project(s). Sometimes this will come from the PI and sometimes it has to come from you, but do not be afraid to ask. Even infrequent but regularly scheduled meetings are better than none at all.
  • Use visuals, but make sure they are accurate. Bring figures, but also make sure to check your analysis either with your PI and/or senior members of the lab when you are starting out. It is easy to make a pretty figure that is not analyzed accurately, and you want to catch fundamental technical problems as early as possible to ensure your data have a strong foundation.
  • Help your mentor help you. Accept that PIs are not psychic or omniscient and may have a hundred other problems in front of them on any given day. The best way to get help is to ask for specific feedback, such as if you are analyzing something correctly, or if you are missing any controls on a particular experiment, and specific concerns about your experimental design. Usually, it’s easier to get helpful feedback by asking a question rather than showing someone a figure and waiting for a reaction.
  • Find colleagues with the experience you need. If you need to do a new technique or are having trouble with an existing one, ask around for advice from someone who is doing that assay or has done it previously. Protocols are often missing critical details that may more easily come up in a conversation and help you solve your problems more quickly.

How to get more feedback from scientists outside of your lab:

  • Present your work. Give talks and present posters to diverse audiences whenever possible, and write down questions asked of you. I’ve received some of the best feedback in the form of questions from people not working directly in my field. It’s often those things you take for granted due to convention in the field or making an assumption that can trip you up. Go to conferences, department retreats, training grant meetings—whatever you have access to.
  • Seek advice from others. Find other mentors outside your lab to fill in the gaps in what you need, whether your project has taken a turn toward a subject your PI is less familiar with, or if you feel like you could use input from a fresh set of eyes. Set up a collaboration (if appropriate) and schedule regular meetings with your collaborators to benefit the most from their expertise.

Getting regular feedback serves a few important purposes. For one, it can expose areas that you need to address with additional experiments, or help you adjust your approach as needed. But perhaps as importantly, it forces you to take a stand on the choices you’ve made and gain confidence that you are addressing your research questions in the best ways that you can. There are always many different ways to address a question, each with strengths and weaknesses. Inevitably, doing research is an imperfect process in which we try to approximate reality in our culture dishes and inbred mice. The best we can do is to try to address what we can, and with input from and discussion with our colleagues we stand a far better chance of getting things right than we would on our own.

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Rachel Ames

Rachel Ames is a senior graduate student at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in Bronx, NY, where she studies the regulation of T cell function during chronic infection. Email: ryames@gmail.com

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