A reader wonders how to get feedback from research group members; that is, to find out from one's grad students and postdocs how things are going for the group or for specific group members. Is there a good, systematic way to do this?: Have a group discussion? Ask each person for comments in individual meetings? Get written, anonymous comments? Set up a suggestion box?
Do any readers who are advisers/mentors have a particular approach they find constructive?
My own opinion is that the group dynamics as a whole should be open and friendly enough to encourage discussion in a group or in an individual meeting of any problems that arise, but I have no system for acquiring feedback.
The types of information that would be useful can be divided into two categories: everyday kinds of issues and serious issues. Ideally, the research group is functioning well enough that the everyday issues can be openly discussed, or one or more group members could bring such issues to the attention of the faculty.
Serious issues are of course more complicated to discuss and to deal with. Serious issues may be ones that affect the entire group or might be specific to an individual. Even in the latter case, the entire group might be affected.
At various times over the years, I have learned, typically indirectly, that someone in the group is unhappy. For example, years ago, I kept hearing that one advisee was complaining all the time about me, about the research, about everything. I therefore asked this student in our individual weekly meeting, without saying anything about having heard rumors that s/he was unhappy: "Do you want to talk about how things are going? Do you want to change anything? Are there things that I can do to help you more?" The answer to everything was no, no, no.
The first time this happened, I assumed that the rumors were untrue and that this student was actually fine and had been misunderstood; perhaps routine venting was interpreted as deep distress. But the reports kept coming: so-and-so is really unhappy, s/he blames you for not providing enough help etc. Nothing I could said or did elicited any direct indication from the student that anything was wrong; s/he continued to maintain (to me) that everything was fine, nothing needed to change. Yet the unhappy student continued to complain (to others) right up to the unhappy end.
If I had had an anonymous system by which advisees could complain, suggest, or criticize, would this have helped? I don't think so, in part because my group is not so huge that someone could be really anonymous. In being specific enough to complain or criticize in any useful way, the person's identity would become obvious.
This particular situation bothered me a lot at the time, but ultimately I decided that some people are determined to be unhappy, at least in certain circumstances. Some adviser-student relationships just aren't going to work out, even if the adviser is well-meaning. Perhaps the student will do well with another adviser and another research project or perhaps the problem is graduate school (or life) in general.
One thing that can be difficult for an adviser is to know how much to tell the group as a whole about attempts to solve a problem involving a particular group member. This relates to my point above that even issues that are related to one particular individual can affect the entire group.
In the situation described above, for example, I didn't want the rest of the group to think I didn't care or wasn't doing anything to help the unhappy student, so I told some of my other students about my efforts to discuss any problems with the unhappy student, but that all my efforts had failed. Perhaps some of these students (reasonably) concluded that I was ineffectual and, if I were a better adviser, I could have found some way to get through to the unhappy student and make things right, but it was important to me to show that I cared and had tried.
Over the years, I have at times marveled at the fact that some of the most successful research groups in my field are led by professor who really don't care whether their advisees are *happy* or not. These advisers somehow consistently produce successful students who go on to do well with their subsequent scientific careers. Other groups headed by professors who devote much time to devising individualized advising strategies for each student end up mired in complexity, drama, and woe.
At times, some colleagues and I have wondered whether the "factory" approach is somehow more effective because the focus is on the work, whereas the more "sensitive" approach encourages a focus on problems. According to this totally unsupported hypothesis, the range of personalities, backgrounds, learning approaches, life issues, interests, priorities, and sanity level of graduate students is so great that trying to adjust advising style for each advisee is impossible and causes more problems than it solves. (Discuss)
I prefer to think that it is possible to have a high-functioning research group somewhere between those extremes; that is, a group in which the adviser is not an unfeeling person who only cares about the "product" (data, papers, grants) and has a sink-or-swim advising philosophy, but instead is one who encourages independence, self-reliance, problem-solving, and a healthy amount of communication among group members.
Whether that goal can be realized depends in part on the advising abilities of the professor(s) leading the group, but also is affected by the other members of the research group. Research groups change with time, and therefore so do research group dynamics. Perhaps this variability is why having a system for obtaining feedback is a good idea, and I hope readers will share information about how they approach this in their own research groups: as advisers, students, postdocs, or other group members.