Mr Epidemiology

No, I'm not a skin doctor



On giving constructive and helpful feedback

Last time I spoke about how to deal with negative feedback, and how you can cope with it. However, as you transition from undergrad, to graduate student, to senior graduate student (to life afterwards), you’ll be placed more and more into positions of responsibility. When that happens, it will be your responsibility to give feedback, and at this point, you realize that it’s really difficult to give good, constructive feedback that doesn’t come off as harsh.

Depending on the person, this feedback could be to a student, a colleague, or even a senior student. My research group has had a lot of success with practice run-throughs of presentations for conferences and defences, and once the person has presented, giving them useful and constructive comments is something we strive for. The easy route out is to give them “soft” feedback and avoid major problems. However, that doesn’t help them as, if you don’t point out major points they can work on, someone else will. The goal of this post is to help you frame that feedback.

And, in honour of Thor: The Dark World, coming out this week, I’ll be recruiting my good friend and gym buddy Chris Hemsworth* to help me with this post.


This just makes me laugh. I’m not even sure why.


1. Real life or email?
The first question is how to give feedback – face to face, or via e-mail. As we move more towards an electronic presence, sometimes it’s not only easier to give feedback electronically (such as when you’re in different cities), sometimes you have to (such as when you’re using track changes in word). People disagree over which is best, with this article falling on the email side, and this article falling on the face to face side. Frankly, I think both can be done well, and both can be done poorly. Finally, if you do choose to provide feedback in real life, keep it respectful, and, if necessary, private. Do not publicly shame someone.

A car is not a good place to give feedback.


2. Follow up
This relates to the point above, as one of the major benefits of face-to-face feedback is that you can provide instant feedback and clarify concerns on the spot. Email does not allow for quick clarification the way a face to face meeting does. One option is to send the email and then follow up on the phone or in-person soon afterwards, or meet first, and then provide written feedback. Similarly, once the feedback has been given, that’s not the end of the process. Improving oneself and developing skills takes time and effort, and small “course corrections” may be required, especially if the person has a hard time interpreting what you’re asking them to do. If they want more help or clarification later on, that should be available to them.

Don’t worry Thor, we’ll be specific!


3. Be specific
If you have an issue with something, say that. Don’t be vague as that can lead to further confusion. For example, some people when they present, never make eye contact. So when providing feedback, say “you need to make more eye contact.” Don’t say “you need to engage the audience.” The latter is not helpful, and can mean a number of different things, ranging from more eye contact, to more audience participation, to revamping your slide deck. Providing specific comments bypasses this concern.

We’re not attacking you Thor! We’re just providing feedback!


4. Present facts, not opinions
Avoid subjective words and emotional descriptions of events. Rather than saying “you didn’t care about this project” you want to focus on the specifics “your introduction needed more detail about X.” Continuing in the same vein, remove emotion and wait if things are too charged. Waiting for people to process their own feelings following an experience allows for everyone to think logically and productively, and at that point, feedback (may) be welcomed. This is as much for you as it is for them:

“The exception to this is if the situation involved is highly emotional. Here, wait until everyone has calmed down before you engage in feedback. You can’t risk letting yourself get worked up and risk saying something you will regret later.”


That is good, positive, specific feedback! Way to go Thor!

5. Positivity!
We often dwell on the negative, and only provide feedback about areas of improvement. However, also consider providing positive feedback! If someone does a really good job of explaining a concept, or writes a very clear article, then tell them that! One of the tricks is learning not only what you need to improve, but capitalizing on what you do well and putting that front and centre, and stating that can help boost a person’s morale, confidence and make the whole process a lot more enjoyable and positive for all involved.


Further reading:
View at


This was published simultaneously on Gradifying

*Note: I’m not actually friends with Chris Hemsworth, and I’m not getting anything from Marvel Studios/Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures to include these GIFs.

New Post on Gradifying: Reference Letters: Who to ask and how to ask for them! Liz Lemon helps us out

At some point in your graduate education you’ll have to ask for a letter of reference. It might be for a funding application (see my previous post) or it might be for another program (med school, law school, PhD programs etc). But you’ll need to ask people to write wonderful, glowing praise for you in their free time. Which is a daunting, and intimidating task.

But the good news is that your profs and supervisors are expecting this. They’ve done it before, and know the process. So don’t be afraid!

And of course, because it’s me, I’ll bringing in a friend to help with the post. So without further ado dear readers, Liz Lemon.

Liz Lemon!

Click here to continue reading!!

Useful Utilities: SimpleNote

Useful Utilities is a series where Mr Epidemiology outlines software he finds helpful and feels that students would benefit from knowing. Today, he’ll be talking about Simplenote, which is online note taking software.

I’ve found in my Grad School career that I often have ideas that hit me at random points. I’ll be walking down the street and suddenly think “Wait! The validity of that tool is questionable! I must research this!” or “Wait! Do I have milk!” and other matters of national security and life altering importance.

Pictured: The old fashioned way of writing notes (click pic to go to Moleskine site)

While a more traditional (archaic) approach involving paper and pencil might be preferred by some, I like my gadgets. I also find that many a notebook has fallen prey to the evil forces of leaky coffee mugs. And let’s fact it, notebooks aren’t much good when they’re soaked through. Even if you wrap your notebooks in a ziplock bag to keep them dry, if you forget it at home, you’re stuck.

When looking for a note-taking app, I wanted something that was: 1) available to me on my desktop, iPhone and iPad, 2) simple and clean and 3) free.

Enter Simplenote!

Continue reading “Useful Utilities: SimpleNote”

Hey Mr Epid! What should I bring to a conference?

It’s conference time! Which means three things: 1) you’re frantically applying to every travel award, scholarship and bursary available to help fund your trip, 2) you’re trying to put together your poster and/or powerpoint at the last minute and 3) if this is your first academic conference, you’re wondering what to bring with you. This post is dedicated to the last point (inspired by Ars and other sites).

I like to pack light at conferences. You spend most of your time shuttling between rooms and the more you have with you, the more you have to worry about. That being said, I like to have the following 7 things with me at every conference:

Here’s my conference loadout. Macbook, iPhone, satchel, USB key, business cards and water bottle 🙂 (item #7 not shown)

Continue reading “Hey Mr Epid! What should I bring to a conference?”

Useful Utilities: Pocket (formerly Read It Later)

Useful Utilities is a series where Mr Epidemiology outlines software he finds helpful. Today, he’ll be talking about Pocket, a free app that saves web pages so you can read them later. 

The internet is a great source of information. We’re constantly bombarded with facts, articles and opinions that, while we may find interesting, we might not have time to read. Especially when you’re in academia, and are checking Twitter or Google News right before a class/seminar.

Normally, you could just bookmark the webpage to check it later on. But the problem is that you then need to be on the computer/smart phone later to access it. Wouldn’t it be easier if you could just save the link in the cloud and then access it from any computer or device later on?

That’s where Pocket comes in.

Continue reading “Useful Utilities: Pocket (formerly Read It Later)”

Useful Utilities: Dropbox

Useful Utilities is a series where Mr Epidemiology outlines software he finds helpful and feels that students would benefit from knowing. Today, he’ll be talking about Dropbox, a free cloud based file storage system. For those who already have a Dropbox account, read on as there are tips at the end for gaining free Dropbox space after the jump.

Allow me to paint a picture for you.

Mr Epidemiology wasn’t yet an Epidemiologist. He was a little undergrad, excited to be doing an honors thesis, where he studied caterpillars. He worked hard, and towards the end of his undergraduate thesis, he backed everything onto a USB key. To ensure that he wouldn’t misplace or lose it, he put the USB key onto his key chain with his car keys. Since he drove everywhere, he would never lose it.

But, Fate had a terrible … fate … in store for him (Note: get a thesaurus).

Pictured: Every grad student with THEIR PRECIOUSSSSSS

He went to see The Trews perform at an outdoor concert. It poured down for almost 3 hours, yet the band played on. He had a great time. He was soaked through, but thoroughly enjoyed the show.

But when he got home, he realized that the rain had fried his USB key. And along with it, all the work he had done. Luckily, he had a backup on his computer, but if not for that, he would have been in a lot of trouble.

That was a long time ago. Now, we have Dropbox, which is an online, cloud based storage system

Continue reading “Useful Utilities: Dropbox”

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