Are the Doctoral Experience Survey results truly confidential? Will my advisor see the results? How will the results be used?

Date: April 2021


Dear Deans,

I’m a Ph.D. student and have a few questions about the Doctoral Experience Survey before filling it out. How can the results be truly confidential? Will my advisor see the results of my response in any shape or form? How will the results be used?


Interested in Data Use

Dear Interested in Data Use,

The Doctoral Experience Survey is administered every two years to inform work being done by the Graduate School as well as by fields and their associated departments and colleges.  Students who have been enrolled in a doctoral program for at least two years and are not planning to graduate this spring were recently sent an email with a link to the survey.

Survey results are kept confidential by the Graduate School and never reported in a manner that would permit the identification of an individual’s response. Confidentiality is maintained through a combination of limited access, secure storage, masked identifiers, and reporting in aggregate. Data collection is handled outside of the Graduate School, by Cornell’s Survey Research Institute (SRI). Within the Graduate School, handling of individual-level results is limited to the staff who are directly responsible for data management, analysis, and reporting (currently two people).

To enable results to support a wide range of of decision making and improvement initiatives, analysis may focus on certain subgroups (e.g., survey year, sex, citizenship, and race/ethnicity) and levels of aggregation – including individual graduate fields. In all cases, results are only reported when there are at least five respondents in a category (e.g., five or more responses in a particular academic year, from a particular graduate field, in a particular racial/ethnic group, etc.). This minimum threshold is important for obscuring the identities of individuals within aggregated results. The five-respondent minimum is also in place for written comments; however, do be mindful of writing anything that may disclose your identity.

Results aggregated at the field level are used for a variety of program assessment and improvement efforts and are reviewed in detail during biennial meetings between the Graduate School deans and the director of graduate studies (DGS) of each graduate field. Results are not shared directly with individual faculty; however, they are shared with the DGS and graduate field assistant (GFA) for each graduate field. While it is possible that the DGS for a given field could share the aggregated results with other field faculty (including your advisor), confidentiality would still be protected by the aggregation and five-respondent minimum. 

Results are routinely used to inform and improve Graduate School programming, such as workshops and other initiatives to support student diversity, equity, and inclusion; wellness and mental health; career preparation; and professional development. Results are sometimes used for grant proposal support and outcome reporting, to inform resource allocations and budget projections, and projects in a variety of student support units.

I hope this helps you to make a more informed decision about filling out the survey. If you do decide to respond (I hope you will), please know that you can skip any questions that you don’t want to answer and just continue on to the end of the survey to submit your response.


Anne Laughlin
Graduate School Director of Assessment