Dealing with Supervisor Feedback

The very first time I sent my supervisor a piece of my writing I was so anxious. I had read it over a million times. I also had a friend read it over as well and got their thoughts on it. I thought I had done a good job. After all, I had made it into the PhD program so I must be good enough to be here.

About a week later I got it back from my supervisor. The word document was covered in the garish red lines of the track changes function, there were crossed out sections and so many comment bubbles. My heart sank. Everything I had done was wrong. I was an idiot.

After licking my wounds I eventually took on board every point he made and my next draft was so much better. The flow of the piece, the logical connections, everything. What I realised was that the foundations of the piece were there, the surface just needed some rearranging and clarifying.

Looking back on this experience now (as well as having the experience of supervising honours students and giving them feedback on their work) I’ve realised a few things.

Detailed feedback means the reader has engaged with your writing

Giving feedback takes time and a lot of thinking. I’ve realised that for someone to literally tear my work apart takes a lot of time. And they wouldn’t do it if they didn’t care. The fact that your reader has so many thoughts on your writing means that they are passionately engaged in what you have written and want to make it better. And this isn’t just my opinion, I found this study  that basically says the same thing. If my reader was disengaged or didn’t care about my work they would probably just fix a few typos and send it back.

Academics aren’t explicitly taught how to give feedback

They give feedback the way their supervisors gave them feedback. So the quality of feedback can vary supervisor to supervisor. This is one thing to keep in mind. There are also some stock phrases we end up using which we understand but the receiver has no idea how to tackle. E.g., “I got lost”, “the writing doesn’t flow”, “the tone isn’t academic enough”. Eventually you’ll get the hang of these short-hand comments and understand how to process them. But academic writing is a world full of subtleties and annoying little rules that we have to learn.

The purpose of the feedback is different from undergraduate assignments

In undergrad you would have submitted an assignment and when you received it back it would have been evaluated. That is, you were given a mark and possibly a few comments. The purpose was summative as opposed to formative.

Whereas feedback on your thesis is supposed to improve it. You get to submit it a few times and get better each time. This type of feedback is different and takes some mental adjustment.

Looking back on my initial struggle with the benefit of hindsight made me realise that understanding and processing written feedback is just another skill to learn in the PhD process. And, it’s a skill you’ll need especially if you ever decide to run the peer review gauntlet and deal with reviewer feedback… but that’s an entirely different blog post.

Have you ever had a similar experience with receiving feedback from your supervisor?

– Alessa

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