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Giving and receiving doctoral writing feedback

Advice for PhD supervisors on setting out clear expectations and strategies for delivering effective feedback to their doctoral students

Susan Carter's avatar
7 Jun 2023
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Supervisors often find it hard to give good actionable feedback on doctoral writing, and doctoral candidates continue to be challenged when it comes to getting useful feedback from their supervisors.

I have yet to meet an academic not under pressure and feeling over-audited with precious little spare time. Writing feedback is invisible to outsiders, compromised by busyness and is conducted under a power imbalance and often across cultural differences.

Nor are there easy-fix, never-fail solutions. However, the etiquette of giving and receiving doctoral writing feedback benefits from clarified expectations. The advice here comes from data and experience.

Recently I had the pleasure of giving a lecture at the Education University of Hong Kong on the topic of giving and receiving doctoral writing feedback. The 50 or so who attended confirmed that the same issues I identified in research some years back still run rampant. My research entailed two anonymised digital surveys (one with 226 accredited supervisors and the other with 80 doctoral candidates) and found that:

  • Giving feedback takes too much time;
  • It is hard to focus on deep-level stuff like ideas and structure when the surface level is faulty;
  • Doctoral writers don’t deliver; can’t write simply and clearly; can’t demonstrate critical thinking and use theory; and fail to respond to feedback.

You might recognise some of the points from 226 accredited supervisors’ responses:

“It is challenging to find the meaning in the text sometimes, and hard to resist heavy editing…sometimes I spend more time line-editing bad prose than being able to work with ideas.”

“There’s tension between giving honest feedback and not wanting to be too discouraging.”

“One issue is perfectionism: not wanting to submit anything till they think it is really good…

…and the other is procrastination, persuading themselves that they need to read more material before they can start writing.”

I won’t go on. There’s more, including an often-expressed belief that other supervisors somehow work a lot less on writing feedback.

Doctoral candidates on the other hand feel that

  • Supervisors are too busy to trouble;
  • Supervision is not consistent; peers have supervisors who give good writing feedback;
  • My supervisor isn’t interested in my writing;
  • Feedback is not always timely.

The nearest thing to improved practice comes from clear communication about the social exchange of writing feedback so that expectations will be transparent.

In the beginning of each supervision, supervisors should accurately state how they give feedback, how long the usual wait for it will be, and what form it will take (hard copy with handwritten comments; tracked changes; digital copies with comments; oral feedback and so on).

“Accurately” here means that those who know they are not good at writing feedback should tell the new candidate this and explain how they will work around it. A bald and honest admission can be made in the context of “we need to be honest with each other” and lays a foundation of trust.

It helps to explain early on that inevitably over the years of the doctorate there will be times of disagreement, times when the supervisor will need to be critical, and when the candidate will need to find a way to disagree with advice.

The very fortunate have a smooth run, but, for most, talking explicitly about what is likely to happen helps to normalise the ups and downs and enables strategies for open communication that makes for good teamwork.

Always, early on, supervisors should direct candidates to all other writing support available, including on social media. Examples include DoctoralWriting, Explorations of Style, Patter, Thesiswhisperer.

Candidates must be made aware of what a gift supervisor time spent on feedback is to them. They need to learn to manage their own emotions when feedback is critical. They need to make changes from that feedback – it is hugely insulting if typos picked up by the supervisor are not corrected.

During candidature, as the doctorate settles down, when decisions around methods and theory have been made, and research and writing patterns of labour are established, it is useful for supervisors to discuss the following aspects of writing:

  1. Structure
  2. Linkages between sections
  3. Argumentation
  4. Critical analysis
  5. Voice and identity
  6. Emotions and motivation
  7. Discipline expectations
  8. Readers’ needs

In writing workshops, I have elaborated on each of these dimensions of research writing, but I suspect that using a list might trigger helpful feedback. As doctoral candidates focus on writing, their expertise as writers gets more of a chance to develop than the busy supervisor’s does. The power imbalance begins to narrow and conversations change gear.

Giving and receiving doctoral writing feedback should work towards twin goals. The first is that candidate and supervisor improve their writing skills through feedback discussion. The second is that by learning how best to respond to feedback, graduates acquire attributes they need to succeed, including: self-management, project management, time management, criticality and cultural awareness.

Supervisors can overtly discuss these factors and the huge implicit benefit of doctoral success, which is the opportunity to grow into your strongest self. Am I over-stating that? After many years of experience, I don’t think so.

But to return to the pragmatics of doctoral writing feedback, let’s finish with two pieces of good advice from doctoral candidates in my research study.

This is a gift to supervisors who forget that they have a learning opportunity with each candidate they take on.

It would be good if my supervisors asked me how I was finding their feedback and then I could give them feedback on how to give feedback.”

Supervisors need to remember to ask and not just tell, too, because we should be sharing a learning experience rather than always dominating it. One candidate suggested that we ask the following questions:

If rather than just telling me what you think, you ask me

  • What do you think of this piece of writing?
  • What is the purpose, what were you trying to achieve?
  • What is the writing doing here?
  • What are its strengths?
  • What do you think isn’t working?
  • What do you need to do to develop this further?
  • What do you think of the tone you are taking here?

With these questions, the candidate said they might well come up with most of the feedback they wanted themselves.

Susan Carter is an honorary associate professor, School of Critical Studies in Higher Education, Faculty of Education and Social Work, Waipapa Taumata Rau, University of Auckland.

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