Deciphering your supervisor’s feedback

This is supposed to be a somewhat lighthearted post, rather than a serious exposition on feedback.

cybergogue.blogspot.com

cybergogue.blogspot.com

I was chatting to some friends and fellow PhD travellers recently about how we make sense of our supervisors’ feedback – what we read into some of the ways in which they phrase comments and questions that give us clues on how to respond in the most appropriate ways. It was a funny conversation, and we all ended up laughing quite a lot at our own accounts of how we do this. But it did get me thinking about how we – how students – respond to feedback that we are given on our writing, not just emotionally but also in terms of how we read from the feedback a set of guidelines for our revisions, or read into the feedback the tone of our supervisor’s (or examiner’s/reviewer’s) responses to our writing.

My supervisor – and I both liked and disliked this at various points and for a range of reasons – never told me what to write or think. She prompted, questioned, suggested, challenged – but she never instructed. There are times when you just want to be told what to write so that you know you are writing the right things (although there really is a lot of subjective judgement about what is ‘right’ and that should not necessarily be for someone other than you to ultimately decide). But most of the time you really do want to be guided with your writing and thinking rather than instructed. You want the work to be your own, and even though it’s bloody hard work most of the time, you really want to do the thinking work that comes with the writing and revising and rewriting.

But in order to do the most productive kinds of writing and thinking that will indeed take you on a journey of intellectual and personal growth and learning (and help you produce a PhD dissertation), you need not only to have that guidance that creates space for you to think, write, revise and grow, you need also to know what to do with that guidance, much of which comes in the form of feedback whether written or verbal. I worked out, over time, a way of making sense of what my supervisor was suggesting or prompting me to think about and do – and figuring out what my own response should be. I think that this working out will be different for each student, of course, but this is an important thing to spend some time thinking about, as part of the process of becoming a more conscious writer.

For instance, I worked out that when she started a comment with ‘I wonder if…’ this meant that I could think about it myself, and arrive at my own conclusion about whether or not to include what followed in my chapter. If she said ‘This is my own personal preference…’ I didn’t really have to think too hard and could probably note her comment and move on if it didn’t match my personal preferences. If she said ‘You may want to…’ then I probably did want to (and actually should) do what she suggested. She also gave other more directive kinds of comments like ‘Include a few references here’ and ‘Check for consistency with this’ and I duly did so. Working out this ‘code’ was helpful for me in terms of reading into the feedback her responses to my writing and whether she felt I was going well or not, and also reading from her feedback some clear guidelines and pointers for my own revisions.

What is your supervisor’s code and how does working it out help you to work on your writing and revisions?

 

Corrections

I finished my corrections, finally, last Friday and submitted the most revised and final version of my PhD dissertation that there will ever be. It was a very anti-climactic moment, actually. No beautiful hardcover leather bound version with gold lettering being ceremoniously handed to a librarian. No pomp or circumstance. Just an email, with a PDF attachment to be downloaded onto a USB stick and handed to the library for their digital repository and a loose-leaf copy for an archive. I will have my own beautiful hardbound version made, of course, but this was not how I imagined this process ending. I imagined… more. More relief, more triumph, more pomp, I guess.

I think, looking back, the biggest triumph was handing in the first full draft. That was when I really believed I would finish my dissertation. It was such a struggle to get it finished, and it represented so much work and thinking and writing and just hours and days of my life. I felt like I had climbed a mountain with no sherpas or surfed a 6ft wave with a barrel! Handing in the version for examination was also a triumph, but a smaller one somehow, and this most final version has been smaller again. I have been busy thinking about and doing my corrections for the last week or so, and I wonder if perhaps that, combined with my present illness and exhaustion which has crashed down on me now that this process is finally at an end and I will be graduating this week, has dampened the triumphant feelings I was expecting to feel at this final hand-in.

Corrections are a bit of a pain. I received three reports –  in most PhD examinations there seem to be at least three examiners, whether they examine you in person in a Viva Voce or on paper as with most South African universities. So three different people, with three different sets of specialisation (although all specialists in your field in some way) read and judge your thesis. You hope they do this on its own merits, but this doesn’t always happen. In  South Africa, examiners are asked to choose from one of four options: to reject the thesis, to recommend extensive revisions and resubmission; to accept with minor corrections completed to supervisor’s satisfaction; and to accept as is.

My examiners were all very warm and complimentary about the work I did. They seemed to understand what I was trying to do, and although they made recommendations and suggestions for corrections and revisions that went beyond the thesis (very useful but also quite daunting) most of their suggestions were aimed at making my present thesis stronger and better. However, they ranged quite a bit in terms of their sense of how much work I still needed to do. One thought it was fine as is (which was nice but I wondered if she didn’t miss things); one thought it should be subjected to minor corrections (my favourite report); and one thought it needed some re-analysis and rethinking of quite a bit of the data (hmph!). The overall decision was ‘accept pending corrections to be done to the supervisor’s satisfaction’. So, this was good. A bit confusing and quite overwhelming, but good.

It was confusing because I needed to read all the reports, and mostly on my own – although my supervisor did offer advice and guidance (it has never been her way to tell me what to do :-)) – I had to decide which corrections to make, which to respond to but not make and which to leave, and then explain to her what I did and why. So, I asked myself: Do I do everything? Can I do everything? Should I do everything that the examiners recommended? This last question became the key one. In commenting on the thesis itself, and also commenting beyond the thesis on things I need to think about and stretch myself to, they offered both a set of corrections for now and a set of recommendations and suggestions for later. I needed to work out which was which. Even if I could have done every correction recommended, it was not clear that I really needed to. Some of the suggestions would have resulted in additions and corrections that may have confused rather than clarified certain parts of my thesis, and may have made some of my arguments or explanations unnecessarily dense and obscure, rather than clear and easier to follow. So, part of the work I had to do was separating the ‘must do – this will make it better’  from the ‘could do – might improve it’ and the ‘not for now – this is beyond what I was trying to do’.

This took a few days of reading and re-reading the reports, muttering to myself, and mulling things over before I was ready to make myself sit down and do the necessary work. This is what I have learned, thus far, about doing corrections:

1. Read, re-read (or listen very carefully) to the feedback: examiners are supposed to (and do) evaluate your thesis on it’s own merits but they also have their own take on methods, theory and data analysis. Read carefully for what they have written about your thesis and what you could do to make it better, and read very carefully for where they are asking you to work on a different thesis, or worse, their thesis. There is an important distinction between suggestions that will improve what you have written, and suggestions that will take you into new territory and possible undo what you have written in some way.

2. Take time to think, mutter and scribble. Talk to your supervisor, especially if they are the ones that need to be satisfied or if your thesis has to go back for re-examination. You need their advice and guidance, but at the end of the day it is your work. Your heart and soul. Take enough time to take in the comments, think about them, think about your own aims and goals in writing the thesis, and then work out what you need to do to take the thesis to its final library-copy version. Don’t rush to do everything. Try not to rush at all.

3. Take a day or two off work to do the corrections. It’s better not to try and do them at work when you have so many other competing demands on your time, and noise and interruptions. I took a day off, had a quiet house with kids at school, and I managed to get them all in done in one day (not counting the thinking time). This quiet and space for tea breaks and a walk with the dog to do some more mulling really helped me to get the corrections done and to feel they were carefully done and not rushed. It was also nice to write in my PJs again – thesis and me back together for the last time in this form.

If you are working on corrections, all the best. You are so very nearly there, and I wish you all the pomp and circumstance your heart desires!

 

 

Responding to examiners’ feedback

I finally got my three examiners’ reports on my thesis this week, after just over 3 long months of waiting. I have been joking that I have been through something like the 5 stages of grief waiting an extra 5 weeks because examiner 3 was late with her report. At first there was a kind of denial (this can’t actually be happening – the report can’t really be taking so long. Maybe this is all some sort of weird email mix-up). Then there was anger (how could she do this to me? Doesn’t she know how hard I have worked?). After a couple of weeks of being really cross, I moved quite quickly through bargaining (if it comes this week, I will do all my corrections, I won’t procrastinate, I’ll be nice to everyone and walk the dog every day), to depression (I’m not going to graduate. The report will not come in time), and finally to acceptance (well, it will come in time for me to graduate or it won’t, but ranting won’t make it happen faster).

I think,  in hindsight, that the additional few weeks of waiting for the last report was a good thing although it drove me crazy at the time. I think it was a good thing because of the way it influenced my attitude towards my 3 reports when they did finally arrive. I was just so grateful to get them and to finally know, good or bad, what the examiners thought of my work and what additional work I needed to do in order to graduate that I think I took the critique better than I might otherwise have done.

Kate Chanock has these 7 stages of resentment about getting feedback on your work from reviewers, which can be adapted for how a PhD student might respond to examiners, whether the reports are written or oral in the form of a Viva (although I am aware that an oral exam in quite different to receiving written reports).

I think I can revise this list, personally, thus:

1. Relief – thank god the feedback is here

2. Anxiety and nerves – but what do the examiners say? What if it’s bad news?

3. Suck it up and read – you’ve been waiting for ages!

4. Wow – what lovely comments 🙂

5. What!? That’s not fair – I covered that in my discussion! I explained why I did that/left that out/showed that data and not the rest. Didn’t they read it carefully?

6. Hm, okay, fair point. I could probably make that a bit clearer. I suppose. Maybe.

7. Well, these are really good reports. I think they mostly got what I was trying to do. Phew! And actually, the corrections they want could make the thesis much better. Time to get going on them!

At first I read the reports, and called my husband and read bits to him, and told my mum, and my best friends and my Facebook people – they were all thrilled, as was my uber-supervisor – and I just basked in all of that for a day. Then I had a conversation with my supervisor about the corrections I will need to make (the final recommendation was that I make corrections to my supervisor’s satisfaction), and the reality started to set in. It’s not quite finished yet, and the corrections are not just typos. They require rethinking, reflection, rewriting, adding, clarifying, refining. It’s more than an afternoon with the ‘Find’ and ‘Replace’ functions, or fiddling with formatting. I wandered back into post-submission blues territory, and I’m still there, being a bit petulant and procrastinating because I just don’t really want to rethink and rewrite and revise. I just want to be finished now.

But, and there is always a but isn’t there, I really do have to engage with these reports and the comments and suggestions for changes precisely because they are not small, take-or-leave-them changes. In beginning with examiner 1’s report, I can see that a lot of what she is commenting on is vagueness in some of my definitions, explanations and discussion – partly because the literature itself is vague, and partly because I did not make my writing and thinking as clear as I could have. Examiner 2 has concerns about my analysis – he thinks I have made things a little to easy for myself – is he right? If so, what do I do to respond to his thoughtful and also probably somewhat accurate critique? Examiner 3 doesn’t think I need to make any changes, but she poses a couple of questions about my methodology I think I should respond to.

I do not have to do all of the corrections and follow-up on all the suggestions. I can decide which changes need to be made now to improve on my thesis, and which comments and suggestions need rather to be taken into account later, when I am writing up parts of my argument for publication. Examiners should and do go beyond the thesis to comment on other things you can think about and do post-PhD; they comment on the theory and how your have used it, on methodology more generally and on how you have realised yours, on the strength of your analysis and on things you could have done differently, and might want to do differently in future studies. A student’s work, then, in reading or taking in their critique is to work out what is for now and what can be for later (although not all students have a choice).

Hopefully, examiners will judge your thesis on its own merits, whether they agree with you or not, and will not make suggestions that have you writing their thesis into your corrections and revisions rather than your own. If you do have a choice, think very carefully about what they have said – they are experts in your field, and if you can open yourself up to the critique as well as the praise, I think you will find much food for thought. I certainly have. Of course, now I just have to work out what to do with all of it…

 

Revisions part two: ‘panel-beating’ and polishing

I am working on revisions, again, and I have stumbled upon a useful metaphor for thinking about what I am doing and what is needed in this final round of revisions prior to submitting my thesis. I am an amateur potter, and I go to lessons every week to learn how to throw and build and decorate beautiful pots, jugs and other kinds of ceramics. I find this physical, tactile kind of labour very therapeutic and also challenging and it has occurred to me that making a pot is not unlike creating something like my thesis. Allow me to elaborate.

The thesis, like the pot, starts off like this:

From astonegatherer.blogspot.com

This is your basic lump of clay – therein lies the idea, the development of that idea and its final product, but at this stage it is just potential. This is both a lovely and frustrating stage – you can quite enjoy just letting the ideas and potential swirl around inside of your head, because it’s much more pleasant than actually doing the work of shaping and building them into something. But when you have decided what it is going to look like and be, you want the pot to just emerge, fully formed, without all the hard work required to make thus actually happen. But you have to do the work, so you wedge and knead the clay – you start your reading and thinking and scribbling – and you start rolling out your coils or the strands of your argument and begin joining them together.

The thesis starts to take shape:

From pottery.about.com

From pottery.about.com

It starts to look like something recognisable as a thesis, or parts of one. If you hand-build pots, like I tend to do, you will know that this process can take a fair amount of time. The smaller the pot the less time, but a thesis, in this metaphor, is a very large and detailed pot, and this takes a long time to build and decorate and polish and perfect before it is strong enough to withstand the heat of the kiln (or examination). You can’t add too many coils in one session or the pot will start to collapse. You need to go carefully, you need to make sure there are no air bubbles in the clay, and ensure your joins between the coils and strong and well-made. In the thesis, you write and read in stages, with thinking and supervisor meetings and feedback in between. This can, therefore, be a long and sometimes frustrating process. It takes a while for your pot to take its shape, and for a long time it can just look like an arbitrary moulding of clay – not unique, not special, not noteworthy. In terms of the thesis, this is the long middle stage after the proposal and before the first full draft where you just have drafts of chapters and these can be well-written, but they’re not really taking the shape of a whole yet – they are just coils in the pot, some more carefully and robustly joined together than others.

But you move on, as you must, to the next stage:

commons.wikimedia.org

From commons.wikimedia.org

This is the stage where you can start putting the parts together more seamlessly to make a whole – the joins are smoothed over. You use tools, like a wooden paddle and a grater and an old credit card, to beat the pot into the shape you want it to take, grate off the extra clay where the pot is thick and the clay uneven – too much here, perhaps not enough there. You add and smooth in pieces of clay where the walls are not thick enough. You smooth the sides with a credit card, making sure there are no obvious lumps and bumps. It’s almost there. In the thesis, you are joining the chapters into the whole, writing the introduction and conclusion. You are deleting repetitive parts you no longer need – these made sense when the chapters were all separate but not now that they are together. You see gaps now that you didn’t see before and add into these the required information and explanation. It’s not quite there yet, but it’s definitely looking like a pot, and not just any pot, but your pot. This is, in my case, your first full draft.

Then your pot gets checked over by your teacher – your thesis goes to your supervisor – and although they have been helping you along the way, this is the first time they (and you) can see the pot or thesis as a whole and also see what it is that you are trying to actually make it into. They can offer a different kind of help – help aimed at perfecting the pot or thesis. Further panelbeating and grating may be needed. Further additions may be necessary too. You may be advised to add decoration or detail you had not thought to add yet. You are being assisted with polishing the pot or thesis – making it strong enough for the fires of the kiln or judgement of the examiners.

From ceramicsartdaily.org

From ceramicsartdaily.org

This is the stage I feel I am working through now. I am polishing my thesis. I am taking out extraneous words and sentences, clarifying points that are vague, adding small qualifying explanations or additional points I feel are necessary. I am editing my references and making sure my tables and figures all find themselves on the right pages and not separated from their captions, and so on. I am getting, slowly but surely, to the point where I will feel confident enough to put this pot into the kiln, to brave the process of examination and find out what further corrections or changes I must make. In pottery, there are two firings, just as in PhD examination there are two stages. The first is a bisque firing, at a high temperature. This sets the pot, but it is not often finished at this stage (although if you and your teacher are happy with it, and it survives the firing intact, you can take it home just like that – the mythical ‘award with no corrections’). Often a potter has to opt to glaze or paint their pot – one final round of revision to make it absolutely perfect. It is fired again, often at a lower temperature, and when it emerges, one hopes it looks like this, whole, perfect and beautiful to behold:

From ceramicsartdaily.org

From ceramicsartdaily.org

I quite like this metaphor. It resonates with me, and with the process I have worked through, and am still working through, in writing my doctoral thesis. This pot, by Ian Garrett, is something I am trying to reproduce in clay at the moment, and I am hoping I will be able to fire it around the same time as I finish the thesis revisions, which seems a fitting way to bring this process to it’s close (well, until the glazing/corrections, of course!).

Losing heart (and head) and getting it back

I am working through my final revisions from my supervisor before submitting my thesis to my examiners. Which should be a ‘yay’ kind of experience judging by people’s reactions when they ask how it’s going and I tell them this. But I am having a rather strange experience doing this which can be summed up in a word: Meh. Meh is a word by friend Deb and I use to refer to a feeling of ‘I know I should try to care but I just can’t’ or something like that. I feel very Meh about my thesis right now.

When I handed it over to my supervisor just over a month ago I was consumed by my thesis and had been for some time – organising data, analysing it, re-analysing it, writing about it, getting feedback, revising the chapters – it was all I could think about. But I ran out of steam at the end, and I was tired so it was a relief to hand it over for feedback and have a bit of a break from it. I got my weekends and evenings back for a few weeks, and I started feeling a bit normal again. I wasn’t working on it at all while my supervisor was reading it, because I needed to wait for her comments to start reworking the chapters, and I have to say I did not really miss it.

So when the chapters started coming back mid-October, I just benched them. I read all the comments, and there were not all that many that meant huge changes – most of it was minor stuff, thankfully – so I told myself the next round of revisions could wait. I didn’t want to go back to feeling consumed and tired and anxious and weekend-less and evening-less. I just wanted to be finished.

But the thing about getting to the point of being finished is that I am not the Shoemaker and there are no magic elves who are going to come into my study while I am sleeping and make my corrections and revisions and additions for me. I have to get myself and my thesis to that end(ish) point where I can hand the beast over and feel confident enough that I have done a good job of it. And to get myself and my thesis there I have to not lose heart now. I have to submit myself again to this process and get a bit consumed again, and lose my head or mind  a little, and care enough to get this done right.

It’s hard, because the Meh is strong, and I am flagging. This has been a long year. I am still excited about my research, but I am starting to get more excited about where I go after this rather than where I am now, which means that staying and being present here is a bit frustrating. But I also take this as a good sign. There is life after a PhD after all and I am finally seeing the chinks of light breaking though. PhDgirl, fighting the Meh and moving towards that finish line.