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:


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:



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:


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.



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:



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.

Getting tense about tense

I am finding the issue of tense in my thesis a tricky one. At least two of the six chapters were written last year and very early this year before I gathered the data and analysed it. So they were written in the present or future tense – ‘This study will use this framework…’ or ‘This study is using this methodology…’. When I sat down to bring these chapters into a more updated form in the full draft, I was a bit stuck, wondering whether and how to change the present and future tense to past tense across the board, or to do so more carefully. It was easy with the two ‘analysis’ chapters where I present my case studies because they are more obviously in the past tense. The research is done. But in the Introduction? What tense must I use there?

I am reporting on a completed research project, but as a reader it’s not all over for you. You are coming in at the start and want to know what am I am going to be writing about and what my argument is, not what it was.The Conclusion is another minefield, because part of it is past tense – ‘This study argued that and found that etc’ but I also point to future research, so has the study pointed to this (more past tense) or is it more that it points to this and that (in the present/future). I am not sure, to be honest. So, I have played around with this, with some trepidation and confusion. The Introduction is in some form of the present tense: ‘This study argues’; The chapters are organised thus…’ and so on. Chapters 2-6 are all in the past tense-ish, but this has not been as easy as changing all the instances of ‘is’ to ‘was’ in the earlier drafts of chapters 2 and 3. There are also different forms of the past tense – ‘this study has used’ versus ‘this study used’ – the latter seems more definite and harder in tone and the former a little softer. What is the right tone to strike using tense? Is there one?

I have spent more time thinking about my reader-examiners in recent weeks, and how they will approach this thesis and work their way through it. Tense is an important part of striking the right tone, and also getting things in the right sequence so as to tell a full, logical and coherent story of the study and what it aimed to do, what it did, how it did it and what it found that contributes to knowledge in the field. I think this issue of tense also related to the question of how one writes a PhD thesis – it is not a linear writing process although it is a linear reading process. Bits and pieces get written in bits and pieces over 3 or more years, and thinking that the draft is an exercise in cutting and pasting various pieces together and doing some aligning of tense will almost certainly lead you down the wrong path.

The issue of tense is not just a grammatical one; it also points to a bigger question of how a writer helps the reader navigate the thesis in terms of the theory, the methods, the data and the argument. You may have written an amazing draft of the theoretical framework early on, but you will have to think carefully about the revisions once you have done the data gathering and analysis and applied that theory. Shifts in your thinking will happen and careful revisions need to be made, not just changes all the ‘is’s to ‘was’s, but also making clearer and more sophisticated connections between the chapters and aligning the different roles they play in making your thesis coherent, logical and a good read for your examiners.

2010: 80,000 words is a lot! 2013: 80,000 words is not enough!

So, I have finished the full draft! Excuse me a minute while I happy-dance next to my desk for a few minutes, while simultaneously feeling weak with relief and also anxious about the comments and feedback I am waiting for and the next set of revisions (which will probably also suck). I actually managed to write over 80,000 words. 80,000 interesting, articulate words. At least, I think they are but I cannot be unbiased about this at all.

I have been thinking about this magical number of 80,000 words, and how huge that seemed when I registered for this PhD in 2010 (ending that year with a few words in the form of notes and scribbles but nothing I wanted anyone to read), and how that number seems too little now. I have written more than 80,000. In fact, before I finished the introduction and wrote the conclusion I already had 77,000 odd words. So there was a new kind of anxiety. In 2010 the anxiety was along the lines of ‘how on earth will I even find that much to say? I don’t have that many words in me!’ Even at the end of 2012 when all I really had was a draft of the theory/concept chapter and half an introduction, and a few scribbles about the methodology I only had about 22,000 words. So I was still wondering, quite seriously, how the Thesis would be long enough. Or, you know, just enough. Now the anxiety is ‘how will I cut this down when all the words I have are necessary?’

This has been a big year, writing-wise. When I started the year I had a draft of one chapter and half of another; I still had the methodology and two case studies to write. Oh, and a conclusion. And all the fiddly bits like an abstract and a list of terms and a reference list. So, I felt overwhelmed and quite daunted, but determined to Get It Done. I spent the first semester gathering data, and writing very little, and when I sat down to start writing in June what I found, almost unbelievably considering how slowly and painfully the words eked out my my mind and my fingers last year, was that the words came pouring out and very soon I had too many words. I found myself writing and thinking quite productively most days, and it was really lovely and affirming after 2 and a half tough years of writing very little that could be shown to my supervisor and commented on usefully. It helped, too, that I had been reading and staring at and coding data for months and had a lot to write about. I embraced freewriting, which I have also written about here, and this helped me to get going and stay going. I wrote in my research journal almost every day, and this informal writing also helped a lot. I used all the tricks I have learned along the way to keep myself writing and it has, so far, worked well. Too well, you might say, considering all the editing I now have to do to cut myself down to around 80,000 words.

It’s funny how I have measured the worthiness of my days in words. ‘Today was a good day, I wrote 2354 words’. ‘Yesterday was not a good day, I wrote no words’. And the words that count are the words that go into the Thesis and stay there. But there are lots of other words that count too – the ones you say to yourself about your thinking as you drive to work or home again; the ones your scribble in your PhD journal; the ones you say to your supervisor or critical friends or your partner over dinner. As long as you are talking and scribbling in ways that are helping you shape your thinking, you are moving forward. I have learnt that all these words add up more quickly than you think they will. It’s a slow start and this is frustrating because most days you just want the Thesis to be written already. You don’t have all the words in the beginning, and you have more in the middle even though they still do not seem like enough. But if you hang in and keep the writing going as much and as often as you can, the words will come. So many that you may well amaze and impress yourself. I hope you do.