It's Just a Dissertation—or How to Stop Panicking and Finish Your Doctorate | Issue 254
Summary: Don't let frustration with advisor feedback block you from finishing your dissertation. Two experts share their well honed wisdom that will improve advisor feedback and allow you to ramp up your output.
Reading Time: Six minutes that will fill you with needed hope and concrete strategies for moving forward.
Want to finish that dissertation faster—and with less frustration?
Then aim for "just good enough."
That does not mean shoddy—it just means good enough to pass your defense and get your doctoral degree. Your dissertation will not be your magnum opus.
This seasoned advice comes from It's Just a Dissertation! The Irreverent Guide from Transforming Your Dissertation from Daunting to Doable to Done. The only step-by-step manual of its kind, the book combines the writing savvy of Duke's Denise K. Comer, Ph.D., with the coaching and therapy wisdom of Barbara Gina Garrett, M.A., M.S.W.
With handy checklists, they take you from the pre-dissertation phase through to the final defense, interspersing sage advice for overcoming sagging motivation, procrastination, perfectionism, writer's block, and other classic ABD obstacles.
Many students struggle to get helpful feedback on their dissertation. They complain about advisors who are too slow, too demoralizing, too authoritarian, or just not helpful. Below Comer and Garrett share ten proven strategies for improving the situation without blame or tears. We appreciate the generosity of the authors and their publisher, Fountainhead Press, in allowing us to share this excerpt from their book.
Gayle Scroggs, Ph.D., P.C.C.
When Advisor Feedback Sucks – What You Can Do About It
By Denise K. Comer, Ph.D., and Barbara Gina Garrett. M.A., M.S.W.
The following text is adapted and excerpted (with permission) from their book, It's Just a Dissertation: The Irreverent Guide to Transforming Your Dissertation from Daunting to Doable to Done.
Whether a dissertator's relationship with his or her advisor is optimal or challenging, many dissertators find themselves frustrated by advisor feedback. Perhaps the advisor's feedback is too slow, discouraging, unhelpful, or confusing. Contrary to what you may believe, you do not need to resign yourself to living with these frustrations.
Since advisor feedback is such an important part of the dissertation process, it is worth considering why advisors may be giving unproductive feedback, specific measures you can take to preempt the likelihood of frustrating feedback, and strategies for responding successfully to frustrating feedback in the event that you experience it.
Why Do Advisors Give Bad Feedback?
Faced with frustrating advisor feedback, you may be inclined to think that the problem lies with your own writing, with the advisor's ability to provide feedback, or both.
Actually, many other more likely reasons tend to account for advisor feedback difficulties. These include:
Unrealistic expectations on the part of the advisor.
Advisor's lack of experience with or understanding about how to give effective feedback.
Advisor is overextended with other projects.
Too much time has passed between drafts and advisor has forgotten overall project, prior sections, previous conversations, etc.
Drafts do not demonstrate adequate revision based on prior feedback.
Advisee has misread prior feedback.
Complications or conflict in the advisee-advisor relationship.
Too great a sense of project ownership on the part of the dissertation writer.
While these are daunting challenges, there are still direct actions you can take to mitigate them and improve the likelihood of getting stronger feedback from your advisor. Fortunately, you share the responsibility and ability to maintain a productive relationship with your advisor.
Ten Tips for Optimizing Advisor Feedback
Below are the ten best tips for making advisor feedback as effective as possible.
1. WALK A MARATHON IN THEIR SHOES.
Giving good dissertation feedback is hard: it is a time-consuming, difficult process that requires considerable intellectual attention and skill. Dissertation feedback is even more challenging because, well, frankly, dissertations can be somewhat dull (not yours, of course!). While you may like to imagine that your advisor eagerly checks their inbox every day in hopes of getting to read yet another installment of your fabulous serialized project, the likelihood is that they are occupied with other endeavors: research, teaching, other dissertation writers, and, oh yes, they have families, hobbies, and other interests too.
Unlike in a semester course, with embedded deadlines for feedback on student writing, advisors do not have specific deadlines for dissertation draft feedback. More than likely, most advisors receive a draft and probably wish they felt more enthusiastic about reading it. They likely will put it off until a later date because they are busy with other things and because it is hard to give feedback on writing (we all put off that which is hard). Many advisors also may feel insecure about their own writing or capacity to give feedback, and so may put it off for that reason. Also, they are just human—they may have a procrastination problem of their own.
2. GET FEEDBACK FROM OTHERS FIRST.
Before you submit a section draft to your advisor, ask one or two trusted colleagues to read it. They'll be able to warn you in advance if the draft is not yet up to par with your brilliant self because of typos, errors, or stylistic shortcomings. You don't want your advisor to spend his or her time correcting your overuse of exclamation points!!! Instead, you want to rely on your advisor primarily for feedback about the overall structure and ideas of your dissertation. However, these earlier readers can also often provide helpful feedback about the more substantive matters, and you can thereby further improve the draft in advance of advisor feedback.
3. GET FEEDBACK AT REGULAR INTERVALS.
Though time-consuming, a regular drafting-feedback- revision process is crucial for your dissertation. It enables you to shape the project in ways informed by your advisor's expertise and thereby have a higher likelihood of getting advisor approval. If you don't get any input from your advisor at somewhat frequent and predetermined interim stages, you run the risk of submitting overly extensive drafts and your advisor saying that you should change directions, or, worse yet, telling you to drastically reshape the entire project.
Then, much of your effort will have been a waste of your time. Instead, determine the segments/chapters of your dissertation and ask your advisor for feedback on these sections at regular intervals. Also, sending section/chapter drafts to your advisor frees you to take a break from that section (while you work on another) and then have the distance you need to effectively re-read what you wrote and determine if you need to make any changes.
4. REFRESH YOUR ADVISOR'S MEMORY EACH TIME.
You know the phrase, "Out of sight, out of mind"? Well, this is particularly fitting for dissertation advisors. While you have been living on a daily basis with your glorious dissertation running through your head, your advisor has not. We are almost positive that your advisor is probably committing every word you write to memory and that your writing has heretofore proven to be the most influential thinking they've yet encountered. However, there just might be a rare, occasional instance where, in the interim between drafts, your advisor has other things on his or her mind and has forgotten what your project is about, or what was in the section previously read.
This temporary, and highly unusual, memory lapse can happen even in an interval as short as a month, let alone if three or six months have elapsed since the last section draft. We all know how challenging it can be to try to get your mind back into a project after having been away from it. So, make it easier on your advisor: each time you submit a section draft, provide a brief executive summary or abstract that covers your overall project, previous drafts and feedback, and where this particular section fits in with the dissertation's larger trajectory.
5. ASK YOUR ADVISOR SPECIFIC QUESTIONS.
When you submit a draft, write a note with a few specific questions (or you can embed them directly within the draft). Asking specific questions will encourage your advisor to respond to the aspects about which you really want input, and might also make the reading process more enticing for your advisor through the additional focus. Targeted questions also have the benefit of deflecting any advisor tendencies toward arbitrary scrutiny that you might otherwise receive. You may have heard that all questions are good. However, in this case not all questions really are that good.
You want to aim for a few (i.e., three to six) genuine, specific questions:
HOW TO ASK EFFECTIVE, SPECIFIC QUESTIONS TO OPTIMIZE ADVISOR FEEDBACK
Instead of asking...
Do you like my argument?
Does it flow well?
Is the research good?
Is it clear?
Do you think it is well written?
Does my argument make a new contribution to the field? If it can be improved, what are your suggestions?
Is the section [insert section name] organized clearly? What might help it flow better?
Are there any additional scholars you think I should consider including? Does the experiment design have any flaws?
I was having difficulty with writing the material on page [insert page number]. What do you take to be my main point? What do you think would make it clearer?
What I wrote about on page [insert page number] seemed a little awkward to me. Do you have any suggestions?
6. PROVIDE ADVISOR WITH DEADLINES FOR RETURNING FEEDBACK.
You and your advisor are in some ways in the same situation regarding dissertation deadlines. You are both learning to work within more open-ended deadlines and apply structure to them. Help your advisor create deadlines for the feedback process. We are not suggesting that you mandate a deadline along the lines of: You must give me feedback on this section draft by May 15! This would be rude and ineffective. Instead, think of it as a collaborative deadline.
When you are getting ready to submit a section draft for review, ask your advisor beforehand to let you know when he or she anticipates having time to provide feedback. This will hopefully create accountability on the advisor's part—you are not the only person who may have difficulty accomplishing tasks without specific deadlines. Then, reinforce your agreed-upon arrangement when you submit the section.
7. REINFORCE PRODUCTIVE FEEDBACK AND REDIRECT UNPRODUCTIVE FEEDBACK.
Coach your advisor on how to give feedback tailored to your personality. Let your advisor know what kinds of feedback have been most helpful for you in the past. If you easily get demoralized, convey that while you appreciate constructive criticism, you also respond well to understanding what is working well so you can do more of that. If your advisor gives you confusing, ambiguous, contradictory, or demoralizing feedback, invite him or her for coffee so you can have a chance to ask questions about the feedback.
If your advisor returns a section and says you've missed some important scholarship in the literature review, ask for advice about additional directions you should start looking into. If your advisor's feedback is harsh in tone, identify a moment that was positive or less harsh, and communicate how helpful that aspect of the feedback was for you. Help your advisor learn how to communicate better with you.
8. REVISE ADVISOR FEEDBACK TO BETTER MATCH WHAT YOU WOULD WANT.
Sometimes, no matter what you do, your advisor will give you feedback that is less (maybe waaaaaay less) than ideal. In these cases, rather than waiting (fruitlessly) for your advisor to learn better communication skills, or totally discounting what he or she says, or visiting the nearest opium den, we strongly suggest that you revise your advisor feedback to sound the way you wish it had been spoken or written. The following table offers some examples.
REVISING HARSH ADVISOR FEEDBACK
Advisor Version–What S/he Actually
Wrote or Said
"I expected more of you."
"This is a ridiculous claim."
"You've done a shoddy job with experiment
"Your methodology is completely flawed."
"You are too wordy and repetitive."
"This is not acceptable dissertation material."
"You have a massive problem with this section."
Revised New and Improved Version–What You Let Yourself Read or Hear
"You are a very bright person, and a good researcher and writer. Right now, there are parts of your dissertation that do not match up to your capabilities."
This particular point of view doesn't have enough written so far to support it."
"The experiment design could be improved by doing the following: . . . "
"The methodology might be revised in order to be more valid. Try the following: . . . "
"Please revise to make it more concise so readers can see your points more clearly. Some portions are repeated, so look for these repetitions and choose only your favorite and clearest version."
"Parts of your dissertation so far are very good and are what the committee and I will be looking for. Other parts need more revision to meet the requirements for it to be accepted."
"This section could be strengthened by changing . . . and adding . . . and deleting . . . and reconsidering . . . "
9. DO EXACTLY WHAT YOUR ADVISOR SAYS.
Your advisors, at this point, comprise your entire audience for your dissertation. So, write your dissertation with these few readers in mind and do exactly what they say in their feedback (even when you don't agree with what they say and/or how they say it). If you do it their way, you will earn your Ph.D., and will do so without a struggle and in the shortest time possible. If this feels like you are "selling your soul," we recommend this: put your soul in a safe place and then after you sail through the dissertation by doing exactly what your advisors say, you can retrieve your soul intact.
Even when you do not agree with the feedback, do not argue with your advisor. If a new set of advisor feedback seems to contradict a prior suggestion your advisor made, revise according to the newest advice or ask your advisor tactfully for help sorting out seeming contradictions. If you feel you must decline one of his or her suggestions, do so with the greatest tact and with valid reasoning. Do not risk your Ph.D. over a disagreement with your advisor. You can write and revise whatever you want, in whatever way you want, after you have your Ph.D.
10. KEEP WORKING EVEN WHILE YOU WAIT.
Some dissertation writers feel that they have to wait for advisor feedback on one section before they can continue with another section. Perhaps this is because the writer feels uncertain about whether he or she is on the right track; or perhaps the section in question is helping to drive or shape that which comes next. More than likely, though, there is at least one section that you can make progress on without waiting for feedback. However much you may feel that you need to wait, avoid doing so.
In conclusion, if you follow these ten tips you can help make your advisor's feedback as helpful and effective as possible. You will also help your relationship with your advisor be as unstressful, constructive, and productive as possible.
About the Authors
Denise K. Comer, Ph.D., (@comerd) is an Associate Professor of the Practice of Writing Studies and Director of First-Year Writing at Duke University. She teaches theme-based first-year writing seminars on such areas of inquiry as illness narratives, civic engagement, and travel writing. She also teaches a first-year writing MOOC through Duke University and Coursera: English Composition I: Achieving Expertise, which has enrolled over four-hundred thousand people from around the world. Her scholarship, which has been published in such journals as Pedagogy, Writing Program Administrators Journal, and Composition Forum, explores writing pedagogy, writing program administration, and the intersections between technology and the teaching of writing. She has also authored a writing textbook, Writing in Transit (Fountainhead Press, 2015). She lives in North Carolina with her husband and their three children.
Barbara Gina Garrett, M.A., M.S.W., is a licensed psychotherapist and clinical social worker who has been in private practice for over thirty years. As part of her psychotherapy practice, she has helped people achieve their goals (in many diverse parts of their lives) and overcome their fears and obstacles. She has coached ABD groups across disciplines, providing dissertators with the strategies they need to complete their dissertations. Her specific areas of expertise include anger therapy, depression therapy, and relationship therapy. Through these avenues, she is able to address many of the emotional obstacles that can hamper progress on dissertations. She has appeared as a guest expert on numerous radio and television broadcasts. She lives in North Carolina and enjoys spending time with family and friends.
YOUR OWN COACH
If you are considering whether to get your own coach to help you reach your academic goals, fill out this brief application for a free consultation with a dissertation coach.
GAYLE SCROGGS, Ph.D., P.C.C., Editor, ABDSG.
An accomplished coach, workshop leader, keynote speaker, and educator, Gayle earned her doctorate in social psychology from the University of New Hampshire. Her deep expertise in positive psychology allows her to help clients build their personal strengths, positive habits, and confidence to overcome procrastination, self-doubts and other blocks in order to reach vital academic and personal goals. In addition to editing the ABD Survival Guide, she contributed two chapters to the positive psychology anthology, Women's Paths to Happiness. Contact her at for coaching, presentations, and workshops on thriving in graduate school and beyond, and find free resources .
BEN DEAN, Publisher, ABDSG
Ben holds a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Texas at Austin. He began writing the ABDSG in 1997. Over the years, the ABDSG has published hundreds of articles and provided thousands of hours of pro bono coaching and teleworkshops to ABDs all over the world. Ben is also the founder of MentorCoach (www.MentorCoach.com), a virtual university focused on training accomplished professionals to become part-time or full-time coaches. You may wish to subscribe to the Coaching Toward Happiness eNewsletter! It's on applying the science of Positive Psychology to your work and life (131,000 readers). Ben lives in suburban Maryland with his wife, Janice, their two children, and Dusty, their Norwegian dwarf bunny.
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