When Advisor Feedback Sucks—What YOU Can Do | Issue 192
Summary & Contents
Getting poor feedback from your advisor? Learn from experts how to optimize the feedback instead of blaming yourself or your advisor. Stop settling for slow, inadequate, confusing, or harsh critiques and get what you really need.
1. Editor's Note: It's JUST a Dissertation—or How To Stop Panicking and Finish Your Doctorate
2.Words from the Wise
3. Feature Article: When Advisor Feedback Sucks—What You Can Do about It
4. ABD Survey: What do YOU need to finish your dissertation? Give us two minutes now—and we'll create the free workshops you want.
It's JUST a Dissertation—or How to Stop Panicking and Finish Your Doctorate
Want to finish that dissertation faster-and with less frustration?
Then aim for "just good enough," advises the new, irreverent book, It's Just a Dissertation! The only recent dissertation guide to qualify as a step-by-step workbook, it combines the writing smarts of a Duke writing professor, Denise K. Comer, Ph.D., with the wisdom of an experienced coach and therapist, Barbara Gina Garrett. M.A., M.S.W.
As they explain, "Good enough" is not shoddy—it's good enough to pass your defense. That's all you need, and the rest is overkill.
Whether you are just starting your doctoral coursework or are teetering on the edge of panic that you'll time out, you'll find seasoned advice for the dissertation journey. My ABD clients who recently road tested it agree: This book immediately reduces your feelings of overwhelm by encouraging you to think small.
First, you need to accept the book's two critical principles: (1) Your dissertation is not your magnum opus, and (2) Do exactly what your advisor says. (Yes, there are some rare exceptions to the latter, and they explain how to proceed.)
Once you absorb those ideas, you will find it easy to get into action. No matter where you are in the process, you can quickly locate the relevant chapter, each with proven tips and checklists for your next step. Still in the pre-dissertation phase? Comer and Garrett help you plan your coursework.
For those seeking the near-perfect advisor, they offer best practices for the search process along with spot-on advice for living happily ever after with your chosen advisor. Need to build a realistic timeline or design your weekly schedule? You'll find more tips and templates for those. More importantly, they provide concrete strategies for staying on track, with proven strategies for sagging motivation, procrastination, perfectionism, and writer's block, among other dissertation ailments.
TIP: Potential or new doctoral candidates might browse the bullet-point chapter summaries for a fast complete insider's take on the dissertation journey.
No time for another dissertation guide? Think again. This one is both fun and useful, as you can see below in the material adapted from the book, courtesy of the authors and Fountainhead Press. If you've struggled to get helpful feedback or recover from harsh comments on your drafts, you'll find new hope.
Thank you, Denise and Barbara, for your book and your generosity. You'll no doubt get more gratitude letters in the coming years from your readers who decide to finish a "good enough" dissertation instead of continuing to spin their wheels while aiming for the perfect one.
Gayle Scroggs, Ph.D., P.C.C.
Words From the Wise
"Park your ego, pride, and even soul, if need be, in a safe place and Do Exactly As Your Advisor Says." ~ Denise K. Comer & Barbara Gina Garret
"In order to succeed, we must first believe that we can." ~ Nikos Kazantzakis
"Frustration is not a work plan." ~ Ami Ayalon
"Fun is good." ~ Dr. Seuss
Feature Article: 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. (Fountainhead Press, 2014).
How satisfied are you with your dissertation advisor's feedback? Even those fortunate to have a great advisor relationship can find themselves grumbling about it. Feedback can seem too slow, discouraging, unhelpful, or confusing. However, you do not need to resign yourself to living with these frustrations.
As advisor feedback is critical to the dissertation process, the issue deserves close examination:
Why might advisors give unproductive feedback?
What specific measures can you can take to preempt the likelihood of frustrating feedback?
What are some winning strategies for responding successfully to frustrating feedback?
Why Do Advisors Give Bad Feedback?
Faced with frustrating advisor feedback, you may be inclined to think that the explanation can be found in one of the following:
Your advisor sucks.
Your dissertation sucks.
Both 1 and 2.
Actually, many other more likely reasons tend to account for advisor feedback difficulties, including these:
Advisor has unrealistic expectations.
Advisor lacks 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 misreads feedback.
Complications or conflict in the advisee-advisor relationship.
Too great a sense of project ownership on the part of the dissertation writer.
Don't be daunted. There are still direct actions you can take to 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
To make advisor feedback as effective as possible, try any or all of these. (Each one is described in detail below.)
Walk a marathon in their shoes.
Get feedback from others first.
Get feedback at regular intervals.
Refresh advisor's memory each time.
Ask your advisor specific questions.
Provide advisor with deadlines for feedback.
Reinforce positive feedback and redirect unproductive feedback.
Revise advisor feedback to better match what you would want.
Do exactly what your advisor says.
Forge ahead—keep working while waiting.
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 his or her 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 having your advisor say that you should change directions or, worse yet, tell 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 create 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:
Instead of asking ...
Do you like my argument?
Does my argument make a new contribution to the field? If it can be improved, what are your suggestions?
Does it flow well?
Is the section on [insert section name] organized clearly? What might help it flow better?
Is the research good?
Are there any additional scholars you think I should consider including? Does the experiment design have any flaws?
Is it clear?
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?
Do you think it is well written?
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 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
Revised New and Improved Version—What You Let Yourself Read or Hear
"I expected more of you."
"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 is a ridiculous claim."
"This particular point of view doesn't have enough written so far to support it."
"You've done a shoddy job with experiment design."
"The experiment design could be improved by doing the following: . . . "
"Your methodology is completely flawed."
"The methodology might be revised in order to be more valid. Try the following: . . . "
"You are too wordy and repetitive."
"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."
"This is not acceptable dissertation material."
"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."
"You have a massive problem with this section."
"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. Forge ahead—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.
ABD Survey: What Do You Need to Finish Your Dissertation?
What's getting in your way of finishing? Each summer, the ABD Survival Guide and coaches from the prestigious MentorCoach training program bring you valuable free teleseminars to help you on your coaching journey. Let us know your burning issues and questions so we can tailor our free programs to your needs.
About the Authors
Denise K. Comer, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of the Practice of Writing Studies and Director of First-Year Writing at Duke University. She teaches first-year writing seminars and a writing MOOC through Duke University and Coursera with over 2,000 students from around the world. Her scholarship includes articles in such journals as Pedagogy, Writing Program Administrators Journal, and Composition Forum, and a writing textbook, Writing in Transit. She lives in North Carolina with her husband and their three children.
Barbara Gina Garrett, M.A., M.S.W., a licensed psychotherapist and clinical social worker for over thirty years, has helped people achieve their goals and overcome their fears and obstacles. She has coached ABD groups across disciplines. Her expertise in anger therapy, depression therapy, and relationship therapy facilitates her success with many of the emotional obstacles dissertators face. 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.For more, see their book website, http://itsjustadissertation.com. You can contact the authors at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
GAYLE SCROGGS, Ph.D., P.C.C., Editor, ABDSG.
Dr. Scroggs is an executive, life and dissertation coach in the greater Chesapeake Bay area. She has helped hundreds of students and clients overcome procrastination, self-doubts, and other internal and external blocks in order to find the motivation and flow necessary to reach their academic, professional, and personal goals. Contact Dr. Scroggs with questions about this newsletter or about coaching in general at email@example.com. Enjoy additional free resources at www.essencecoaching.com.