What I’m learning at the moment: Good Feeback is IT

So posting over here on Research Degree Voodoo has gone a bit quiet over the last few months because I’ve gone back to uni myself.

Those of you who know a bit about my CV will be all ‘what for?’ After all, I’ve already got a PhD, which is usually considered a terminal degree–one that is an end in itself, and not a pre-req for anything else. But, none of my degrees are currently anything to do with what I do with 90% of my working life–English Lit… musicology… no, not much. So I’m studying towards something that says Education! eLearning! yes she can!

One of the things that I’m finding amazing about this course is how much feedback we get. I’m supposed to blog on my super-secret-private-course-blog 2-3 times a week, and I get a response from my tutor at least once a week, but often much more often.

Not only is this more feedback than I’ve had since I was writing a couple of essays and a translation each week at Cambridge, but the frequency means that the feedback is sometimes developmental, sometimes opening up further questions that were suggested but not dealt with in my post, sometimes reactive.  We don’t have to do all the qualitative and quantitative and reflective feedback all the time, we can mix it up. 

The course encourages us to get beyond just text too. So I might post a picture I drew, and my tutor might respond with a photograph. Or I’ll make a reflective playlists. Or this week, he commented on a written post with a video, so I responded with another video. 

It’s so much fun, and I keep thinking of new and inventive things I can do, and I keep being challenged to go further, deeper, work more because my tutor is contributing so much to the conversation too. Very little of his work is becoming mine–so it’s not like he’s doing my learning for me. Instead, when my tutor contributes to the conversation, it pushes me to contribute to the conversation: and him contributing original work makes me contribute original work. 


How unlike so many of the stories that doctoral candidates tell me. The supervisor who takes 3 months to comment on a chapter. The supervisor who sends back a chapter with thousands of corrections on spelling and grammar, but none on argument. The supervisor who only criticises. The supervisor who says it’s fine, and then fails the project at the first year review. The supervisor who never gives feedback at all. 

Since supervisors are human, they aren’t all going to be fantastic at mentoring and inspiring doctoral candidates to reach their own level of success. That’s okay. Being human, there are likely to be some selfish, lazy, unkind people out there too. That’s not okay. There are also, and I want to acknowledge it here, many TOTALLY FANTASTIC AND WOOOOO WE LOVE YOU supervisors out there: like my supervisor who taught me all my research voodoo skills; and so many others, who teach, guide, support, defend and promote their candidates. I know supervisors who invite their candidates to dinner, help them network, visit them in hospital and so much more. You, supervisors, are awesome. 

But my job is mostly dealing with doctoral orphans, and candidates who come to me for advice on writing, structuring or conceptualising their work because their supervisors aren’t giving it to them. And this blog is for you. 

Most of the time, I think there are 4 main reasons that doctoral candidates don’t get enough feedback, and so I list them for you here, and give practical ways to combat the problems. 


Supervisors need to be managed up, like managers need to be managed

In an undergraduate or coursework subject, I’ll set an assessment deadline (agreed at Factulty and Academic Board level) and then I’ll mark like crazy, and get all the marking back to you in 14 days–because it’s a university rule. How long your supervisor is going to take to read a 20k chapter in mid-March is going to need some negotiation

You can help your supervisor by:

  • regularly giving them 2-5k chunks of reasonably polished writing from about 3-6 months into your candidature, with a turn-around of 4 or so weeks. (Not all supervisors wants this, but many do!)
  • being directive about the kinds of feedback you need. ‘I need to know if my argument is sufficiently clearly stated for the examiner to follow it, particularly in the methodology’ or ‘do you think the section on pp. 4-7 is worth keeping in the thesis at this stage?’. 

Give up on your desire to write perfect text. 

You may well be a perfectionist. Your supervisor may be a perfectionist. You currently want to write ‘the best possible academic thesis you can’. Actually, you need to write ‘a sufficiently good thesis to pass‘, and preferrably ‘sufficiently good to be published in a peer reviewed journal after 3 revisions’. These are not the same thing. 

You can help your supervisor by:

  • Not asking ‘how can I make it better?’, or ‘what do you think?’ Instead ask  ‘is it good enough to pass?’ or ‘what else do I need to do so that the examiners will pass it?’
  • Also, give them work that is at 75%, and polished, so they don’t get caught up on commas and typos. Small errors are very distracting, and much easier to give feedback on than your argument. Don’t distract them!

Have other sources for feedback on your writing

Yes, it’s great getting so much feedback from my tutor, but I’ve been getting feedback on my writing from a whole range of sources for nearly 20 years now. I have writing buddies and have belonged to writing groups. I’ve paid a professional editor and an RA. I submit my work and get feedback from editors, peer reviewers and readers. Your supervisor can be great, but they can’t be expected to do everything. 

You can help your supervisor by:

  • Getting a writing buddy or a writing group together.  The people don’t all have to be in your discipline to be helpful.
  • If writing in English is an issue for you, definitely get some help with that. Your university will have many resources, and there are many more available online, at other instituions and privately. 
  • Nothing helps me see what’s wrong with my own writing like working on other people’s. Do some marking, editing or reviewing of students or peers. 

Finally, when your supervisor gives feedback, integrate it creatively

Some supervisors are wary of giving extensive, creative and original feedback because they are afraid that you will just type it up and stick it in your PhD. I’ll give you that kind of feedback once–if you then respond with further work, research, thinking and creativity, I will go on giving such feedback throughout our working relationship. If you just approriate it, I will be wary of doing your work for you. At the same time, don’t just ignore that feedback that I’ve gone to all that trouble to articulate!

You can help your supervisor by:

  • Responding to the feedback point by point. If there are places you disagree, explain why you do so, giving evidence and examples. (This is what you’ll need to do with examiners and reviewers, so practice!)
  • Taking the points the supervisor has made, and use them as stepping stones to reach the next rung of sophistication, nuance or accuracy. 
  • If you’re not sure what to do with the feedback, asking ‘what articles or books would you recommend reading to help me to develop your feedback?’ or ‘who else would you recommend I talk to, to gain the skills I need to put this into practice?’


I hope some of these strategies help you negotiate your way from being a student to becoming an expert peer. It’s a big post, but a big subject!

Kamler and Thompson’s Helping Doctoral Students Write: Pedagogies for Supervision (2006) is a classic in this area. It’s fantastic for supervisors, but also for doctoral candidates. Kamler and Thomson make many of the points I’ve suggested here, but in much greater depth and with more evidence-based research behind them, so it’s definitely worth getting your hands on a copy!  



Succeeding in a Research Higher Degree

Doing a Research Higher Degree (like a PhD) is hard, but lots of people have succeeded and you can too. It’s easier if you understand how it works, this blog gives you the insider view.


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