A skill that PhD students need to master is the art of constructively using feedback that we receive on our work. There are three main forms of feedback that you may receive during your PhD. In this post, I’ll cover two of these and share how I manage these. In my next blog, I will cover the third type, along with tips on how to give feedback.
IMPORTANT PLEASE NOTE: feedback should be constructive, not destructive. If you feel that you have received feedback that is hurtful, unhelpful, or inappropriate, please seek support and advice. The most appropriate source of support with vary depending on the context, but please do not suffer in silence.
Feedback as a mechanism for teaching and learning
The first type of feedback involves supervisors providing you with feedback as a means of teaching skills and supporting you to develop your writing. At times, this may be akin to feedback you may receive on undergraduate or masters level assignments. However, the main difference is that with PhD work, the cycle of feedback and editing is an ongoing process. You may, therefore, receive feedback and edit the same piece of work many times, which can be frustrating and disheartening. When this happens, it’s important to remember that as a PhD is a form of training, you’re always learning. When you’re constantly extending your knowledge, you are working at the outer most boundary of your knowledge and comfort zone, and so it is natural to experience some discomfort.
Feedback as collaboration
The second type of feedback involves co-authors on projects or papers commenting on study protocols, manuscripts and other joint work, and is present at all stages throughout academia (and many non-academic post-PhD careers). It is therefore important to learn how to embrace this process and use it to your advantage. The challenges with this type of feedback are that different people can have different ideas, and integrating all of these can be difficult, if not impossible. The key here is to be able to distinguish between suggestions for changes, and co-authors stating they are unhappy with some of the content. When working collaboratively with others, it is important to come to a group consensus, where all authors are happy with the end result. However, we all have slightly different ideas of how we can design projects, the style and phrasing to use, or the nuances of how we may interpret results. Ultimately, if you are the lead author/researcher, you have the power to make those final decisions.
Tips on how to approach feedback
I often find that my instinctual response to feedback is one of two extremes. Sometimes I channel my inner superhero; undamaged by the feedback, I can simply use it to make my work stronger. Other time it feeds my imposter syndrome and I crumble, interpreting it as evidence of my incompetence. As with all things in life, the trick is to find a healthy balance here. Feedback can be hard to take, even when it is constructive, but it is how we learn, develop, and strengthen our work. Here are my three tricks for finding a healthy balance:
- Time and Space – Do a quick read through the feedback, and then leave it alone for a day or two. This you an overview of what needs to be done, and then time to do the processing of emotions and planning the work, before then doing that work.
- Easy wins – When you come to work on it, focus on these first. Are there track changes that you can simply accept, or simple comments that are quickly addressed? Tackling these first will help with motivation as you accomplish positive change straight away. It also makes the bigger edits clearer.
- You’re awesome – Don’t ignore the positive comments! It is easy to focus on comments noting changes, but it is important to actively take note of comments which compliment your work.