Dealing with feedback from your supervisors - the content part

Gepubliceerd op 19 januari 2024 om 12:00

We recently received a request from a PhD student, to write a blog on how to deal with feedback from your supervisors on your papers as a PhD student. This is something you will encounter a lot during your PhD project. In this blog, we will discuss dealing with feedback from your supervisors on the content level.

Plan of action

The most convenient way is to collect feedback from all your supervisors in one document. You can ask them to continue working in the same document and take turns adding their feedback. Then everyone can see what feedback has been given and you have one overview of all the feedback points. Otherwise, you will have several separate documents from which you have to copy the feedback into one paper, and your supervisors do not see each other's feedback either.

Assessing the nature of feedback

It is helpful to read all the feedback first, to get a feel for what could be modified. Is it about clarifying the purpose? Is it a statistical suggestion? Do you need to seek additional literature? One tip is to start with all the little things you can easily modify, such as adding a definition to clarify some context. Perhaps this will already eliminate some of the trickier feedback points! By dealing with the small things first, you get into a nice flow before you start working on the more difficult suggestions.

Questions, doubts and uncertainties

Sometimes you get feedback that leaves you in doubts, because you are not quite sure what your supervisor means exactly by a certain comment or alteration in the text. Sometimes the feedback is just given in too few words or it is worded too unclearly, so feel free to ask for clarification. You are in a learning process and asking questions is simply a part of that!

Contradictory feedback between supervisors

Supervisors may give contradictory feedback. This can be tricky! After all, whose advice do you follow? Perhaps it feels as if you prefer or value one supervisor over the other. Don't worry, because of course this is not the case, and your supervisors will definitely not take it that way. It is always about the content: which suggestion will make your paper even better and more relevant? Look carefully at how the different suggestions fit into the improved version of your paper. Sometimes it has already resolved itself by then, because a particular suggestion suddenly becomes irrelevant after you have made other adjustments. If the contradicting feedback points are both still relevant, you will have to make your own assessment based on their content. List the arguments for the different suggestions for yourself in order to determine how best to process the feedback. It is a good idea to add your considerations in a comment to the feedback, so that your supervisors also understand why you made certain choices and did not incorporate certain suggestions. If you can't figure it out by yourself, you can of course put it on the agenda for your next meeting so you can decide what is most appropriate together with your supervising team. Remember the saying: many roads lead to Rome! This is often the case in research as well.

Contradictory feedback between versions

It can also happen that you process the feedback from a supervisor, but receive feedback in the next version of your paper that will turn it back to what you had written in an earlier version. Or that it should be something different altogether. Well, that's just part of the job! Research, and writing a scientific article, is a group process. Sometimes there is advancing insight, or certain feedback is no longer relevant due to improvements in your paper, or your earlier pieces simply fit your new version better than what you had modified it into. This may seem contradictory, but is often appropriate for the stage your paper is in at the time. In most cases things are not necessarily right or wrong, but there are just different ways of doing or writing something. As long as you can argue why you do something in a certain way, it is generally fine.


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