What Kind of Feedback do you Need?

Sending a thesis draft to your supervisors is always a bit scary. When you’ve invested your time, brainpower, and soul into a piece of writing, it’s hard to submit it to someone else’s critical eye – not to mention their red pen.

But when a supervisor reviews your draft, their job is not to judge it for judgements’ sake. Their job is to help you improve it. Getting feedback is a necessary (and sometimes downright enlightening) part of the thesis-writing process. When it works, it makes us better researchers and better writers. And in my experience, there’s one very important trick that helps it to work:

Tell your supervisor/s what kind of feedback you need.

Before you submit a draft for review, think about the kind of feedback you want and need on this particular draft. Maybe you need a second opinion on the scope and phrasing of your research questions. Maybe you don’t feel confident in your use of English language. Maybe you’re unsure of how to structure a particular section. Whatever it is that you need help with, tell your supervisor. That way, you can give yourself the best chance of getting helpful feedback (and make the best use of your supervisor’s time).

Generally, you can think of feedback as covering two subjects:

  • Content (the research itself)
  • Style (the way the research is communicated)

Feedback can also cover different levels from:

  • Broad (big-picture, overall comments) to
  • Detailed (line-by-line notations)

At different stages in the thesis-writing process, different types of feedback will be more useful. If you’re just starting to draft your thesis, for instance, you might want broad feedback on your content; whereas if you’re polishing a near-final draft, you might prefer detailed feedback on your style.

Here are some examples of the types of feedback that you may need (note that these may or may not be relevant depending on your particular discipline and project):

Bear in mind that no single reader can be expected to give every type of feedback. Supervisors vary in the kind of feedback they like (or are willing, or able) to give. Some supervisors will get right down into the nitty-gritty. Others are big-picture thinkers. Some are obsessed with style; others with content. There might be a bit of trial and error in the process of learning about your supervisors’ preferred feedback styles. (Of course, you could ask them!) But once you get to know how your supervisors review your drafts, you may find that the members of your supervisory team have different – and hopefully complementary – strengths.

You may also find that the type of feedback you want is best given by someone outside your supervisory team. For example, many types of stylistic feedback can be given by a professional proofreader or a specialist writing advisor. Supervisors are also not responsible for checking every single fact and calculation – you may like to peer review with another student if you’re looking for more attention than your supervisors can give in that regard.

Of course, in reality, you don’t always know what kind of feedback you need. As the saying goes, you don’t know what you don’t know. In that case, you may like to at least tell your supervisor what you’ve been focusing on, so they know where to concentrate their review. If you’ve been working on Chapter 3 and haven’t changed Chapter 2 since they last reviewed it, let them know! (I didn’t do that, and my poor supervisor reviewed the same chapter multiple times before I acted on his feedback – oops!)

The point of all this is to make the best use of everybody’s time and energy, so don’t be afraid to speak up for what you need.

About Anaise Irvine

Dr Anaise Irvine is the Editor of Thesislink and leads the Researcher Education and Development team at Auckland University of Technology. Her PhD research analysed how contemporary films and novels represent genetic engineering as a social justice issue. These days she works with researchers at all levels to improve their research skills, and the most obscure of her own research skills is being able to turn novels into phylogenetic trees!

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