I was recently reminded of a dark time in my PhD. A time when my illusions were shattered, and my hopes decimated. A time when I was elated to have reached a word count of 80,000, only to have my primary supervisor gently suggest that 75,000 of those words were rubbish.
My supervisor was diplomatic about it, thankfully. I had good ideas and material, but the writing wasn’t there yet. He gave lots of helpful advice for moving my first draft into a second draft – so academically, it was not an insurmountable failure. But emotionally, I looked at the tracked changes and felt like I’d been hit by an eighteen-wheeler truck of criticism carrying a heavy load of red ink.
The reason I was reminded of that moment is because I recently stumbled upon a theoretical model of change that gave me an insight into my own emotional journey at that time.
It makes sense that a model of change would apply to supervisor feedback. After all, what is feedback if not an imperative to change?
When supervisors give feedback, they are literally suggesting changes in the form of revisions. We fear these, not only for the amount of work they involve, but also for the implication that there may be something wrong or problematic in our thinking, our reasoning, our methods, our data, and so on. We might have to change just a few words, or we might have to change our entire approach to our work.
People have emotional reactions to change. It’s in our nature. But the good news is this: psychologists Don Kelley and Daryl Connor have found that emotional responses to change typically follow a pattern, and that pattern includes an upswing at the end.
In 1979, Kelley & Connor theorised the emotional journey of change as a person traverses through phases of optimism and pessimism, and from a less informed to a more informed position. This theory has been adapted by others, and the model I came across was adapted by Brian P. Moran in 2013.
This struck me as almost perfectly describing how I felt whenever I sought feedback from my supervisor.
Stage 1: Uninformed optimism. I’ve submitted a writing sample or chapter to my supervisor. I’m proud of myself for completing a chunk of work, and I feel the pressure lift a little. I wait (and sometimes wait and wait and wait) to hear back from my supervisor, perhaps cautiously hopeful of receiving some praise for my efforts.
Stage 2: Informed pessimism. My supervisor responds. Sometimes their response is largely positive; other times it is quite critical. Regardless of the tone of the feedback, they are likely to have filled the margins of my pages with comments suggesting new avenues of thinking, required revisions, or queries about the choices I have made. My hopes of wild praise have been dashed, but at least I know where I stand.
Stage 3: Valley of despair. The reality sets in. I’ve got a heap more work to do. I’d ticked this piece of writing off my to-do list, but now there are a million revisions to make. Why is my supervisor so critical? WHY? I may have occasionally had some not-very-nice thoughts about my supervisor at this stage. Sometimes I even felt tempted to quit, or at the very least have a minor tantrum and take a week off thesis writing.
Stage 4: Informed optimism. OK, so maybe the volume of tracked changes and comments made the situation seem more dire than it was. I’ve done a lot of the work now, and the end is in sight. I’m looking forward to being able to tick this piece of writing off my to-do list (again), only this time it’s in a much more submittable state.
Stage 5: Success and fulfillment. At last I’m done with the revisions, and the writing is much stronger for it! I’m proud of my new, robust, supervisor-approved writing, and my confidence gets a huge boost. I’m one giant step closer to submission.
If you are somewhere in this process right now, take heart. Seeking feedback from supervisors is never easy. It’s a process of asking very qualified people to poke holes in something you’ve worked hard on. There’s bound to be some discomfort in that.
You are not alone. And hopefully, once you’re through that valley of despair, you can enjoy an awesome upswing into success.
Kelley, D., & Connor, D. (1979). The emotional cycle of change. The annual handbook of group facilitators, 117-122.
Moran, B. P. (2013). The 12 week year: Get more done in 12 weeks than others do in 12 months. Wiley.