Getting Useful Feedback from your Supervisor

In document Thesis Thoughts for Postgraduate Students in Humanities and Social Sciences (Page 30-32)

It’s a good idea to think about how you can get the kind of feedback you need from your supervisor, which may vary from one stage of writing to the next, and even from visit to visit. Sometimes you’re going to want to do a quick and dirty draft, just to get feedback on whether you’re on the right track with some section; but your supervisor wants to see a polished, edited version so she can be sure that you’re capable of doing one. Sometimes editing to allay your supervisor’s anxieties is like putting on a jumper when your mother is cold – it doesn’t feel like what you need, even if as a general principle, it’s a good idea. But you’ve got to realise, supervisors worry for you. And your thesis is not just yours, as it turns out – everybody wants you to do well, your supervisor, your department, and the university. It’s important for the university that its students complete their degrees; and your

supervisor is likely to feel a genuine concern for you, along with a consciousness that colleagues will think that your work reflects, to some extent at least, the quality of supervision that you got. So, even if you know how to clean your work up at a later stage, your supervisor may get anxious about it sooner. It’s understandable that supervisors would like to see some coherence and polish in your work, and they get unnerved if it isn’t there.

But you can redirect their concerns, and reassure them about the end product. A student who sees me with her essays does this: if she wants me to read a draft for the argument she asks me to do just that, and then she takes it away and brings back the next draft polished. I did worry the first time, but after that first time I knew that she could work that way, and I was very glad to be told what she thought she needed. Whatever kind of feedback you’re getting, you need to listen to it, but I think you can have an influence on the way your supervisor reads your work. The important thing is not to try to hide what you feel are your weaknesses. You won’t be able to, and it will just get in the way of getting the help you need. It’s much better to go to those meetings with a list of questions than to go in hoping you can conceal how little you know or how little progress you’ve made. Even questions are progress, because they show that you have a sense of what else you need to know.

Sources of Advice

It’s important, in any case, that you and your supervisor share the same basic assumptions about what kind of things are your responsibility and what kind of things are theirs; and that you have an

understanding about how often you’re going to meet and what you need to bring to those meetings. If you have any doubts that you see eye to eye with your supervisor on this, Elphinstone and

Schweitzer’s book, How to Get a Research Degree, is very good on this, and I recommend that you read it. There is also some very good advice on the websites below.

Elphinstone, L. & Schweitzer, R. (1998). How to get a research degree: A survival guide. St Leonards, N.S.W. : Allen & Unwin, 1998.

The University of Queensland’s Student Services site, “PhD -- First Thoughts to Finished Writing” has “Frequently Asked Questions” at

Click on these sections, under the heading “What can I expect from my supervisor and what does my supervisor expect from me?”:

• “Seeking, receiving and handling feedback” • “Establishing a relationship with your supervisor” • “Strategies for getting the best feedback possible” • “Overcoming reluctance to seek feedback”

• “How do I handle disagreements with my supervisor?”

At Monash University’s website “Learning Support for Higher Degree Research Students”, read the section “Talk to your supervisors”, following all of the links on the page:

At the “Just For Postgrads” site of The UK Grad Program, read “Managing Your Relationship with your Supervisor”: your_research/Managing_your_relationship_with_your_supervisor/p!egikjdp

Cultural Considerations

Misunderstandings sometimes arise between students and their supervisors because they belong to cultures that have different expectations about the structure and expression of ideas in academic writing. Western academic writing in the “Anglo” tradition is very direct: it is the writer’s responsibility to spell out their arguments explicitly, early and often. Sometimes international students are unaware of this expectation, or uncomfortable with it as it may seem a little impolite to tell readers what to think before they have a chance to make up their own minds.

You can find discussions of how your text should be structured elsewhere in this resource. In addition to those, however, you may like to go to the websites below, to read about cultural differences in this regard. At the first one, The Centre for Academic and Professional Literacies at the Institute of Education, University of London, an international student talks about some of the things he found different when studying there. At the second, at Monash, you can read about “Culture and styles of argumentation”.

Even if you think that you and your supervisor belong to the same culture, there may be subtle differences that matter. When I went from the U.S. to be a research student in the U.K., my supervisor told me there were a couple of scholars in my field whose work I “might like to have a look at”. I thought this was a small suggestion, made in passing, and I thought that yes, I might like to have a look at them. When I got round to it, I realized that I could not possibly do my project without taking their work into account! -- and if my supervisor had been American, he would have told me this, instead of leaving it to me to work out. Common language was no guarantee of shared understanding!

• The Centre for Academic and Professional Literacies at the Institute of Education, University of London: “A student's reflections on writing for a master's degree course”

• Monash University, “Learning Support for Higher Degree Research Students”: “Culture and styles of argumentation”

In document Thesis Thoughts for Postgraduate Students in Humanities and Social Sciences (Page 30-32)