Getting your PhD (back) on track 3: getting the right kind of feedback

In the most recent workshop I gave, getting the right kind of feedback from one’s supervisor wasn’t considered a major problem by the majority of participants! Which is unusual, because in my wider coaching experience this is often a huge problem. One thing that is important to note is that supervisors are mainly your supervisor because of their area of research expertise, not because they necessarily have a lot of supervisory skills or experience. Universities have come a long way in offering training for supervisors, but it is still often focused on administrative tasks and the majority of supervisors have learned it on the job, or are building on or reacting to their own supervisors’ style. The other two things you are up against are

  1. if your supervisor has a lot of students, they may have a method or process for supervision that they apply to everyone (which is fine, but if it doesn’t include the kind of feedback you need might be difficult to change) and
  2. they are usually horrendously busy — an academic job is basically three full time jobs each with their own challenges: research, teaching and service. If they don’t have great time management, or if you are doing your PhD at a challenging time in their career, it might be difficult to get timely and quality feedback.

It’s also worth making sure that you aren’t exhibiting any of the 10 ‘red flags’ for supervisors, which, if not addressed early in the PhD, may result in the busy or stressed supervisor disengaging.

That being said, you ARE important as a PhD student, and feedback is important for you to complete. Here’s a few key points and some resources follow:

  • MINIMISE red flags, for maximum responsiveness. These red flag behaviours include ignoring previous feedback, overreacting to feedback, failing to read widely or produce writing, cancelling meetings frequently and so on. This isn’t to blame students, but to make sure we act on those things we CAN control in order to regain a sense of empowerment.
  • MANAGE supervisor’s involvement including making appointments, proposing agendas, and (respectfully) giving deadlines and timelines. Again, this isn’t to say that this is easy or ideal, but to focus on the things we CAN control for empowerment.
  • DIVERSIFY your sources of feedback. Do professional development (particularly in writing). Make a reading group, a writing group, a support group. Get PhD coaching or proofreading help if needed — basically, rely on your supervisor for expert CONTENT and disciplinary STYLE feedback, but get other sources for feedback on your other areas, if possible and necessary.
  • COVER LETTER: When submitting writing for feedback, attach a cover letter specifically asking for feedback. Be clear about the stage of the draft (download my template).
  • DISCUSS: If things aren’t working, make an appointment to specifically discuss supervision and feedback.

Resources for supervisor relationships

What’s next?

If you have read through all three of the ‘Getting your PhD back on track’ posts, I hope there was something helpful for you there. I recommend you choose three resources to follow up with, and make a plan as to when you are going to look at these over the next few weeks.

If you are stuck, however, and none of these strategies are what you need to get back on track, it might be that something more is going on for you that needs to be addressed first.

  • BURNOUT: times are tough – are you burned out?
  • EMOTIONAL OVERLOAD: Consider a dissertation coach or therapy
  • BREAK: Have you taken a holiday or a break? Do you need to? Is a suspension required?
  • CHANGE IT UP: Try a new workspace, a new support group, go on a course or to a conference – get your mojo back somehow.

Resources for getting unstuck

Finally, everyone goes through tough times in their PhD where they face crazy interruptions, disruptions, life events and everyday troubles. Do take all these strategies alongside a generous dose of self-compassion! I took 6 years to finish my PhD, and had two children and 3 different jobs, some fulltime. I lived in three countries and 5 cities! But I got there in the end, and you can can too.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: