Are you on the same page as your supervisor?



This is a story about a doctoral student named Laura (a real person, but not her real name) and how she came to pull her hair out (well a few hairs anyway).

Laura began her PhD this year and really hit the ground running – within a few weeks, she was giving her supervisors many many pages about the literature on her topic. Laura’s supervisors are conscientious, organised and well-intentioned. They gave her masses of feedback on her drafts, with many helpful comments about content, style and structure, including comments such as: ‘good observation – now relate this to an over-all argument’ and ‘engage critically with these definitions’.

This is where things went wrong and Laura pulled some hairs out. She came to talk to me about writing, and it was clear that despite how productive she had been, and how helpful her supervisors had been, she was feeling overwhelmed and her supervisors were feeling puzzled about their meetings and her progress.

It took me a while to understand what was happening and it was actually very simple. Laura is a ‘drafter’ – one of the fabulous kinds of writers who use the writing process for thinking and organising, right from the beginning. I myself prefer being more of a ‘planner’ – the kind who likes to hover around the ideas with maps and doodles and tables and post-it notes and imaginary landscapes – before being ready to settle down to write.

Laura’s supervisors are closer to the ‘planner’ end of the spectrum too. They like to discuss ideas, make rough outlines and bullet point lists. They think that if something is written down, with paragraphs, it must already have a plan, an argument, or an analysis behind it – so it must be ready for polishing and tweaking.

IN FACT Laura’s many pages with paragraphs were really more like notes, capturing her initial ideas and understanding about what she was reading. It was way too early for her to start engaging critically with some of the ideas, or developing an argument – these ideas weren’t even forming analytical categories or themes yet.

All the conscientious feedback from her supervisors was missing the mark, because they had different assumptions from Laura about the thinking and writing process, and had not had a way of talking about it explicitly.

So the moral of the story is:

We need a meta-language – or whatever you want to call it – we need some models for talking about our writing and our writing process with supervisors, so that we are on the same page.

One kind of model, with some meta-language which was useful for Laura and her supervisors, is the Onion. It is a way of showing how more complex types of academic writing, including critique, argument and analysis, are built up from simpler types of academic writing, like description. (See the diagram below.)


Laura’s supervisors thought that a written draft would already include critical thinking about the literature, an argument and analysis. (Because planners have often done this work before they write a draft.) So they gave Laura advice about how to polish and improve these things.

However Laura was already writing drafts when she was still right at the beginning of her thinking about the literature. (Because ‘drafters’ use the act of writing as part of the process of thinking through the ideas.) So Laura was writing descriptive drafts, but her supervisors were giving her feedback suitable for polishing persuasive and critical writing. Which made Laura panic, and feel like she was not doing good work, which got in the way of her natural drafting process – which made her supervisors wonder why Laura seemed to be stuck, and was not acting on all their helpful advice.

You can see where I’m going with this: If there was an explicit way of discussing the writing process from the beginning, this misunderstanding could have been avoided. Laura and her supervisors could have begun their relationship with a discussion about their different ways of working, about what kinds of feedback from her supervisors would be helpful for each stage of her thinking and writing.

‘Planners‘ versus ‘drafters‘ and the Onion are a couple of models for writing which people have found useful – and there are plenty of others. Personally I don’t think the technical terms are that important – the point is having some kind of shared, explicit language for talking about our writing processes, to help us work in all our diverse and wonderful ways, but still get on the same page.

Have you talked to your supervisor about what kind of writing style you prefer? Or have you just had similar conflict to what is described here and ended up feeling hurt and misunderstood? How do you respond to well meant, but useless feedback?