Are research students a bit like Meerkats?



OK, weird title I know. I’m working on an extended metaphor here about the feedback cycle between research candidates and their supervisors.

Why meerkats?

Well, there were such interesting comments to the earlier post (Are you on the same page as your supervisor?) that I wanted to do a follow-up post about feedback from supervisors. I’ve probably got more than one post in me, so stay tuned. To start of the conversations, this is why I think research candidates might be like meerkats…

I’m a meerkat for your feedback

Meerkats are strategic critters. They move back and forth between two zones: the zone of safety and the zone of exposure. The safety zone is the burrow, where they keep warm and organise themselves according to meerkat systems, habits and culture. On the other hand, the zone of exposure is the open ground, where anything could happen, including,

a) yummy beetles for breakfast, and
b) eagle attack.

Meerkats must be prepared for both possibilities, do it is for the research candidate when seeking feedback and guidance from supervisors.

There is the safety zone, where you can dig into your burrow and work in the ways that make sense to you: creating extended concept maps, drafting and re-drafting, making landscapes of sticky notes, juggling the jigsaw of your ideas in the air or in piles on the floor, annotating pdfs, arranging notes in folder hierarchies or in a series of applications, keeping a log of your daily insights … or all the other ways of thinking, planning and writing which we know work for us.

The zone of exposure is where we interact with our research supervisors.

We want the rich protein of their feedback, but we also have to manage the risks of eagle attack and by this I mean discouraging critique. This is feedback which is well meant, but unintelligible, or about the wrong thing, or given at the wrong time, or feedback that we don’t know how to act on.

This kind of feedback can make us feel that our supervisor doesn’t understand the way we work, or our reasons for pursuing a particular approach. The eagle attack feedback leaves us with more questions than answers:

Do they think I am moving too slowly?

Am I not aware of all the literature I should know about?

Are my writing skills not sophisticated enough?

Like meerkats, research candidates know that the dangers are out there, but that these can’t keep them from going out to get the feedback that is needed to thrive. So research candidates need strategies, just like meerkats, for managing the movement between the zone of safety and the zone of exposure.

Extend your safety zone a bit

Hunting close to the home burrow is not always enough for a meerkat – all the nearby beetles can get eaten up, and they have to go further and further into the danger zone to get more. So they find themselves some ‘halfway’ burrows, which they can go to temporarily, to extend their hunting range, bring them closer to the beetles, and bring more safety and comfort to the danger zone.

I’ve seen clever research candidates using similar strategies to this. They value their own preferred ways of working, but they recognise that these are not the same as their supervisors’ ways of working and they know that they are likely to get extra nourishing guidance from them if they add some ‘halfway’ compromises to the feedback cycle.

Here’s one example which has worked for some research candidates at my university: storylines. (This technique has been developed by Dr Claire Aitchison of the University of Western Sydney, and co-editor of the Doctoral Writing SIG blog.) Storylines can work as a ‘halfway’ meeting point between a person who prefers to exchange a whole draft of an article or a chapter for feedback, and someone who prefers to exchange feedback in the planning stages.

To create a storyline, write one sentence for each main idea (roughly equivalent to either a paragraph or a sub-section). Number each sentence, and start each one on a new line. Use simple language – don’t worry about style or referencing. Here’s part of an example:

1. We know that dryland salinity is a problem for agriculture – loss of trees, reduced production.
2. In natural ecosystems, some fungus species which live on the roots can help trees to survive drought and also reduce the effect of dryland salinity.
3. The fungi themselves are also affected by dryland salinity in a few different ways.
4. We don’t know much about how the genetic diversity of the most important type of fungus is affected.
… and so on….
(You might have anywhere from 10 to 50+ numbered sentences, depending on how far along you are in planning/drafting, and what kind of article/chapter it is.)

Storylines are particularly good for feedback on content, structure, argument and logical flow – because they focus your supervisor’s comments onto the main ideas and the order of the key points. Storylines are not intended for feedback on writing style or grammar. In fact, part of the strength of this technique is that it ‘quarantines’ these aspects of your work, so that you get only the type of feedback that you can use in the current stage of your writing process.

Storylines are a good halfway or temporary ‘burrow’. Some people do use them for their own planning and drafting process, but others use them just for the feedback cycle, and then feed the supervisor’s advice back into their preferred way of working, such as drafts, plans or mind-maps – Just like the meerkats, who come home to their nest after a day’s hunting.

I might save the rest for the second instalment of my meerkat metaphor, but now I’m interested in what you think? There are a lot of other good strategies which people are using to meet their supervisors half-way in the feedback cycle. Have you been subject to eagle attacks when you thought you were going to get yummy beetles? How did you react?

Author Bio: Cassily is the Academic Writing Coordinator for Higher Degree by Research students in the Charles Sturt University Academic Support Unit