That bleeding thesis…


No. I’m not cussing. Let me explain why. My colleague Brigitte Nerlich sent me an email the other day. She said:

I was talking to a PhD student (not one of mine) and this student repeatedly used a metaphor which I found quite interesting – that of the ‘bleeding document’. This was not a swear word! This metaphor described the fact that when PhD students get chapters back from their various supervisors (two or three), the document looks like its bleeding because of all the comments and track changes that have been made. I had the impression that this process provoked a quite visceral feeling which then induced discouragement and, not quite despair, but despondency. It drained the life-blood out of the PhD. I began to wonder whether PhD supervisors should reflect a bit more on how they comment on chapters so as not to let a PhD bleed to death …

Yes, I thought on reading this. Supervisor feedback on writing can be a pretty variable affair.

We know from the research that’s been done on PhD feedback – and there’s not that much of it – that supervisors vary hugely in their approach to responding to writing. While pretty well all supervisors feel responsible for the final dissertation text, this sense of obligation translates into very different feedback practices. Some think a chat about ideas is sufficient. Some focus primarily on the technicalities of writing – sentence structure and grammar. Others deal with the flow of the argument. Some believe that it is not their job to deal with technical language at all, and it’s the doctoral researcher’s responsibility to get the writing right.

We also know from experience and anecdote that getting feedback from supervisors can be tricky. Research tells us that the feedback on doctoral writing can be vague and ambiguous, and thus not understood by doctoral researchers. Feedback also always raises questions of ownership – whose thesis is this anyway? And PhD feedback needs to change over time – what is helpful at the start of the the doctorate may not be so helpful at the thesis stage.

Receiving supervisor feedback is often highly emotional. Some PhDers focus strongly on the negative and find it almost impossible to move away from feeling brutalised. Others, as Brigitte’s email suggests, find that feedback can be pretty demotivating.  But some PhDers do find detailed feedback very helpful and they have strategies to deal with the disappointment of being asked to write again and again – for example, they write lists of supervisor comments and systematically go through them.

And advice given to doctoral researchers and supervisors alike is to discuss the process of feedback – but discussion doesn’t always mean that there will be agreement.

So feedback is obviously a fraught area. It’s often pretty vexatious for all concerned. I claim no particular expertise in it, and I suspect that none of us do. In fact, for many of us, our own experience of supervisory feedback was quite different from what is expected now.

In her email to me, Brigitte reflected on her own and her husband’s experiences of supervisory feedback.

 When I wrote my PhD, I had virtually no supervision and computers were not invented yet, really, so one just had a good chat once in a while. I talked about this with my husband who did his PhD in the 1960s/70s and actually got some supervision! He gave his first chapter to his supervisor who scribbled some stuff in the margins. He retyped it (on his typewriter), gave it back to his supervisor, who scribbled some more stuff in the margins. By the third time, he became aware that this was unsustainable. So he gave his supervisor the second chapter; the supervisor scribbled some stuff on it… But then he didn’t give back the revised version but just the next chapter and so on, which worked much better and involved less typing and retyping.

My PhD experience was twenty years later, but not too different from Brigitte’s.

Universities now have courses and resources for supervisors and many of them do take supervisor development very seriously. However, what’s on offer to supervisors is usually and necessarily general – it doesn’t really address the feedback question with the kind of cultural specificity and discipline-specific and cross-disciplinary detail needed to avoid the bleeding document syndrome.

It’s probably the case that really significant improvements in supervisor feedback practices will take a combination of research-informed supervision resources and the space in busy academic workloads to discuss and process them. That’s largely still to come IMHO.

Meanwhile some PhDers have blood on the page…