Are you on the same page as your supervisor?

This post is by Cassily Charles from Charles Sturt University – a fellow thesis whisperer. Cassily is the Academic Writing Coordinator for Higher Degree by Research students in the CSU Academic Support Unit (ccharles@csu.edu.au). In this post, Cassily discusses misunderstandings about personal writing processes, and how they can lead to conflict between students and supervisors. This post is enlightening to me as an educator – I hope you will be enlightened too.

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.)

OnionPostingSlide

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?

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70 thoughts on “Are you on the same page as your supervisor?

  1. That’s really interesting. I hadn’t thought about this at all. I must be very lucky as I am half way through my PhD working with a supervisor to whom I can send a draft like Laura’s safe in the knowledge that he knows I wouldn’t let anyone else see it like that because it’s not really even a draft. I can’t remember what made me think about this problem this very afternoon, but I was reflecting on the fact that we’re always taught to plan an essay. I abandoned this sometime in the last two years without even thinking about it. My thesis as a whole is planned in terms of themes, but the content of the chapters evolves as I write. Either my supervisor works the same way, or he just understands. That said, there was a little friction when he suggested that I send a ‘pre-draft’ chapter I wrote to someone else for their comments – I find it’s just far too personal. I’ve proofread his work and he mine over several years before I even started the PhD so that professional relationship is close enough to survive an occasional stream of thought piece of work from me. I’d be far too self-conscious to let anyone else see it in that state.

  2. Love, love this! yes I am a drafter and my supervisor does not understand this. I now have a better language to explain our conflict and misunderstandings. Thank you!

  3. A mismatch of writing process is a real problem. My confidence has taken a real hit over this very issue, there has been a complete failure to understand that I am still learning this craft of academic writing. The time in a process when a level of critical feedback is appropriate has also been a problem, sentence level corrections are not helpful at the stage you are trying to establish a line of argument and work out which part of the onion you need to be using. A great article… i feel marginally less incompetent!

    • Thanks Jen. I think it’s unfortunately quite common for people to experience a loss of confidence, or extra anxiety, in this situation – which is really a big deal, since it can slow down or shut down the process of learning about/through research writing. You mention the sentence-level corrections: Another factor here is sometimes that supervisors do not have tools for discussing your writing. They know when something is good and when it’s not, and they know how to do it themselves, but their expertise may not be in the field of linguistics or academic literacy. So changing things at the level of the sentence could be the best way they know to show… (another reason for some shared models for talking about writing…)

  4. Supervisors do not necessarily want to read everything. I think it is definitely important to establish the kind of expectations your supervisors have on you at the start. It may take a few trials before you can understand their rhythm. For example, my supervisors are probably ‘planners’, and would only want to see the final draft of something quite polished up that they can read and critically comment on. But, before I start on a new chapter/paper, I always provide a few pages summary just to ensure that I’m on the right track, before it is “too late” to change the whole direction of the chapter/paper.

  5. Thanks for this excellent post Cassily. It explains so many of the issues with writing, I think – the way that fear develops in students, and frustration in supervisors. It pinpoints again what a lot of trust there has to be in the supervisory relationship.

    • Absolutely M-H. If there’s some trust there, people can be more comfortable negotiating with supervisors about different ways of working, and the kinds of feedback which will be most helpful

  6. Yes! Feels so good to read this because I went through all sorts with my supervisors before I hit a stage where I’m comfortable ‘drafting’ for my own purposes before making it into something coherent. At one point, during a particularly bad meeting, I ended up catatonic and in tears because I knew I was doing it ‘wrong’ but I couldn’t work out how to do it ‘right’. Thankfully, things have moved on from there, though I got into similar trouble with my second chapter draft. At that point, though, I think I knew what I was doing and how my work would evolve.

  7. Wow! I was definitely a “drafter” driving my readers crazy because . . . well . . . they were “planners” and none of us were really conscious of the mismatch. And I “drafted” a lot!!! (HUGE, TICKLED, IN-RETROSPECT SMILE)

    My questions, then, are: When/how do drafters get feedback, if writing for planners? How do drafters respect planners’ time and how do planners respect drafters’ needs without going crazy (LOL!)?

    As I meditate on this, I will definitely be sharing this post. VERY HELPFUL: Awareness if the first step!

    • Here are a couple of strategies for drafter-candidates writing for planner-supervisors:
      – explicitly identify what stage in your thinking the draft represents before handing it over (e.g. what layer of the Onion)
      – agree on some deadlines for stages, rather than drafts
      – propose using something else for feedback, until you have a ‘mature’ draft – e.g. ‘Storylines': Write one sentence for each main idea/paragraph. Number these sentences, one per line of the document, and submit this for comments and discussion

      Other ‘drafters’ would have several other strategies to share …

      • that advice is unfortunately for me starting to sound like a planner plan. is there a jigsaw approach to writing, where the bits are all oddly shaped and there are quite a few extra pieces that willhave to be discarded later, and you don’t know how it will fit together yet because the colours and patterns are not clear and there are no edges or joins?

      • I write like that – as a consequence I tended to hold back writing from my supervisors until it was more polished. I think it has a lot to do with trust as MH noted before. Trust in your supervisor that they wont judge for the pieces that don’t fit yet. FWIW – this is other reason I prefer to write in Scrivener.

      • I generally don’t send written work until it’s been through several drafts and moved much further through the layers of the onion. If I’m stuck at an earlier stage, I’ve found that it’s best to talk to my supervisor, rather than send written work. I tell him what I’ve done, what I think I want to achieve with the chapter and so on. He tells me if he thinks that sounds okay and makes suggestions of things to make sure I include or deal with in some way. That’s usually enough to give me confidence to keep going with the chapter until it’s ready to send.

      • As a drafter-candidate writing for planner-supervisor, I can say the idea of sharing early drafts in an alternate format (e.g. storylines) worked for me. Since I’m fluent in PowerPoint, I use this to capture my “jigsaw pieces” of ideas, where they can easily be rearranged, and, well, doodled on in various ways, or moved to the end of the file, after a slide I call “backup slides.” (JK – would that work for you?) I find this technique also helps me get past writers block, and think more creatively. And since the format is very clearly not a paper, it’s unmistakable to my supervisor that it’s still a thought piece. Generally I don’t ask him to read it anyway – instead we use it to talk through my ideas, because in addition to the planner/drafter divide, my supervisor is a verbal teacher and I am a visual learning. It’s still challenging, but this strategy has helped.

      • Thanks DD – Delightful to hear how you and your supervisor have reflected on your respective ways of working and are using creative strategies to accommodate one another!

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  9. I also wonder about the other side of things. My supervisor keeps telling me to write drafts as I go and I’ll figure it out as I write. I, however, am most certainly a planner. In fact, I typically write for a near final draft (when I finally get down to writing). I need a clear outline and plan for what I’m going to accomplish, and this is what takes me the most time. It is equally as hard being a student who is a ‘planner’ and a supervisor who is a drafter.

    • Interesting point – I think I am that kind of supervisor. I have worked out it can be irritating for my students. I like cassily’s idea of a storyline. Might be a way to meet half way?

    • Is your supervisor aware of the different way you work? If so, what strategies have you and your supervisor used so far to compromise?

      One example is to use an alternative to a draft which shows the progress you are making in a form which is reassuringly ‘concrete’ – e.g. storylines as Inger suggests – or perhaps a concept map using Freemind or similar

      • I just wanted to add a recent story from another research candidate… Her supervisors are happy to see her progress through discussion, without drafts. The challenge for her has been that she is a really strongly verbal/auditory learner and communicator. So in discussion, she’s really impressive and her supervisors expect to see a delightful mature draft. BUT she needs quite a bit of time to bridge the gap between speaking about it and getting it into a draft. So she’s been trialling recording her meetings and recording herself talking about her ideas, then transcribing the recordings without doing anything to them, then using the written transcripts as the starting point for the written draft…

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  11. Thank you for this really informative post!
    It makes you step out of your situation and observe yourself as a writer and the communication with your supervisor from the outside. I am mostly on the ‘planner’ side: post-it, cards in different colours for mind mapping different ideas on the floor, a gorgeous mosaic of papers with other ideas on the wall. :D:D However, I have serious problems maintaining my focus for a long period of time and I tend to get discouraged. It was only when I finally decided to communicate these thoughts with my supervisor that she also advised me to write down the challenging phases that I may go through in relation to what I work on in that given time. And I did that. I don’t submit staff on the drafting phase; my ideas change and those drafts are not necessarily coherent. it still takes too long until I feel ready -as a planner- to submit sth. But drafting is one technique that really keeps me going..

    • It sounds like you have found a way to let your supervisor into the drafting phase – which is the key thing. Planners do lovely work, but if they can’t get feedback early it may be work that all needs to be redone. We probably should devote another post or two to exploring these techniques I think.

      • JF’s comments above have also made me wonder if it would be good to have a post on the different stages we go through from rich chaos (e.g. oddly shaped puzzle pieces and blurry colours) towards selective order (e.g. a mature draft or detailed outline). This I think is another dimension – since all us planners and drafters have to go on this journey from chaos to order, although we may use different strategies to get there

      • oh I couldn’t agree more. I bet such a post devoted to the process and possible ‘techniques’ can be beneficial for many people. I did let my supervisor into my situation but it was only after loosing precious time and a lot of energy. I would have been so happy if I had read such a post -as the one you suggest- during that phase. :)

  12. Hmmm, your description of the verbal/auditory learner has made me think… that could be me! I can seem very sensible talking about it but then when it comes to writing things really wobble. I shall think on that further.

  13. Wasn’t aware of the drafter – planner continuum.

    I’m probably too much of a planner. I do mind maps (FreeMind) down to the individual paragraph level. The problem is my supervisor just can’t see how the mind map is going result in a paper and I get lost amongst the words when trying to start drafting before I have the thoughts sorted in my mind and showing on the map.

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  15. regarding your suggestion for another blog on “.. the different stages we go through from rich chaos (e.g. oddly shaped puzzle pieces and blurry colours) towards selective order (e.g. a mature draft or detailed outline). In my mind, this is one of the most foreign aspects of the PhD.

  16. Fantastic piece! It is all so clear now why I’ve found the process frustrating so far. I’ve always been a drafter, a scribbler, a ‘restructure and rewrite’ freak. I recognise now that’s how I nail the analysis. But the whole PhD oversight process – with a ‘planner’ supervisor and having to front up to review Panels with a plan – has been pushing me to be a planner, causing an immense amount of anxiety when I just wasn’t clear where I was going. Yet. I will get there, and after reading this I feel better about trusting my own writing processes. Thanks!

  17. Well, in my case, my supervisor mainly wants to read the finished chapter as the first “draft” I give him. He has to many students and way too much work to do. If I would like him to read an article before I submit it, I should probably give him a month or so. I am in human sciences and was wondering if what I described was normal or not.By the way, I am at the same time a planner and a drafter.

    • Hi Lilli – ‘Normal’ is a pretty relative term – supervisors vary so much in their expectations and assumptions. I think others would have a similar experience to you – i.e. their supervisors are fairly ‘hands off’ during the early drafting/planning. In this case, have you considered seeking some additional support and feedback earlier in the process? e.g. by negotiating with your supervisor, and/or finding out who else may help you with the kinds of feedback you want – e.g. adjunct supervisor, other mentors which you approach, peers in your own institution or in other institutions…

  18. so this was my problem. now I found out my sepervisor is a planner and I’m a drafter. do you have any tips for drafters how to go about with all the drafts and notes to put them in one place to finish the thesis? this proces of drafting leads to hundreds of pages even when writing undergraduate thesis, and drafting PhD thesis, it leaves with much more pages, and the pressing to develop a structure just makes me waist losts of time trying to concentrate all the drafts. are there any strategies for drafters how to go on woth writing and to finish (article, thesis, chapter etc.)?

  19. I’m definitely a drafter. I wish I could have made my supervisor understand this early on — she demanded to see my work and then tore me apart (and questioned whether I even belonged in the program) because I necessarily gave her early drafts because, well, it was early days. This reaction from her really held me back by years, because I was afraid to ask for her feedback on anything so I just didn’t do it.

  20. I wish this post was around a year or more ago! This has been THE single biggest challenge of my degree. I’m a drafter, my supervisor was a planner. Worse yet, they seem not to have insight that there is any other way than their own to write, and lack the tools – critical, in my mind – to support their students to work in a way that not only makes sense to the student but plays to their strengths.

    I’m an adult – in my forties – who left a career to return to school. I am competent, intelligent, creative and patient. I have taught and mentored. I have managed diverse people, with diverse working/learning styles and needs. I have worked for all kinds of employers, and all kinds of clients. I have conducted complex research projects in both academic and professional settings. Never has my own method for creative problem solving failed me. And yet this gap between – what, learning or communication styles? – nearly did me in, both emotionally and academically. As I struggled to deliver detailed outlines well before I knew what I wanted to say, I became more and more confused, and the supervisor more and more insistent that I had to deliver a perfect outline before I could write. Funnily enough, even stating that I need to ‘write to figure it out’ did nothing to help. I’ve been told I was flat out wrong; convinced myself I was stupid and incompetent, and that I had developed some sort of late onset learning disability. I become utterly paralyzed with anxiety about yet more knuckle rapping.

    Figuring out what was going on, finding the words to say what I needed, and then summoning the courage to be assertive to ask for it, have come too late – I am now ploughing on with different supervisory arrangements. 12 mos of negative, punitive and horribly confusing feedback is still causing painful second guessing and self doubt. By putting the cart before the horse, in other words not taking the time to draft, I’ve slowed myself down by many many months. As I try to finish this as quickly as I can, I have made two conscious decisions: 1. This horrible experience does not mean grad school was horrible, or that I am a failure. I frame this as a difficult lesson in how to deal with difficult circumstances, when there is a power imbalance between the participants. AND 2. In the future, when I am once again in a leadership/mentoring/teaching role, I will bring intentional awareness to how each of us in that relationship learn and problem solve. As they say, there is more than one way to skin a cat – and no cats need be skinned just to get a thesis done!

    • Thank you for your story Papercut – Heartbreaking and unfortunately recognisable for many folks – and so admirable in the way you’re taking your learning forward to strengthen your own teaching and mentoring – Bravo / Brava!

    • That’s the spirit! I do tell people who are having a terrible time that one thing you can be sure of is – you will be a different kind of supervisor (and maybe a better one) as a result.

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  22. Well, it’s happened again – three weeks ago a run-in with supervisors pushing me to articulate my overarching framework when I’ve only drafted one rough early chapter and have yet to research (let alone write) my case studies. I protested that actually I’d been stressing about that very issue and that I just can’t talk big picture yet – I need to get deep into the research and writing first. I fully understand that they want to be reassured that I know where I’m going, but working on endless abstracts and outlines is distracting me from the work. It just feels right for me to research, write, then step back to see the themes, work out the thread that runs between them, work out what is missing & needs further work and identify the theory that holds it together (I accept this will result in extensive rewriting of earlier drafts). But being beaten up all the time (and beating myself up, mostly) for not having a firm outline or plan or sense of direction is starting to really rock my confidence! Am I wrong in my approach?? Or is this a topic for a future post?!

    • I sometimes think ‘planner’ types are comfortable with thinking from the big picture as a starting point, going ‘top-down’, getting the bird’s eye view. They feel more confident about the direction if they can see a map. Does that mean that ‘drafter’ types are happier with ‘bottom-up’ thinking? i.e. starting from real concrete facts and processes, keeping their feet on the ground and getting to grips with the actual territory, climbing the hills before getting that view. When I hear your story, I wonder about ways of negotiating, so that you are able to get on with things in the way that works for you, while providing your supervisors with something that reassures them, and enables them to help you in the ways that make sense to them. There are lots of possibilities (e.g. discussing a flowchart representation of the process you’ve outlined above) – and it all starts with the ways you and your supervisors are able to negotiate and compromise…

    • I see your point, but as a supervisor, I think that they have a point. In my space, the social sciences, a PhD has to extend theory in some way, or it is isn’t a PhD. It’s a bit different with a masters where an empirical test in a different context will usually be enough to get you through.
      A research project starts with a theoretical ‘gap’, so you need to review at least one, maybe many, bodies of theory to establish what questions have not been asked and that no one has answered the question you want to investigate. You need to do this first as the research question you come up with then logically flows through to dictate the level of analysis and the methods you choose to investigate your question.
      This is not so much a matter of writing to think or planning and structuring, it’s a rather more basic question of what’s the question.
      If you’ve been doing lots of reading I find it helps to write up a section or body of theory and discover the gaps and questions that evolve, before heading off into a different body of theory. Your supervisors are trying to get you to focus so that you get this thing done within your, and their lifetime. A clearly articulated question will solve many of your issues.

  23. Thank you for an incredibly insightful and encouraging piece! It has felt like my supervisors and I were speaking a different language at times, whereas in fact I am a drafter and they are planners. It is that simple! I am greatly relieved and very grateful for the insight. Thank you again.

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  25. This was great and an experienced academic made me realise that this disjuncture is also common between co-authors. It probably explains why I love writing with some colleagues – the write to think crowd – and get hugely frustrated by the colleagues who want it all planned out before you start the paper and don’t even have a clear idea of the research question.
    Going to have a few discussions now….

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  27. I am very happy to read this! I’ve been having the inverse problem with my supervisor, him being a drafter while I’m a planner. All our meetings end with a “That’s a good thought, now right a couple of pages on that for next week” from his part, which, on me as a planner, acts as a source of great stress. Right until reading this post, I could not understand how he expected me to write on an idea I’m just beginning to develop, and wondered if he thought I was not working enough which made it all too stressful to sit in front of the computer and do as he asked. So thank you! The last thing he asked me to write was a conclusion to my work, even though I’m just getting started. This helps clarify what he might want with that, and frees me of a great deal of stress!

    • Thanks for your reply – I’m so glad to hear that you’ve got a stronger sense of clarity about your writing and thinking process, and feeling more empowered to reflect on the feedback cycle with your supervisor.

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