Why does feedback hurt sometimes?

This letter was written by an experienced academic at ANU to her PhD student, who had just presented his research to a review panel and was still licking her wounds.

The student sent it to me and I thought it was a great response I asked the academic in question, and the student who received it, if I could publish it. I wish all of us could have such nuanced and thoughtfu feedback during the PhD. I hope you enjoy it.

Screen Shot 2014-02-05 at 7.27.05 PMA letter to…My PhD student after her upgradeWell you did it. You got your upgrade. But from the look on your face I could tell you thought it was a hollow victory. The professors did their job and put the boot in. I remember seeing that look in the mirror after my own viva. Why does a win in academia always have the sting of defeat?

Yeah, it’s a funny business, I know.

We all have a deep, interior need for approval. But in this game, no-one will ever smile and give you a gold star. Instead you get “feedback”. We’re supposed receive feedback like a gift, but it feels like a rebuke.Few things are more agonising than a thorough dressing down of your work. Bear in mind that academics are never taught properly how to give feedback, which is why it’s such a slippery, contradictory, prickly process. As a PhD student, you’re not taught to receive feedback either, just to nod in acquiescence. Part of becoming a scholar is learning to receive feedback in a way that is constructive for you, not simply to please others. To make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. That kind of thing. Idioms have never been my forte.

So how to do that? Don’t ever import feedback wholesale, or promise to either. Think about it and see what works for you. Some of it will be really useful but a lot won’t or won’t make much sense immediately. I often find that feedback misses the mark somehow. Don’t ignore it because the comment seems misguided. Think about the processes your reviewer went through to misunderstand something. What can you do to make sure your readers don’t stray from the path? Point is some feedback might be relevant, some completely irrelevant, and some feedback might be slightly off-course. The key to feedback is that you need to work to put it to service to your work. It’s usually not a natural fit.

Personally, I try to remember that when people engage with me and my work, it’s a great compliment as they are giving me their free time and intellectual energy. Critical feedback is actually the best kind of feedback because it helps you grow. It’s exciting when someone has shifted their intellectual gears to understand what you’re trying to do and point out where you’re missing the mark. When a supervisor waves her hand and says great great great, you know they’re just shuffling you along. Sometimes an empirical or comparative or ‘what about…?’ question, is just filling in the time.

On the feedback spectrum, the very worst thing is silence. It means you didn’t provoke any thoughts at all.

Whenever I receive written feedback, I cast my eyes quickly over it. Inevitably there’s something that causes pain or anger but I try not to read the comments too intently. I immediately thank the person/editor via email and tell them how I much I appreciate their time and that of the reviewers and that I’ll think about it for a little while and get back to them.

This is a lie.

Instead, I brood, and gnash my teeth. I get angry and upset. I call it the grief cycle. I focus on the grieving and I don’t talk about the feedback or allow myself to form solid opinions about it. It might take days, weeks or months, but when I’ve finally emerged out of the other side, I open up the feedback and give it a proper read. When I’m really really ready, I open up a blank document and I number each piece of feedback and formulate a response to it. Point is, you need some time off from it before you can set your mind to stringing together that mish-mash of advice and suggestions to something that works for you.

It took me years to work out that doing a PhD is not just writing clever thoughts into chapters. It’s a personal endeavour that demands you rewrite your personhood too. You have to fortify yourself and manage that voice inside that tells you you’re no good. You have to build resilience. Resilience will help you go sober, and detox from the Pavlovian need for approval. Everyone has to work out what works for them in this regard but working on the emotional dimensions of your work, the emotions you generate about your work that determine how your work, is integral to actually finishing your PhD.

Here is a short summary of what my friends and I have done at various stages of the PhD and post-doc process to cope:

  • Bury yourself in self-help books, particularly those with a cognitive behavioural therapy element. Do the exercises in the book. Yes. Really.
  • Start seeking out post grad activities/workshops/writing groups etc. Make doing the PhD a social process, not you in a room.
  • That said, surround yourself with strong, supportive people who will rejoice in your success. Actively eliminate the vipers. They’ll slow you down.
  • Find a good mentor who is separate from your panel/supervision, and that might include someone with a PhD in the workforce. They will remind you that life is swings and roundabouts and lots of successful people spend years in the roundabouts.
  • Learn to prioritise your well-being. Working until 2am because you did nothing until 5pm is not prioritising your well-being.
  • Take up meditation.
  • Always exercise. Yes. Really. Everyday. Just do it.
  • Develop a routine. Writing 10-12. Lunch 1-2. Seminar 2-3. Writing 3-5. Stick to it.

One thing that has been particularly helpful for me has been to draw parallels with others in the creative process. Every time you consume something – a song, a radio program, an editorial – remember that like your thesis it has been loved and laboured into being. That there’s so much work out there is something of a miracle. It speaks to the legions of people out there, who without spiffy titles, salaries, awards or clapping hands, give their all to a creative pursuit; a painting, a piece of writing that they labour from nothing into being. Feel wonder at their courage and determination and how they have given themselves up to the simple, grinding need to create.  You are one of them now.

Finally, resilience comes when you realise that you have self worth. You have worth regardless of how that last piece of writing went. You have worth whether you get this PhD or not. You have worth simply because you are here and you exist.

Doing a PhD is hard. It’s supposed to be otherwise everyone would have one. It’s nothing like the study you’ve done before, not even a Masters. It’s supposed to break you and turn you into something else. In that way, we might think of it as a four year hazing. You’ll get through it and you’ll be a stronger and richer person for it but understand that scholarly work taxes your personhood. So as part of being a scholar, you have to devote some energy on working on yourself too.

Best, 
XXXXXX
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51 thoughts on “Why does feedback hurt sometimes?

  1. I enjoyed this article… thanks for sharing…
    I am a first year PhD student and I am in the process of preparing my literature review… I get distracted a lot along the way and I agree that with your second solutions when you said “Make doing the PhD a social process, not you in a room“. I have found that tutoring, helping out in nearby projects in my lab and even blogging (http://adamchehouri.blogspot.ca/) have a positive impact on my research and productivity. I personally don’t like the notion of time and scheduling, I prefer to work until I find myself unresponsive and remember that a PhD is not a race but a marathon…

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  3. I am in the FINAL throws of finishing a Masters thesis (don’t underestimate the life changing capacity of a Master’s please!). I shouldn’t even be posting because this is technically procrastinating AND I AM RUNNING OUT OF TIME!!! But, one reason I am short on time is that I was so afraid of feedback I was paralyzed. Unable to write. Unable to think. Fear bound. And then I was out of time.

    What helped? All of the things Inger suggest, most notably mindfulness meditation. If feedback produces – or can produce – uncomfortable feelings, then this kind of meditation taught me how to sit with them and not tell a story about it. In other words, it’s just information about my work, not a judgement about my worth as a person. Critical comments about my writing can make me feel uncomfortable, and I can accept those uncomfortable feelings, even if I don’t accept all the criticism.

    The CBT stuff helps in making that next leap; to understand, if not believe, that I am not my work. I don’t have to argue with my head about this, I just have to know that what I am thinking might not be the truth. Incomplete ideas? Faulty logic? Insufficient theoretical support? Just information about the work. Not a sign that my brain has failed or that I am unable to produce the calibre of work necessary to complete this task. Again, difficult experiences don’t have to run us off the rails: I make another choice about how I respond; I can make a decision to work in spite of my discomfort. Framing the feedback as information about the work, not about ourselves, helps with this.

    And this is the most important thing I learned about feedback: it is how we get information about our work. Period. Obvious? You bet, but not easily internalized. We need it. We need to have little failures along the way, because this is how we learn. And we need outside eyes to tell us when we fail and when we are on the right path. Our own evaluation is not enough. It’s the discipline we are working in, and it works like many other professional environments in this way. The most significant learning process for me in doing this research has not been about my project – though that was pretty interesting I do admit. Rather it was about how to solicit, evaluate, accept, integrate or even reject feedback; and to separate this part of the work from who I am. Period.

    Gotta go!

  4. Thanks so much Inger. This touches on so many points that I have been thinking about myself and thinking about writing about as a possible piece in the Thesis Whisperer. It encapsulates so well my thoughts on the how the PhD is an privileged, amazing, wonderful & grinding journey that has enriched me so much, no matter what the final academic outcome may be; of the importance of making this a social endeavour, not locking yourself into a room; and most of all of the importance building a network supportive friends who have or are going through it and understand. Of the latter, I am so thankful I have you and Tseen. Even though I have met you both only once in person and keep only very sporadic virtual contact, all your wonderful advice and belief in me and knowing you are both ‘there’ if I need advice, has been very comforting. Thank you

    >

  5. Thank you for this – I really needed to read this today! I just got some negative feedback (as you would expect!) on work that was otherwise graded highly (I’m just finishing my Master’s) – and this has helped me to try and think about the feedback process in a healthier manner. So thank you :)

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  7. This is a refreshing letter. Rarely do you see someone acknowledge the weaknesses of their profession. I happen to agree with the letter author that academics are not strong when it comes to giving feedback. It almost seems contradictory that the ways in which new knowledge is nurtured involve processes which can be so harmful to the self esteem and confidence of the research student. Here indeed is one practice in need of serious critical reflection. What are the beliefs in operation when an academic needs to domolish the proposal of a student?

  8. A much appreciated and insightful post! I am preparing for confirmation and have been surprised at just how sensative and fearful I am of getting feedback from my supervisor. At least – hopefully – I can incorporate your suggestions now, while it’s still relatively early in my phd.

  9. A good reply and advice from the supervisor. However, I found something lacking – what do you do when the ‘feedback’ is centred around a conclusion of yours that can be supported qualitatively (but not necessarily quantitatively), which the provider of the ‘feedback’ is uncomfortable with for whatever reason (e.g., “rubbishes” a pet theory, challenges assumptions about themselves – always important when working in the humanities)? Further, what should be done when the provider of the ‘feedback’ holds power over you – i.e., a supervisor or member of a publication committee undertaking peer review?
    I faced exactly this situation when completing my Masters degree, and use was then made of power to remove the conclusions that the power holder was uncomfortable with (i.e., remove this or I wont give my approval). This is where the provision of feedback (always a laudable goal) crosses a line and becomes academic bullying, regardless of the forum via which the feedback is supplied.
    I keep hearing that receipt of feedback is part and parcel of academic life, and I have no issue with that, and can accept feedback well. However, when use is made of power to remove qualitative conclusions that can be supported by the data available because the power holder is uncomfortable with the discussion, that is now longer the “provision of feedback”. I feel the sector is reluctant to face up to this issue, and to devise strategies to deal with such situations, however it must – as a human rights issue and imperative.

  10. Impressive letter. I wish I’d known this during my PhD process. I discovered if I explored my reactions to distressful hurts/feedback (i.e., by working on self-awareness and resilience-building as a core part of my PhD process) I gradually began to suffer less from criticism. One of my markers didn’t understand what my PhD was about, and gave quite a bit of irrelevant feedback as well as some valuable, pertinent, useful comments. I reacted with two days of pure rage. Then I started writing my responses to the markers’ comments. Over the next three weeks I gradually massaged my responses to restate my case, accept the useful feedback, and respectfully rebut the rest. I also saw much more clearly where I had not made my point in the thesis. Now I’m doing the minor amendments after a break of three more weeks, and it’s easier to be balanced, appropriately self-critical, and strong. I’m surprised at the relative absence of negative energy and personal vulnerability that once would have derailed me for much much longer. This hard won growth in ‘personhood’ was organic and incremental and almost undetectable until the end.

  11. Inger, please pass on many thanks to the people involved for agreeing to share this! I have passed the link around a few fellow student/researcher networks and have been overwhelmed with the number of responses saying how helpful/good/timely this is – from experienced researchers who still go through stuff like this when getting comments on papers and grant applications to people who have just submitted their thesis to people who are somewhere in the Valley of Shit.

    I’ve bookmarked it and I know I’ll probably be referring back to it more than once.

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  13. This is fantastic and really helps a lot! But what do you do when you are isolated because of a lack of support and the pressures that come with family responsibilities? Along with being the primary care giver to two young children (who seldom has any time out!) I have found the disconnect from any form of academic community and an elusive supervisor to be my biggest personal challenges so far. We have an active postgrad community here with lots of opportunities to network, socialise and build on mutual support systems, but when you are in a personal situation similar to mine, participation is all but impossible. Needless to say, digging your way out of the dark holes you fall into along the way is extremely difficult sometimes.

    • Hi Melanie, just a quick suggestion about the challenge of isolation. I’m in a ‘peer support group’ of research students, some PhD and some MPhil. Some of the group members are unable to attend because of family commitments or travel (eg their data collection is overseas, or they have relocated since starting their studies). We’ve dealt with this by setting up a Skype group, which is free as long as everyone is participating via their computer not phone. It’s not quite as good as being in the same room, but it’s meant that people have been able to remain actively connected to group discussions and activities whether they are caring for kids or an aged parent, at home waiting for a tradesperson to arrive, or in Asia or Europe (time scheduling requires some commitment there!). Would this be an option for you?

  14. I literally wept reading this article. To the supervisor who wrote this, thank you. I’ve just gone through an upgrade viva that took seven months to arrange because of hiccups with my paperwork (yes the university lost my application & thesis chapters). The viva was pretty intense for me – it was a combination of motivations lost, jet lag (had to fly 17 hrs for “feedback”/shooting squad), a terrible migraine that has been a regular feature since i started my phd 4 years ago, and not having a clue abt my work anymore because of the long wait and lack of feedback. But finally having gone through the viva, I am now reorganizing my thesis and there’s much more clarity. Of course, that’s after burrowing myself for a week in my room and sulking in the corner, licking my wounds.

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  16. While I agree with much of the argument I could not disagree more strongly with the final paragraph.

    So, the PhD is “… supposed to break you and turn you into something else” is it? Then in many cases it works but I have seen too many people ‘broken’ by the system who have never fully recovered, have become institutionalised into the bullying culture of academia itself and go on to perpetuate the system.

    Trust me, as someone who at the far end of the mature student spectrum, life will give you enough opportunities to develop your resilience without having it forced on you through some form of intellectual machismo.

    • I think the writer means ‘break you and turn you into something better’… A better researcher, an individual who has improved emotionally and professionally, a person who will go on to develop others.

      But I agree with you, there are too many times when the opposite happens.

  17. “Doing a PhD is hard. It’s supposed to be otherwise everyone would have one. It’s nothing like the study you’ve done before, not even a Masters. It’s supposed to break you and turn you into something else. In that way, we might think of it as a four year hazing.”

    I’m not sure that is always the case – I did mine like a project alongside a full-time job. It was certainly hard at times and challenging but then lots of things are. I certainly don’t think it changed in me in any fundamental way nor did it break me or even threaten to.

    I often feel when I read blogs like this that it is often presented that the only authentic PhD experience is one where the candidate suffers from physical or mental illness or is broken in some ways – that does happen and more that it should but equally there are plenty of us out there that didn’t happen to and our experience is just as valid.

    • I agree 150%. My PhD experience was horrendous. For many reasons, including poor and absent supervision but also me being a little too young to understand enough of the world to manage it all well. The culture around it was that it was an immense personal journey, that the angst was part of the process and worn like a badge of honour and I wonder if that suggestion to people altered the way they approached it to become somewhat self fulfilling.

      BUT for many it wasn’t an angst ridden, mentally crippling process. For many it was an in depth project to which they applied their project management skills. It does call on upon some personal development, but so do other professional and personal processes. In fact many degrees that train people to become health professionals ask something of that person as do creative degrees and judging and giving feedback are part of many training processes and professions. My colleagues in business have their own challenges with power and feedback, often delivered more directly than I have ever received it.

      The angst ridden personal journey narrative is one of many valid narratives surrounding a pHD, and often the others are not heard. Perhaps because those students are just off doing the work. I wish it was more like that for me. I do think it is good to be equipped for the nature of a critical feedback process that is academia and the PHD/Master research degrees. But gee life gives us that too.

  18. I agree with several of the main points in this post and appreciate that the advisor wrote this to the Ph.D. student. I absolutely agree that academics are not taught to properly give feedback (as in, giving constructive criticism).

    One key point that the advisor neglected to point out is that you never know the situation during which the reviewer reads through your work and formulates his/her opinion. Although a qualifying exam or an oral defense is just that – an opportunity to receive criticism face to face, each stage of my Ph.D. required written materials as well. Therefore, in an ideal situation, the reader would sit down for a period of time and read through your manuscript to completion, uninterrupted by telephone calls, emails, people stopping by his/her office…but the reality is that most readers can’t do that, so instead they are reading your work on an airplane, in between meetings or teaching classes, or skimming it during the hour before the oral exam. In fact, while I was completing my Ph.D., one of my postdoc friends told me to assume that the reader (my primary advisor, committee member, whoever) only had an hour to read the document before giving me feedback and THAT was the reason the comments were so harsh — whether or not it was true didn’t matter, I found it a lot easier to deal with harsh comments when I thought about it that way.

    Additionally, I’ve found that certain people have specific pet peeves (usually based on their area of expertise) or “pet projects” (areas of study they really like to focus on) and the reader will latch on to your one use of a term or topic rip you to pieces over it. Their feedback doesn’t mean that you’re wrong – but I’ve found that some people are very particular about specific things and those things just set them off no matter how amazing and groundbreaking your work is.

  19. I’m writing my thesis at the moment (Master Degree level) and I find this post very helpful. I especially have a problem with starting writing on a daily basis, making it a routine. I usually sit down and write when I’m “in the mood” for it and then panic, that the work is going so slowly.

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  21. Great letter. After my confirmation seminar, my wonderful supervisors gave me similar verbal advice. One suggested I go for a ‘walk in the woods'; which they later explained meant to take a breather and read wider than I had in preparing for my seminar. When I got the written feedback, I scanned it, then put it away. After a few weeks, when the emotion and hype calmed down, I reread my feedback. It is interesting what a few weeks does.

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  23. As someone who is doing her thesis proposal in a few days and who is terrified of the feedback, this really helps. And it helps to know that other people are sometimes emotionally devastated by even helpful feedback too.

  24. “Doing a PhD is hard. It’s supposed to be otherwise everyone would have one. It’s nothing like the study you’ve done before, not even a Masters. It’s supposed to break you and turn you into something else. In that way, we might think of it as a four year hazing.” mmm yes, and if it isn’t, you probably haven’t done it properly.

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  28. Thanks a lot for that! Like for all others above, it resonates a lot for me. And I would add to that: When you are the one providing feedback to others, always start with a positive sentence, it helps a lot bearing the (constructive) criticisms that are coming after that

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