Managing conflicting feedback on your thesis

We rarely have posts from our North American academic cousins on the Thesis Whisperer, so it’s a pleasure to bring you this one from Dr Alison Crump. Alison is the Academic Projects Officer in Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies at McGill University where she teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in Second Language Education at McGill.

There is something going on with thesis writing that we need to talk about beyond the whisperings I’ve heard amongst grad students. Here goes: Your thesis is not really yours. Yes, your thesis follows you around, wakes you from your sleep, gazes down on you while you cook, interrupts you when you’re having coffee with friends. Yes, you live and breathe your thesis. But, the moment you hand over the first (full or partial) draft of your thesis, it becomes a negotiated work, as you deal with feedback, advice, and demands from your supervisor and committee members.

Screen Shot 2015-05-04 at 6.12.18 pmWhen I sent the first full draft of my thesis to my supervisor and committee members, I felt like I was letting go of something that was mine. From that point on, my voice would be influenced by theirs. I wondered how this act of opening my writing up to critique, criticism, and praise would shape it. I wondered what my role (right?) was in determining the breadth and scope of the re-shaping.

We are told, as thesis writers, to take a stance, make our work our own and become independent scholars, and develop a voice to communicate our ideas with our scholarly community. But to do all of this, we have to navigate what can sometimes be conflicting messages about where our writing should go. This is entirely expected and perfectly acceptable. To a point. We choose our committee members precisely for the diverse areas of expertise and perspectives they can bring to our work. This makes our writing (and therefore, our thinking) stronger. But, these people do not always agree with each other. And, more importantly, we do not always agree with them. Why aren’t we talking (though we are whispering) about how to navigate the murky waters of receiving conflicting feedback on our thesis?

There is literature and advice on how to give constructive feedback on writing for supervisors, if they choose to look for it. There is also advice on how to deal with conflicting reviews on journal manuscripts.  But the same doesn’t appear to be true with regards to the issue of grad students navigating the power relationships that swirl around the feedback they get on their thesis writing. And, I see this as very different from journal reviewer feedback.  The latter is a “blind” review system, where the author doesn’t know who is giving them feedback. The feedback we get on our thesis writing is not blind. It is personal. It is political. It is wrapped up with issues of imbalanced power relationships. And, how we manage it matters.

Now, I’m not talking about how to handle receiving conflicting advice about formatting your thesis. One professor I spoke to about this advised that grad students do what their supervisor or disciplinary conventions ask them to do, and change the format or push conventions later, if they want. I’m also not talking about when supervisors and committee members make suggestions about how to develop the meat of the thesis (theoretical frameworks or methodological approaches). I say, listen closely, consider the advice, do some more reading, take a stance, and justify your position. Part of our task as emerging scholars is to explore ideas beyond the boundaries of our comfort zones. We expect feedback from our mentors. We expect to be challenged. We want to be pushed, and this helps us develop our work.

BUT. What happens when your supervisor says “You need to add a section/ chapter on X.” And a committee member say, “No way, that doesn’t fit. You need to take out this whole section on Y.” As a grad student, you are in a lower position of power than your supervisor and committee members. You have to navigate some tricky power politics, and still write something you believe in. This can cost you time, which, as we know, costs more than money.

And here, we come to the heart of the issue: You are crafting not only the thesis as your own personal artefact, but also relationships. The onus does not fall on students to manage this relationship alone. The supervisory relationship, like any relationship, is one that needs to be based on clear expectations and understandings of roles and responsibilities. Students need to be able to bring up issues and concerns with their supervisors. Supervisors need to contextualize conflicting feedback for students, and make sure students are not sent off with conflicts to deal with on their own.

We are increasingly seeing supervision as a form of teaching, supervision as pedagogy. As such, we need to consider what images shape our understandings of a good teacher. Is a good teacher someone who is hard on their students? Does learning have to involve some element of suffering? Is a bit of struggle doing the student good? Likewise, we need to consider what images shape our understandings of a good learner.

What are your experiences dealing with conflicting feedback on your thesis writing? How do we bring these stories from whispers between fellow grad students to a constructive and open dialogue between students and supervisors?

Related posts

Supervisor or superhero?

When good supervisors go bad…

Please stop telling me to ‘manage’ my supervisor!



14 thoughts on “Managing conflicting feedback on your thesis

  1. alwynnalwynn says:

    Reblogged this on #iblogstats and commented:
    The committee members will have conflicts. The currency everywhere are your publications. There has to be a way of fixing things after putting in 4 years of very hard-work.
    what is your strategy? Hold on to all emails of criticism. I will show you a neat trick!!

  2. the (research) supervisor's friend says:

    What a wonderful and |( in my opinion) truthful account of this very real dilemma. Thank you for putting it out there. My own experiences have been that sometimes supervisors get direction mixed up with advice. If the research student owns the dissertation and the research they are much more likely to complete and thus the university benefits from the completion. It is a shame that so few people seem to make this connection.
    Geof Hill ( Birmingham City University)

  3. KatieL says:

    I had a similar problem with supervisor and co-supervisor with feedback on my first draft. I went round in circles until I realised that those supervisors were working within different paradigms. Each was expecting me to conform to the norms of their ‘tribe’ – even down to formatting issues such as pagination of sections. Once I had firmly established the expectations of my own paradigm for my thesis, I asked to meet together to discuss some of the feedback. Watching them work out these issues was a fantastic experience, not only did it help me to ‘own’ my thesis, it also provided me with insights that helped me to strengthen my arguments!

  4. Ella says:

    What’s worse than conflict?
    No conflict.
    Individual supervisors may be reluctant to enter the arena and put forward useful alternative points of view.
    (That or they think we’re mind readers)

  5. Frannie says:

    My first experience with a supervisor and a committee ran pretty smooth, they got along pretty well and they separated their tasks in a way, (one would check the format and an other would verify the information etc.). But I recently started my master’s and on my first presentation, I realized that one of the committee members did not like my supervisor, in fact, they started shouting at each other (defending each other’s claims). The whole thing was uncomfortable.

  6. Jennifer Burton says:

    Navigating the power and politics behind the conflicting feedback is a skill. Often, I see these power relationship play out among the members of my thesis committee (in a respectful way…but I’ve heard that hasn’t always been the case with some students). That could probably be a study in itself! Thanks for sharing Alison 🙂

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