How to cope with harsh supervisor feedback

There’s not much more demoralizing than working for months on a piece of writing only to have it returned to you dripping red ink from your supervisor’s comments, especially if you’re used to getting good grades from your undergrad days.

It’s important not to get too discouraged though. There are good reasons why feedback gets tougher at PhD level—and ways to cope with it.

Why is critical feedback necessary?

A PhD is all about developing the skills of a professional academic. When a professional academic submits a paper to a journal, it goes through a process of peer review where other academics judge the work and recommend to the journal whether it is worthy of publication and what changes need to be made before publication.

Most journals receive more manuscripts than they can publish, so many are rejected outright by the journal editors without being sent for peer review (every academic will have experienced this at least once, probably several times, in their careers). If the work passes the initial assessment of the editors and is sent to referees, part of their job is to identify any weaknesses in the research, analysis or arguments presented.

Even if your work has been seen by others before you submit it, someone unfamiliar with your work will probably raise concerns you haven’t thought of, or they will point out anything that hasn’t been properly explained (because it’s so familiar to you that it seems obvious). It is vital that you are able to address these concerns when they are valid, and to defend or better explain your work if they are not.

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So coping with challenging feedback is an essential part of your PhD training.

PhD vs undergrad feedback

When you submitted essays as an undergraduate student, you will have received a grade and perhaps a few comments. If you scored, say, 90% on a piece of writing that would have been considered excellent, and you would not have had to revise it to make up for the lost 10%.

At PhD level, the system is closer to that of peer-review. The feedback is both tougher and more detailed, and you are expected to respond to it positively.

How to cope with harsh feedback

1- Invite criticism early and often

Don’t wait until you have a complete piece of writing before you seek criticism, but try to discuss your work with people before you write it up. Present preliminary ideas, results and analysis and invite criticism as early and as often as possible. If you can get someone to challenge everything, then it not only forces you to strengthen everything, but also to develop the essential skill of criticising your own work from opposing points of view*. By the time you write up your work formally, it will have already been tested and the obvious weak points addressed, meaning that a supervisor or reviewer has to work much harder to find things to criticise.

OK, so there may still be problems with the language and structure, but if the research content is strong then these things can be fixed much more easily than if the writing is OK but the research content weak.

*This is one of the reasons why who you work with is so crucial.

2- Engage with criticism

Even if you have followed step 1 above, your supervisor or reviewer is still likely to raise several points for you to address. It’s important not to be disheartened by this, and to engage with the challenge on an academic level with energy and enthusiasm.

Take each point one at a time. For each critical point raised, you need first to understand what point they are making (if unclear, ask), then assess the importance of that specific point (some will be crucial, for example if they question one of your fundamental assumptions, others will be less important). Then you can decide whether you agree or not, and what you need to do in response.

Extreme cases

Most of the time feedback is intended to be constructive, even if it feels like they are attacking everything you say. However, I have heard of cases where supervisors have called students “stupid” (or worse), have yelled at them, or been otherwise abusive towards their students. It’s very difficult to know what to do if this happens, as students are often afraid that speaking out will make their lives more difficult. I don’t have a solution to suit all of these extreme cases, but I think it’s important to realise and remember that a PhD is not everything, and you do not have to stay in a abusive environment.

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16 thoughts on “How to cope with harsh supervisor feedback

  1. James, I think you’re psychic. I’m going through this right now. I’ve submitted a piece of writing that took months to complete. It went through rigorous feedback and changes from those in the know. When the completed product went to higher authorities for approval, one of them had no problems with it while the other made comments that were crude and lacked explanation. I’ve been learning to cope with it. In fact, after a good venting session, I’ve sat down and begun to address each comment as objectively and respectfully as I can. Thanks for your post.

  2. Thanks for this, its such a different process that it has been a source of complete frustration to me and my supervisor. I have moved from a routine 90% plus on ug essays to an array of constantly changing red pen efforts–I’m not that bad! I also wouldn’t call it supervision, its something different, and the benchmarks are fundamentally different, so much more about the argument and not about the data. And goal posts change, what starts out as one thing, morphs into something else, I’m told its about being scholarly, whereas I just feel pissed off. Good to know that I am not on my own and this is not unusual.

    • “more about the argument than the data..”

      This isn’t true of all PhDs- I would say that the data is fundamental to the argument, but different academics approach the work from different angles. It’s important to understand what your supervisor/ advisor/ committee is looking for, and you can get an idea of their style of research by reading their published work.

  3. The worst thing is if you have supervisor that do not read your work and start talking about something outside of your submitted work. And always changing his/her mind toward existing research and give recommendations that different from what you are working at the moment. He/she just throw advice for you to consider for example new theory and keep changing theory to another theory after his/her passionate towards new theory has changed. And he/she did not allow you to progress until you said you want to change your theory according to his/her suggestions.

    • Yeah, that’s a tough situation. If you think they don’t know what they are doing it might be worth looking for another supervisor.

    • Uya,
      I have met exactly that kind of supervisor. It was so difficult to make an appointment with her and whenever we met, she suggest some new theories and tell me to read 1000 papers for each. That was a disaster, you know. So I totally sympathy with you if you were in the same situation.

      • Hi Rose,
        I do not know what to say but changing supervisor does not give much choice as must go through many procedures. My supervisor still suggest to use new theory even in my final year when she find new interested theory…
        Rose, do you change supervisor?

        • OK, if you rule out changing supervisors, then the question becomes how best to work with the one you have. These new theories being suggested… have you given proper thought as to whether they are valid and might help you? Is there a problem with the theory you have been using? It may be that your supervisor is simply suggesting alternatives and expecting you to make a decision, rather than expecting you to follow every suggestion.

          • She is difficult to deal with to be honest but this is my final year and I have to deal with it in any way. She always want her student to follow her view without able to try to see from her student’s view or she will tell ‘you are not convincing me”. The problem is she did not read my work. I have to tell her maybe to read this time hmmm…About the theory, she always tend to suggest new theory when she likes or knows about that new theory (for her). But this time I am firmed with my existing theory and there is no problem at all with this theory…This is my journey. Supervisor is supposed to guide student and tell the student what he/she had done wrong by reading his/her work. I know that she has less experience in supervision but don’t be ‘authoritarian’ and read your student’s work!

          • Yes, she should at least read it! I don’t know what to suggest, but this sort of situation is tragically common unfortunately.

        • My dear Uya,
          May be that situation always happen when you work with less experience supervisor. In my case, right after she got approved to be a supervisor, she searched the support of research officer and coordinator to force me moving her from 2nd supervisor to the 1st supervisor when I was going to finish my 2nd year of candidature. After being the 1st, she simply dropped me down by let me alone without any support. When I asked for more meetings as a supervisor should do, she refused me straightaway. Apart from speaking out the name of 3 theories that she though may help, she did not explain anything more.
          I don’t know how to name this situation, may be we can use the term “negligence” in law to describe it. A person who is in charge of providing supports to the client but did not do their job can be absolutely claimed as committing the tort of negligence.

  4. Yes you are right, engaging with the criticism, and trying to know exactly what is the point (not always assuming that you understand it especially towards the end where you invest a lot in the work! and you know a lot about the subject!) is really crucial because what they are saying will come up eventually in the VIVA!

    • It may come up in the viva, it may not. The most important thing is to get used to challenging questions so that the viva isn’t the first time you defend your work.

  5. Having supported it’s publication (through kick-starter) I have read the new book “PhD”. Be warned as you will lose an entire evening reading this from cover to cover. It is a very user friendly and insightful ‘go to’ guide for anyone undertaking this challenge. Whether you are just starting out or in the final, mind numbingly exhausting final push I highly recommend giving up some of your valuable time to reading this. Thank you James as you have helped me to realise that the world does not begin or end with a PhD!

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