‘Hey, Editor – I’m undeniable!’ Dealing with feedback and criticism during your PhD

It’s the moment you’ve been waiting for. The email lands in your inbox. ‘Feedback attached.’ You download the document – the filename is slightly different from when you sent it, your supervisor’s initials plastered on the end. You click ‘open’ and… are blinded by the sheer amount of tracked changes and comments in the Word document.

Sometimes, criticism of your work can be hard to swallow. The mere thought of feedback can even stop us from performing our best – when we make assumptions about what our supervisors might say about our work, it can lead to procrastination as we put off that moment of truth. They can’t tell you it’s bad if you don’t finish it, right? Before I started my PhD, I talked to a bunch of second and third years about what to expect and I heard the same warning over and over again: be prepared for some harsh feedback about your writing.

But, there are small things you can do to make your relationship with feedback less rocky if you dread the moment you get your work back. Here’s a collection of tips and advice from fellow PhD researchers to make dealing with feedback a little easier.

Don’t think of it as simply ‘feedback’

It’s easy to get bogged down by the fact that, at the end of the day, all these criticisms and comments are about your work, and the thought of staring your criticisms in the face is daunting. Lan Pham from the University of the West of Scotland decided to flip the way she thought about receiving feedback. “I see feedback and criticism as a gift and a learning experience from those who know more about it than me,” explains Lan Pham. “The more comments I get and the more opportunities to learn feel like doing drills at the gym. If I was learning to weightlift by myself, every single lift would be wonky for months – maybe years! If somebody who has been professionally weightlifting for years wants to critique every lift I make and adjust my form, I’d improve at a faster rate. So, each drill – each piece of criticism – offers me the opportunity to nudge myself to be a teeny bit better.”

Close your eyes (kind of!)

If you’re anything like me, the sheer volume of comments on a document is enough to throw you into a panic. When you’re scrolling through the document for the first time, it’s easy to have a mini freak-out about just how many things you must work on. Morven Gow from the University of Stirling offers a piece of unconventional advice to give you a bit of breathing space: “I scroll through my document with half-shut eyes, and get an idea of how much is waiting for me. Then I take a deep breath before going back in.” Morven’s technique is great for the easily flustered. It means you can focus rationally on the quality of the criticisms and pieces of feedback you receive when you eventually dive back in, instead of getting worked up about the quantity. You might get a few curious looks from your peers if you decide to do this in the office though…!

Congratulate yourself on the positives

When you’re in the midst of a re-draft looking through your comments, it’s all too easy to forget there are also positive comments scattered throughout. “Just seeing those comment boxes doesn’t mean it’s all bad,” said Hanneke Booij from the University of Stirling. “Some of my feedback includes things like ‘good point’ or ‘I like this’, which brings such a sigh of relief!” Taking some time to reflect on the positive aspects of your writing is just as important as focusing on what you can work on – and they give you a much-needed breather.

Remember: it’s not supposed to be ‘easy’

It’s natural to feel a bit disappointed that you didn’t ace something the first time – but if we were all *that* good then a PhD wouldn’t take three years, right? 

Sido Ecochard from the University of Strathclyde keeps this in mind when going through her work. “I think it makes sense for the process to be overwhelming. Usually, you have spent countless hours on a piece of work and you just hope it’s enough and you can now move on. Well, usually it isn’t! You need to redraft again and again. Yes, it’s tough and it won’t be easy, but clearly, you like a challenge or else you would not be doing a PhD!”

Face your fear

The more feedback you receive, the thicker your skin gets and the easier it is to take on constructive criticism and move on with it. From a personal experience working in magazines and through creative writing, my writing is constantly critiqued and it’s my job to ensure it gets better quickly. I find it much easier to handle feedback on my PhD work because I’ve gone through a lot of criticism and come out the other side much better for it, and I know the same will happen with my academic work. Maybe you’re a writer in other industries, or have some friends and colleagues that would be willing to give you some kind of feedback on your writing (perhaps on style rather than content, for example) that you can work on. 

And finally…

If none of the above resonates with you or you don’t think any of that advice would help in the slightest, then it might be worth thinking about changing the way you receive feedback. Talk to your supervisors and any teams available at your institution to make something work for you. For example, some colleagues of mine prefer to receive general feedback face-to-face before looking through the comments on their written piece. Or, perhaps if none of this resonates with you it’s because I haven’t put together a very good blog post – feedback is, of course, welcome! (I prefer comments in a Word Document, FYI.)

Would you like to write a post for our blog? Get in touch – chiara.bullen@glasgow.ac.uk

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