It is important to recognise that feedback is essential for the process of learning – even Olympic athletes benefit from coaching. Being a research student is quite different from being a coursework student; therefore, it is unreasonable to expect that you will have the same level of independence as you had as a coursework student - at least initially. In order to seek and obtain good quality feedback, keep the following in mind:

Be prepared

Go to each meeting with things to report, particular issues to discuss, and questions to ask.

Know what you want

Decide at what level you're seeking feedback. For example:

  • the appropriateness of the methodology
  • general structure of a paper
  • the quality of the evidence you are using
  • the general flow of ideas
  • the appropriateness of the writing style
  • the best arrangement of your data in tabular or graphic form

Make sure your advisor knows what kind of feedback you are after.

Ask questions

The better the questions you ask, the better the feedback you get. For example, it is better to ask, "Do you think the discussion of x fits better in section a or b?", rather than "Would you look at my writing?"

Understand and overcome any reluctance you might have for seeking feedback

Such reluctance might stem from one of the following reasons:

Concern about imposing on the supervisor

Yes. they are busy, so this should be taken into account. But the university is being funded to provide for your supervision, and it’s in the university’s best interest to provide adequate supervision so that your chances of successful completion are as high as possible.

Absence of supervisor

Some supervisors travel a lot to international conferences or may go overseas on study leave – or may even get a job elsewhere! It’s important that arrangements are made for your continued adequate supervision while they are away. Make sure that such arrangements are put in place before your advisor departs.

Doubts and insecurity about the quality of your own work

Keep in mind that you’re a beginner researcher and that it is normal for beginners at anything to need quite a bit of guidance and/or corrective feedback in the early stages. Also, it may be possible to improve the quality of many aspects of your work by consulting sources other than your supervisor. Alternative sources include this website, books on writing theses, relevant workshops run by Learning Advisers, or individual consultations with a Learning Adviser.

Protecting yourself

“If I don’t hand anything in, no-one will be able to tell me how bad it is.” Critical feedback can be a blow to one’s self-esteem and one’s self-confidence, so in some ways it is natural to want to avoid those blows. But corrective feedback is a necessary part of learning, and if we weren’t willing to try and potentially fail at things we would never have learned fundamental skills, such as how to walk. So, if you find yourself avoiding your advisor for fear of critical feedback, then perhaps you could first show your work to a Learning Adviser. Learning Advisers can let you know if you’re on the right track. They can also show you where and how things might be improved in a non-judgemental way. In addition, it might be useful to talk to a Personal Counsellor at Student Services to explore why you feel the way you do and to explore ways of dealing with your feelings.

Worthless feedback

Some students for whom English is not their first language have found that feedback focuses more on language issues rather than on substantive issues (i.e. content and structure). These students have had to ask their supervisor to ignore the English problems (they can get that addressed once the content is right) and focus on content and structure.

If the feedback you receive is, in your opinion, too superficial, then maybe you need to be more specific about what you are after (see above), or maybe you need to seek alternative sources of feedback. For example, sometimes advisors can say what’s wrong with a piece of writing in general terms (e.g. “it’s not critical enough”), but not be able to explain in more detail what needs to be done because they aren’t writing instructors. Interpreting supervisor feedback and teaching how to address it are things that Learning Advisers at Student Services can help students with.

Feedback given insensitively

In such cases, a Personal Counsellor at Student Services might be able to coach you in ways to assertively ask for more appropriate feedback or to help you to “focus on the content of the message and to ignore the way it was delivered.” You may also wish to seek some alternative forms of feedback such as from Learning Advisers (who can’t replace an advisor, but perhaps can help you to get your work to a standard where the feedback from your advisor won’t be as dramatic as it would otherwise have been.)

To some extent though, one has to get used to critical feedback given insensitively, as some bosses and some journal reviewers are prone to doing this (see Guest Editorial by Kate Chanock in the Journal of Academic Language and Learning).