The Dissertation Lifeline

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My Advisor Hasn’t Given the Feedback I Need!

This edition of the Academic Ladder Newsletter is coming to you thanks to Jayne London, who is my associate and a superb dissertation coach. She has spent over a decade working with graduate students at the University of Michigan, as the Program Manager for Graduate Student Life, and has answered every question imaginable.

The Dissertation Lifeline

Dear Jayne,

I’m writing my dissertation and recently submitted my first chapter to my advisor. He returned it to me and now I feel very discouraged. For one thing, he didn’t write any substantive comments so I don’t know whether I’m on the right track or not. In addition, he made lots of grammatical corrections. I’ve always considered myself a good writer but now I feel that this is no longer true.

Down in the Dumps

Dear Down,

It is very disappointing not to get feedback from your advisor that you find helpful or useful. But the lack of substantive comments may indicate that your advisor is satisfied with the structure and content of your chapter. It is critical that you know whether this is true – or not – so let’s look at ways you can seek out more detailed input.

  1. Email your advisor and thank him or her for the prompt feedback and close reading of your chapter. Let him/her know that you want to be sure s/he sees your work as being on the right track. What were the strengths of your chapter? Did any areas need improvement? You can have this conversation over email if that is the way s/ he tends to work, or perhaps you want to set up a time to meet one-on-one.

  2. When you submit your next chapters, attach a cover memo directing your advisor to areas of your chapter that you worry may not be as strong or as clear as the other parts. Ask specifically for the feedback you would find to be most useful.

  3. Check with other advisees to see if this is a typical type of response from this advisor. If so, can you identify any other member on your committee who could give you more substantive feedback?

    If this is not the type of responses his other advisees are receiving, you may want to ask a fellow student if you could read some of their work. This way you can see the writing style your advisor prefers. One of your colleagues may also be willing to read a draft of your work and point out things your advisor is likely to comment on.

  4. Look at the grammatical corrections objectively to see whether the edits serve to improve your work or not. Understand that it is possible for the following two things to be true – that you are a good writer AND that your advisor can help you tighten and improve your writing. After all, s/he’s had many more years with the very specialized arena of academic writing.

  5. If you don’t believe these corrections improve upon what you’ve said, then you may want to just accept the suggestions and let it go at that. In all likelihood, your advisor is using that red pen more out of his or her own habit or style — and it is not a comment about your skills as a writer. Professors spend a lot of time reading other peoples’ works (dissertations, articles and books). They no longer can read anything without making edits. So even if you spent an additional week writing a third (fourth or fifth!) revision to your chapter, you may find that s/he makes just as many corrections.

No matter what type of feedback and corrections your advisor provides, do not overfocus on the negative feedback or generalize from the criticisms, and decide that you don’t deserve an advanced degree. Anyone can improve his/her writing, so it’s important in academia to develop a thicker skin when it comes to such feedback.


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