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Associate Professor Sara Cotterall  completed her doctorate in the field of doctoral education in 2011 after a 25 year academic career teaching and researching language education.  One of the publications from her PhD was the fabulous article ‘More than just a brain: Emotions and the doctoral experience’. She revisits some of those themes – albeit from a different perspective – in this blog she’s scribed for us.

Sara dedicates this post to David Hall, “my generous and witty PhD supervisor, who passed away February 3, 2014 in Sydney, Australia.”

“It’s hard for me too!” – I think, whenever I hear doctoral candidates angsting about their supervisors’ feedback.  I find it infinitely more difficult to give feedback on doctoral researchers’ work than it ever was to receive.  Why? Because I am acutely aware of the power of the feedback to disappoint, discourage or depress the recipient.

Feedback stirs up a range of emotions.  Many doctoral students tell horror stories about their supervisors’ feedback practices.  They complain that feedback is late, contradictory, difficult to understand or discouraging. Take the supervisor who repeatedly told a PhD candidate that what he had written was ‘bullshit’ and that he shouldn’t come back until he had ‘an original idea’.  With feedback on doctoral writing, the stakes are high, time is short and emotions are raw. However, PhD researchers seldom reveal those emotions to their supervisors (Cotterall, 2013); instead they share them elsewhere.

Emotions that have been held in check tend to spill over when PhD candidates congregate — feelings of anxiety, resentment, impatience, discouragement, dissatisfaction — but rarely feelings of joy. Sadly, the more positive emotions seem to be quarantined until submission day. During my days as a PhD student our monthly seminars were followed by a shared student lunch where the real issues bothering people always got an airing.  Like the time a colleague from China told me she’d been waiting three months for her supervisor to return her draft chapter and wondered if such a delay was normal.  When I offered to draft a respectful email for her to send her supervisor, she refused, explaining that she didn’t want to jeopardize her chances of getting a recommendation letter from him.

But PhD candidates are not the only ones to experience emotions during the feedback process. When I’m giving feedback on my doctoral researchers’ writing, I agonize over the words I use, producing several drafts and modifying my comments until the last minute. I know how much the wrong word can sting.  This is particularly the case when working with researchers whose first language is not English where nuances of meaning can be ‘lost in translation’. I worry that my feedback will discourage, yet I also want to provide guidance that will help make their next draft communicate better.  At other times I have to check my disappointment when I see that suggestions made previously have not been acted on and the draft remains weak.

Some comments, such as one about the importance of ‘metatext’ (Paltridge & Starfield, 2007) that I wrote on a student’s chapter draft recently, need explaining and the written document is not the most efficient site for that.  The same is true of my observation that a student was depending too heavily on her sources in her literature review without showing how the other ‘voices’ in her text are those of “guests” she has invited to her research “dinner party” (Kamler &  Thomson, 2006).  These kinds of ideas need to be explained, illustrated and discussed. But time constraints mean this doesn’t always happen.

Given these tensions, I can’t help feeling that everything would be simpler if written feedback could be replaced with oral sessions where supervisor and candidate sit side by side working with the text (where supervisor and student are located in the same city).  This would foreground the supervisor’s mentor, teacher and helper roles and downplay their role as gatekeeper.  I suspect that good supervisors (the type who publish on the pedagogy of supervision and contribute to blogs like this) adopt such feedback practices routinely, but there are many who don’t.

Face-to-face feedback has enormous potential, if only the practical issues could be resolved. Given the long-term nature of the relationship between doctoral supervisor and doctoral researcher, I believe it can afford to be more honest.  This means that if it is necessary to comment negatively on something the student has written, the feedback is more likely to be viewed as helpful.

So can the practical problems be solved?  The most efficient way for me to work with a student’s (often lengthy) text would be for the candidate to be physically present while I was reading the draft, so that instead of having to commit my comments to paper, I could talk them through as I went. But since I do most of this kind of reading at home in the evening after work, this is not practicable. What’s more, few doctoral researchers would wish to sit there while their supervisor worked through their draft in real time.

What do others think?  Could/do face-to-face feedback sessions offer a richer environment for talking formatively about text?  Might this diffuse some of the sting of receiving written feedback on drafts?  If so, how could such sessions be set up?  And what other options are available? 


Cotterall, S. (2013). More than just a brain: Emotions and the doctoral experience. Higher Education Research & Development, 32(2), 174-187.

Kamler, B., & Thomson, P. (2006). Helping doctoral students write: Pedagogies for supervision. London: Routledge.

Paltridge, B., & Starfield, S. (2007). Thesis and dissertation writing in a second language: A handbook for supervisors. London: Routledge.