By Cally Guerin

Team supervision has many advantages for doctoral candidates and supervisors, as demonstrated in the emerging literature on this topic (see, for example, Guerin & Green 2013; Kobayashi, Grout & Rump 2015; Lee 2008; Manathunga 2012; Robertson 2016). But it can also bring some challenges, not least of which is how to handle the feedback from two or more supervisors who may not always completely agree on what the writing needs. This can become a source of anxiety for the student, and can also create tension between supervisors themselves. In some research I undertook with Ian Green and Wendy Bastalich, we talked to PhD candidates about the logistics of managing feedback from a team of supervisors. We called the paper “Big Love”, since it seemed that part of the task was to keep everyone in the supervision team happy, much like the husband with multiple wives in the TV show of the same name.

Supervisors can offer all sorts of advice on writing, from the big picture issues around structuring the material to the sentence-level details of grammar and word choice. When those comments are in conflict, students can feel torn between whose ideas they ought to follow: the principal supervisor? The advice that makes most sense to the student? Find some middle path that may not really address any of the divergent opinions?

We identified three different ways of managing the logistics of gathering feedback from a team of supervisors; each way has its own advantages and disadvantages.

Simultaneous multiple feedback. Some students send the piece of writing to all members of the supervisory team at the same time. This is followed up with a team meeting in which all members discussed the feedback they had provided. The advantage of this system is that differences of opinion can be debated openly and (hopefully) a resolution reached. Alternatively, some students take the written feedback to team meetings and direct the supervisors’ attention to any conflicting advice, again seeking consensus. This might be confronting for everyone involved, but also creates spaces to practice the skills of managing an academic debate.

The downside of sending drafts to all supervisors simultaneously is that it is not clear who is responsible for what and when. In the busy, pressured lives of many academics today, it’s easy for all members of the team to assume that someone else will get on with the task. It’s tempting to think: “If I leave it long enough, another supervisor will get to it first and then I won’t need to do anything”. The result can be a slow turnaround time, or even no response from supervisors.

Serial feedback. Another system is to send a draft to the principal supervisor, who uses track changes to mark up any feedback, which is then passed onto the next supervisor, and so on around the circle. The advantage here is that supervisors can see the feedback given by their colleagues and respond, simply leaving it to stand if they agree, or explaining why they believe an alternative would work better. This is also more efficient in that supervisors don’t need to replicate each other’s work – it’s already clearly marked on the document. However, this process can be slow from the student’s point of view if they have to wait for each supervisor to find time in their schedule before receiving any feedback at all.

Selective feedback. Sometimes students find it is more effective to send sections only to the supervisor whose particular expertise is useful for that part of the thesis. For example, one supervisor might be on the team for their specific methodological knowledge. And sometimes team supervision can include members who are not involved in the ongoing writing process at all; instead, they are reserved to read through fresh eyes towards the end of the project.

This selective feedback system has the advantages of using the particular expertise of team members, but can cause problems if supervisors haven’t seen the overall argument or structure. The parts of the thesis may not fit together very well, or – worst case – the late reader may identify major or fundamental problems with the research just when the student thinks the project is almost complete.

Every team of supervisors will interact with each other in different ways, and there is some very useful advice on feedback in general (for example, this report by Carter et al. 2016). Have you found some other strategies for managing feedback from team members that you would recommend to supervisors and doctoral writers?