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By Susan Carter

My eight years of being a consultant for doctoral students taught me what supervisors sometimes do not see: that candidates can struggle over whether or not to take supervisory advice. Here, I want to defend two suppositions.

1) It is always wise to pick your battles, and on that assumption, students do well to defer to supervisors when the issues are relatively minor.

2) When writing decisions are important, students need to learn how to refuse advice that they disagree with and demonstrate why.

Because students transition towards independent researcher status when they are able to make decisions and then make them work, academics who support them could initiate talk about how to manage disagreement with supervisors.

Often it is tricky responding to supervisor feedback on writing for candidates who don’t really agree with it. Learning how to negotiate diplomatically is a very useful skill that is not gained lightly. The power differential between student and supervisor can make it quite hard for students to hold on to their own choices. Those who come from a culture where it is inappropriate to contradict a teacher could be advised about Western expectations that there are intellectual benefits to arguing. It’s tricky, though, for many candidates, to disagree.

I want to defend two contrary approaches: that it is sensible to agree when the decision is not important, and to disagree, with good defence, when it is important.

Defence of ‘pick your battles’

Students should always follow feedback that picks up typos or corrects grammar. As a supervisor, I grow quite growly and unfriendly when corrections that I made on a previous iteration have not been followed through and the same spelling or punctuation mistake sits in the same sentence. This hardly ever happens!

Then, I’m sympathetic to students whose supervisors endlessly change their student’s prose so that it ventriloquizes the supervisor’s authorial voice. Each option for word choice and syntax has a nuance of meaning. Sometimes suggestions for change are valid. But more than once students have shown me supervisory recommendations for change that do not improve the clarity of the writing in any way. Such supervisors just want their students’ writing to sound like their own writing. I’ve seen several examples where the student’s voice is actually clearer, cleaner and sweeter than their supervisor’s.

As an academic developer, I advise supervisors to avoid this degree of co-authorship for many reasons, including that it’s an intrusive violation of an unequal power relationship–and perhaps as importantly, it takes more time that no academic can afford. I am also aware from data I have gathered from 226 supervisors that time-expense is their biggest challenge with supervision.

So if students can avoid adding aggravation to that pressure of supervisor time-squeeze by deferring when it doesn’t really matter, it simply helps the writing feedback cycle to whirr more smoothly. That is something that is in everyone’s best interest. It’s similar to the many compromises made in other relationships to keep them happy.

So maybe I am hedging my ‘pick your battles’ point with the fact that many supervisory suggestions do not require changes that compromise writing. It’s probably hard, too, for a student to tell a supervisor that they are altering tone needlessly. It’s supervisors who need to reflect on whether or not that might be the case.

Defence of ‘stand your ground’

By the end of the doctorate, students should be independent researchers. Along the way, standing their ground in supervisory discussion signals their development as an autonomous researcher. Even so, it can be hard to say ‘no.’

One approach is to write a defence of their own supervisor-contradicting choice. It could be that for the writer, the use of the first person pronoun, or some idiomatic phrases is really important. Often this will relate to theory or methodology used. Sometimes it will relate to the values emerging from the data, for example, if data drive the student to recognize that agency is a theme, then passive verbs undermine an emphasis on agency. A supervisor who believes that academic writing is characterised by use of passive verbs may need persuading that the rule they apply to their own successful writing is not right in this case. A good defence with references linked to the foundational theorists and with examples of more recent much-cited articles should persuade.

If a student has difficulty writing a plausible defence, they will learn through trying to explain their choice why it actually wasn’t a good one, especially if they run their short paragraph past a few others.

But sometimes students will find that when they produce their formal scholarly defence, it shows something solid likely to persuade the supervisor to accept their choice—and maybe to be impressed by how far their student has grown into independent thinking. They have reached that point of independence when they know how to make decisions and make them work.

Responses to your writing are always helpful. They show you what you can’t see yourself: what it looks like to someone who isn’t working from your side of the table. We don’t always agree with comments on our writing, yet they always help by showing some section isn’t working well, even if the suggestions made wouldn’t provide a solution. Getting the perspective of a reader is always helpful to a writer.

I’m curious whether other academics, learning advisors and academic developers have other thoughts on how the cycle of writing and feedback can best be managed when there are conflicts of opinion.