Last time I posted I was all new and bushy tailed, having given up work after 30 years to do a PhD for my own satisfaction. Well 4 months in, and 3 supervisions, what a strange world academia is. In the public or commercial world we have worked very very hard to perfect skills in giving feedback, being affirming, enabling, and collaborative when coaching people. In academia my experience has been that supervision involves a ritual ceremony where the strategy is challenge, the methods non affirming, and the goals seem unclear. Burn and move on seems to be the approach. I am stealing myself for the next supervision but I will approach it with some amusement as well, as the game seems rather ritualised. I present a report on my reading it is ripped to shreds, I say thank you and the cycle is repeated. Is this normal? I asked my supervisors if they liked having PhD students they replied with genuine enthusiasm oh yes it's the best part of the job! They said it will get worse and you will hate us by the end, I replied that's not really how I manage my learning interactions with people
Hi Snowdropbooks, I can understand it must seem very frustrating for you! But ... it sounds perfectly normal course of affairs and your supervisors are at least being honest about how it is!
I know it can be hard trying to shift to a new way of doing things (I am currently having to do so in my new job, I'm so not used to the structure, so I sympathise entirely) but keep at it and remember it's not personal - they are trying to be highly critical because that's what academia and the pursuit of knowledge is about, challenging the intellectual boundaries.
Having done a PhD and come out the other end, I would say I hated it about 80% of the time. But it's only nowadays looking back that I realise that actually all that frustration and being intellectually pulled apart were for a very good reason.
Hey there! I completely get what you're saying- a PhD can feel like one lot of negative feedback after another. I think this can be for different reasons. Firstly, academia is (rightly or wrongly) all about peer review and what others think of your work- whether you are trying to get something published, or applying for a grant, it all comes down to peer review. For this reason academics at the top of their game are used to receiving and giving feedback, and they've gotten so used to slating other people's work that they forget that us newbies aren't always used to that sort of behaviour, because it's completely normal to them. Therefore when you hand something in, they behave in the way that has got them to the top- they criticize it and look for the holes in it- that's what they've been trained to do. Of course there are always 'nice' researchers who do a lot of collaborative work and get on with most other academics, but sometimes it feels like these people are the exception. I also think for people who are very high up it is easy to forget what it's like to be doing a PhD, or to even regard PhD students as a bit of a pain when they have bigger fish to fry, so it's easy for them to not think about how they deliver feedback. I honestly think some academics have absolutely no concept of how this sort of behaviour can affect new researchers, and would perhaps take a little more time to consider their actions if they understood how it makes people feel. Then again, that's assuming they have time on their hands to do so, which is often not the case. That's my take on it anyway. To some extent its good to be toughened up if you're planning on a career in academia, because you'll inevitably have to deal with a lot of 'constructive criticism', but it's certainly a steep learning curve for some! Probably best to treat the situation with some humour- that's what I've learnt to do! Best, KB
I can't describe it. It doesn't fit into any of the categories above. It's certainly not bad or something I dread as my supervisors are always nice but I've never had any negative feedback, only some positive but no real indepth feedback either. I suppose I'd best describe it as fluffy and the only direction I've ever really been given was when I was told where to find their office before the first meeting! In fairness, I have worked fairly independently since the start and so they might think I don't need it.
It's the delays in getting feedback that I find extremely difficult.
Yes Snow, it's not an uncommon experience, may even be the norm. Some supervisors cut through the chase ang go straight to the parts that need improvement. If they don't mention the other parts, it means they are alright (I'm speaking for myself here). This method, or ritual, as you point out (I agree), can be very discouraging.
Some sups just work that way, while others get some kind of ego boost on giving feedback, whether the feedback is useful or not. The thing is, it is rarely easy to tell genuine for-your-own-good feedback from an ego-boost feedback. It could be both at the same time. You'll learn over time as you get to know the sup. But it is trivial to try to figure it out. The important thing is to take whatever feedback you can and use it to improve your work.
It also helps to mentally prepare for this "ritual." You'll be getting into it a lot. It will occupy a good part of your life for the next few years, so it's good to have some prep. This ritual may coincide with your bad mood/bad hair day, and would seem like the last thing you need.You may not be 100% prepared. You might hear things you never expect to hear. In any case it's good to have the awareness that this is "just" a part of the PhD, and more often less personal than it seems. Lots of luck.
Hey! Just to add to my previous post, which on reflection, does sound rather negative! I have a supervisor who gave me positive feedback for about the first 3 months of my PhD and then decided it was unnecessary to give praise and just focused on the bad. It is tough, but having said that, it is important to use the feedback to your advantage. I have managed to get a few publications out of my PhD so far and am about to submit another 3 papers for peer review and potential publication- something I probably wouldn't have achieved without the extensive 'constructive' feedback from my sup. For that, I am grateful. With respect to reviewers' comments, my papers have mostly been revise and resubmits, but I got all of them accepted into my first choice journals with various amounts of revision (some good journals and some pretty average). Some of the reviewers' comments were really helpful and contributed towards a much better final publication, some suggestions I disagreed with and refused to incorporate into the paper, which did not prevent the paper from being accepted. So one thing I have learnt from peer review is that you can pick and choose what you respond to- some advice you get will be great, and some will seem either pointless or at worst, misinformed. It was really helpful to me to learn how to stand up for myself on the points that I disagreed with and to realise that actually I could defend my work coherently where necessary. So even lots of 'negative' feedback can be really valuable in the long run...it's a learning experience. But it isn't pleasant. Best, KB
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Hi Snowdrop - I clicked the 'this is really useful...' answer, but if you'd asked me 18 months ago it would have been the first statement - but I'd have wanted to add 'and this is really useful' to the end of it.
My supervisor was extremely critical for the first year or so, but has got less so as my work has got better, through my taking note of his intense criticism. It is hard to deal with such an avalanche directed against what you have worked so hard to write, but a PhD happens FAST - you go from floundering post masters level to independent, publishable researcher in, ideally, three years. This said, my sup always gave me encouragement too - if miniscule in comparison to the criticism, in the early days. He is also extremely enthusiastic and positive - when it is appropriate. He gets very excited when my work shines - which, as I said, it does much more often these days - he looks quite thrilled.
You need to make sure that what they are saying is useful and that you can trust them to do this. I don't know why they think it will get worse, surely it shouldn't if you are learning. It may be worth checking this point with them - perhaps it was bravado - an academic joke??? Some academics can be a bit underdeveloped in the funny bone area.
Best of luck,, and I hope you keep your initial enthusiasm. X
I very rarely get "supervision" per se. It tends to be informal chats at my desk. I would say that so much of this depends on the supervisor, with some very good and some very poor. I think one possible difference between the academic world and the "real world" (I worked in industry first too) is that in academia for a PhD it is very very difficult to change supervisor and people really want to get their PhD. They will therefore put up with a lot more than you would put up with from a normal boss whom you would complain about to his superior or alternatively change job. This in turn could lead to supervisors over time becoming less and less sympathetic because it doesn't affect them really. There seems to be very little in the way of grading of supervisors for instance, whereas most bosses would have some sort of review as to their performance with man management. Unless they know they are doing something wrong they won't change and so the cycle continues. Obviously you get some who realise the benefits of good man management and others who do not!
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In the real world, people just want to know the basic facts and in many cases have not the time to worry about the whys and hows.
In academia, as well as reporting the facts, you're expected to critically analyse the data with respect to other data and available literature.
Critical appraisal is a learned skill in some ways, though not that difficult once you get used to doing it. However, for both the PhD and for any journal papers you produce, it is a skill that is essential.
This difference in approach contributes a great deal to the perceived 'woolly thinking' that many in the real world think academics have.
You'll also have discovered with many academics, that at times a deadline or appointment time can be a theoretical concept rather than a set in stone point that has to be adhered to. That can be extremely frustrating when you've given up the ghost then they wander back 30 minutes later and wonder why you didn't turn up.
My bugbear with my primary supervisor was his lack of a concept of Health and Safety. I could not get across to him that I had to leave my experimental rig in a safe condition. It was okay whilst it was running, but he seemed to have a knack of ringing right at the point I was taking it down (when it presented the greatest hazard to people) because he wanted me to drop everything to go and seem him. No prearranged appointments with this bloke; again a theoretical concept.
"10 minutes while I make the rig safe" I would say. "No, no 10 minute excuses, now!!!".
Okay, 750°C red hot metal left exposed presenting a burn and fire hazard. :-(
Thank you, for all the useful feedback, well thought out and affirming.......would any of you like to be my supervisor ha ha?
I'm not planning a career in academia I'm doing my research to answer a question I'm interested in then I plan to go back to my life before. Doing research is a luxury for me. I don't want to hate it, I want this to be a positive experience and so far it's been rather a strange experience that I've had to navigate quite carefully. I am really open to criticism and peer review and feedback that is challenging, but the skill of doing this to maximise the learning in the person receiving feedback is surely the goal?
Ok I will keep smiling and playing my part in the ritual, but if I ever complete this, there is certainly a skills book to be written here.....mmmm methinks an ebook could be an idea!
I've been toying with the idea of responding to you, and kind of putting it off. But actually, thinking about it very deeply, I don't really agree with you. I have other issues.
To address yours - I am 14 years older than you are, and have considerably longer than you have in the 'real' world - meeja. Tough old world. But one of the things I liked about doing my PhD was being challenged. I loved it when I had to defend my position. That's the intellectual cut and thrust I signed up for. It was why I was never scared/apprehensive about my viva, and didn't worry about it at all. I knew my stuff and had defended it and supported it for years. It was only when I was in the last throes of the viva and saw that I'd been misinformed by my super, that I had to back down on a couple of points that I didn't expect, as they'd been passed by my super. But even so, on corrections, I placed on record the fact that I was wrong, and the internal examiner was completely correct in slamming me for it.
Understanding others, and negotiating with them, isn't a skill academics usually have. Not a problem.
You need to get your head around that. My arguments, as a mature student, are rather different. I really knew that I was going to have to stand in my corner and fight, and was happy to do just that. The critical stuff was welcome - in fact meat and drink to me.
When I did my Master's thesis, I began it to resolve unfinished business. I took leave and for me it was going to be the honours year (extra year in Australia) that I could not afford at the time, because family issues and finances took priority.
What i found in the two years of this thesis (some part-time and a four month stint fulltime) was that I had to let go of the idea that this was going to make up for the past and was my time to pursue my dream. Well at least let go of it if I wanted to stay sane and not become completely depressed.
I also had to realise that my supervisor was not my friend and her criticism was not really personal -but because of my emotional investment in my work and because we are all human and have feelings- it often felt as if it was.
I'm going to start my part-time doctorate (with a different supervisor and university) in October this year. And I know it won't be a dream at all-it will be sheer hard work on top of my actual professional work, my research and writing will be criticised pretty intensively at times and there will be times when I question why the hell I am putting myself through this. I also know that once I have, I won't regret it. That the journey is hard but the personal growth, overcoming the challenges and the confidence gained at the end will all be worth it.
I also know that in my workplace, our ways of dealing with staff with problems-well we do have protocols and I for one, prefer to be affirming and supportive (that's just how I roll) but others don't. And they can be bitchy and critical or nice to your face but you feel the knife in your back as you walk away-it is just the way it is. My Master's supervisor said the same thing to me by the way, 'at the end of this you will hate me'; I did for a while but only during the process and I am grateful finally some months after completion.:-)
The process and the experience should be challenging interesting transformational, but should it be degrading, humiliating, uncomfortable and emotionaly careless? Good interpersonal skills are how people get to the top in the real world I've worked in. Rude and insensitive or inconsiderate behaviour means that these individuals do not on the whole succeed. Throughout my career Ive been faced with tough continuous feedback but always the goal was to help you to move forwards in terms of skills and knowledge but also considering your well being too. This is how I learnt and how I managed other people. I was very successful, my staff performed well in an affirming but challenging atmosphere. I'm now having to accept a bordering on bullying ethos as the norm apparently from these posts that's the impression I'm getting. If students accept it then supervisors will continue to think that this behaviour is OK. Perhaps it explains the poor completion rates in some departments. I'm not a moaner or a weak student, but I do pose a legitimate challenge to the world of academia in that a positive emotional learning environment enables progress, we know this from many studies of how children and adults learn.
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