Navigating Difficult Feedback

“I have lost motivation and confidence in my work as a consequence of the relentless criticism from my supervisor, which is sometimes personal and contradictory (saying one thing one week and something different the next).”

Getting feedback is rarely easy, even when it is mostly positive.

Likewise, it’s not easy to give feedback well, and most of us who prepare for the professoriate get no training in it. As someone who gives feedback for a living—both to my students and to my clients—I know that how we say things can be as important as what we say.

I also admit that as a college student, I read feedback not with the question, “how can I use this information to improve my work?” but with the question, “did my professor love it or hate it?” I skimmed for adjectives, translating them into grades in my head.

The human brain comes with a built-in feature called “negativity bias,” which apparently helped us survive on the savannah but is not so useful when trying to parse a dissertation director’s feedback on a methods chapter. Negativity bias means that we are more likely to hear, remember, and fume about negative feedback than positive.

To be fair to your brain, though, it is also quite possible that your professors may be underreporting the positive dimensions of your work. I have heard many professors say something like, “I don’t write out the positive stuff, because it takes too long. They know I like their work.” In fact, I know very few people who impute positive feedback to themselves when it isn’t made explicit.

All of this is to say that if you think the core message from your faculty members is negative, it is worth sitting down and talking with them to clarify their expectations and communicate your thinking about your work.

If you think their tone is negative, get a second opinion. I am surprised by how often my clients and I read emails differently. They will interpret as negativity something that I simply see as efficiency or even a mark of respect.

Getting contradictory feedback is endemic to academic life. It can happen when we are working with different committee members on a dissertation or getting multiple reader reports from a journal submission. In your case, it sounds like your adviser has lots of ideas that do not always cohere. I always advocate that students request permission to record advising meetings. There are a million great reasons to do this, and tracking changing requests could be one of them.

If you have gone more than 2-3 revision rounds on a chapter or project, there’s a high likelihood that there is a communication breakdown happening somewhere. Either your advisor is not clearly communicating what they want and how to get there, you do not understand their feedback, or you understand it but are not able to implement those demands rhetorically. If you have gone this many rounds and your advisor is still not satisfied, it is time to get an external perspective—from other committee members, other faculty you trust, from your program chair, or possibly from a writing consultant, who can help you operationalize faculty feedback.

Finally, motivation needs to be replenished like an underground spring. So, I want you to write a letter to your future self on the day of your graduation. Who are you on that day? What have you accomplished? What helped you triumph over obstacles? What did you do that worked? Congratulate yourself, really and deeply, for all of the hard work and time and resources you put in.

Seal this letter, and put it in your desk or by your bed to be opened the next time you feel like calling it quits.


For more great advice on scholarly writing, download the ScholarStudio Writing Resource Manual here.

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