Archives for posts with tag: feedback

This post follows on from part 1 which was a plea to supervisors to actively promote development in writing from early on in the PhD. 

AAEAAQAAAAAAAAY-AAAAJDI4M2VkMDFjLTNjNjAtNGRlNy1hNTgwLTEzMjE5ZmYxZWJiOA.jpgThis post is for supervisors wondering what they can actually do in the early stages of the doctorate to get their PhD’ers to learn research writing. It offers a curation of ‘in practice’ ideas that supervisors can use to frame and cultivate a gradual development of writing, drawn together form the recent, and very readable, blogosphere literature.

There are also existing and very comprehensive book resources on this topic. You can’t go far wrong with this book by Pat Thomson & Barbara Kamler, or this book edited by Susan Carter & Deborah Laurs which has brought together all-of-the-truth on research writing from all the people who really know.

I want to note too, that have had responses to my blog part 1, from supervisors who strongly disagree with me and feel that a final ‘writing up period’ is the right thing to do, because it affords a PhD researcher months in which to focus on their writing in real depth. I understand this point of view, especially coming from people who (as they said themselves) long for the luxury of time to think and write. It’s easy to look back and wish for what we no longer have. And hey, for lots of folk ‘writing up’ works fine. I don’t disagree…except when I do, because…

I lead the Thesis Mentoring programme for the University of Sheffield and have paired up over 400 PhD researchers who struggle with immersive ‘writing up’. They feel immersed. As in, like they’re drowning.

The Thesis Mentoring programme is not a source of advice on writing, or support for developing the content of the thesis. It offers a confidential relationship in which PhD researchers can work on their emotional relationship with writing, and with their PhD project, helping them to better think, and to plan, and to face up to what needs doing. It’s unfettered by the ‘agenda’ of the mentor, who, by their neutrality, offers what a supervisor can’t. In this way it’s complementary to what you provide in supervision.

A very quick content analysis of the total 566 applications for thesis mentoring revealed that just over 70% of applications contain one or more of these words: anxiety, stress, panic, upset, or worry. It’s worth saying explicitly that my own research across different research-intensive universities in the last few years, a huge literature base, Twitter (#AcWri), and common sense, tells me this isn’t just a Sheffield issue. So what’s going on for these people who don’t thrive when working in this way? They tell me that:

  • Having very little variety in your day to day life can be bad for motivation, especially when the task is hard and draining, and at times when it’s not going well. Researchers have described how their whole sense of self-worth can become linked to how their writing is going. Especially as…
  • There’s no easy way to know if you’re doing a ‘good job’. There are no grades in doctoral writing, and when PhD researchers hear ‘it’s fine’ they find it difficult to know if fine means ‘just good enough’ or if fine means ‘entirely without problems’. Absent, contradictory, or ambiguous feedback is commonly received by this group. Multiply the problems by the number of supervisors commenting on various drafts. And…
  • We aren’t very good in academia at recognising the value of the all rounder — myths persist around how ‘serious researchers’ give up their hobbies and interests to dedicate time to the PhD. Fear of being shamed and blamed leads researchers to work harder, and harder but not smarter. In some uber-competitive research environments, taking a break or holiday, or not putting in a ridiculous 80h week can get you labelled as a ‘slacker’. People forget to take care of themselves, and end up burning out. And…
  • They’re frightened of you, their supervisor. Or intimidated by you, your authority, your style, your behaviour, and they no longer trust you. We don’t disclose things we’re worried about, to people we don’t trust. Isolation can start as a self-preservation mechanism, and become a habit of avoidance in itself.

The high stakes of the doctorate, the intense interpersonal relationships, the length of the project with relatively few milestones, the uncertainty around progress, standards, how to act on feedback, and being ‘good enough’ set up the ideal conditions for procrastination (paralysis). In their words…

“I spent ages not really sure what was meant to be happening with my thesis, and I should have said something sooner but I was too embarrassed.”

“If I could go back, I would have started writing earlier. Particularly in mapping out chapters and making a template for my writing based on ongoing figures so I could establish where there clear gaps that needed filling. Setting aside writing days/afternoons would have helped this.”

“I should have begun the writing up phase a lot sooner and also made sure that I did not ‘get stuck’ on (obsessed with) trying to make an idea or task work at the expense of making time to progress the writing.”

“I look back and I kick myself for my poor use of small pieces of time. I should have plotted my data sooner, should have written my methods sooner, should have worked to a plan”

As their supervisor, you are the one with both the influence and the discipline-knowledge to help researchers understand the rules and the undertaking early enough that they can do something about it. To develop good writing habits, they need your permission and approval to be in place, and they need you to suggest things they can’t themselves come up, with because they don’t know what the possibilities are… You play a role in helping PhD researchers to think through their approach to writing, and in endorsing their plans for writing.

Blog posts sharing ideas of how to help doctoral researchers develop early writing are compiled below with links to original sources where you can read further:

Critique or criticism: “While critical review is a core element of supervision, it can be a fine balance between ensuring a good review and being too critical.” by Prof. Lynne Parkinson

Writing trouble: “Three pieces of bad feedback and some suggestions for how to do it better” by Dr Inger Mewburn

Reverse outlining: “Regardless of whether or not you create an outline before you write, creating one after you have written a first draft can be invaluable. A reverse outline will reveal the structure—and thus the structural problems—of a text.” by Dr Rachel Cayley

Managing feedback on writing in team supervision: “how to handle the feedback from two or more supervisors who may not always completely agree on what the writing needs.” by Dr Cally Guerin

De-mystifying doctoral writing“I see the process of academic writing development, now that I work as a doctoral supervisor, as demystifying the ‘discourse of transparency’ that often informs discussions around academic writing whenever anyone transitions into doctoral writing.” by Dr Amanda French

Getting students started with writing: “For many, the biggest blocker to writing…is actually realising it’s time to get on and getting started with writing. The second is managing writing as a piecemeal process that fits around other work — nudging several projects, or several strands of a project forward at once.” by Dr Kay Guccione

Make the hidden work visible – writing tasks that academics do that we don’t talk about: “could supervisors and the academy be doing more to assist new scholars acquire the capacity to helpfully, fairly and equitably review the work of their peers?” by Dr Sue Starfield

Shake up your thinking, and your routine: “In facing the reality of busy life as a busy academic and thesis students… we can create more time to write if we try four strategies” by Dr Evonne Miller

Encouraging robust scholars: “How can we encourage students to critically give and receive?” by Dr Steve Hutchinson

Don’t try to write classy: “concern about PhDers adopting “classy” academic writing early on” by Prof. Pat Thompson

Encouraging openness: “What can we do as supervisors to enlighten and guide our early career researchers and improve the productivity of our research groups?” by Dr Rachel Cowen

De-mystifying doctoral writing: “I see the process of academic writing development, now that I work as a doctoral supervisor, as demystifying the ‘discourse of transparency’ that often informs discussions around academic writing whenever anyone transitions into doctoral writing.” by Dr Amanda French

As always your comments and discussion are welcome.

With Writefest 2017 in its 3rd week (the motto this week is ‘I write therefore I am’, and with our new Think Further weekly coaching prompts also focusing on writing in November, it would be difficult to have a blog post today on something else than writing. So here I am, pausing and pondering about writing. A year ago, I posted a Think Ahead blog post ‘the writer within’ advocating that “becoming a researcher is…becoming a writer”. As part of this previous blogpost, I proposed 30 ideas for writing development from the many hundreds than one may consider. Did any of you Think Ahead blog readers take up some of these ideas? It would be good to hear which you may have trialed and whether they helped. Read the rest of this entry »


Let’s get one thing clear – I’m not saying everyone needs to do a placement or an internship. In fact I’m writing this to stress that there is more to work experience than a 3 month placement – a placement may not be what you need at all. For researchers, whether PhD student or research staff, a placement may not be practical, possible or preferable.

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This post is a follow up to one I wrote in April, which (sad face) didn’t generate any comments or debate.  As I mentioned then, the University is a signatory  the UK ‘Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers‘.  Blank face? I hope not but just in case, here is how RCUK sum it up on their website:

“The Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers sets out the expectations and responsibilities of researchers, their managers, employers and funders. It aims to increase the attractiveness and sustainability of research careers in the UK and to improve the quantity, quality and impact of research for the benefit of UK society and the economy.”

The Concordat underpins the work so many of us do and has had a massive effect on the way in which the University of Sheffield considers and improves the environment for researchers. Read the rest of this entry »

A word to the wise. You can make a difference.

The university just finished running the biennial Postgraduate Research Experience Survey (PRES) 2015 – did you fill it in? Perhaps you did (34% of you did) and thank you for your time. Or maybe you didn’t? That’s OK, this post isn’t about national surveys anyway…(though do click the link if you’re interested in looking at the 2013 PRES data set)…

I just wanted to take time to remind all PhD students and early career researchers that you that you don’t need to wait for an official survey to come round to make your voice heard. Indeed we didn’t run the staff focused CROS and PIRLS surveys this time. We opted for an in-depth, in person consultation with departments to collect rich data on our research environments. So what now… Read the rest of this entry »

Group 7 of SUGS 2015During last week, I took part in the delivery of the Sheffield GradSchool (SUGS), a 3-day development programme for PhD students from across the University. For me the most important aspect about the programme, is that it gives PhD researchers the opportunity to ‘pause’, park their PhD for a few days and give them permission to think about themselves. Read the rest of this entry »

In November, I attended the Vitae Research Staff Development Conference, which this year had the focus of ‘recognition and value’. There were many nuggets of wisdom shared but for the purposes of this post, I am going to ponder the pendulum that swings between value we take from the perception of us by others and the value we give to ourselves.

Nathaniel Branden, author of “The Six Pillars of Self Esteem”, states on his website;
“To achieve a healthy level of self-esteem, you must be able to accept who you are and be confident about your decisions and behavior. But there is another important ingredient in the development of self-esteem that is often overlooked, the ability to take responsibility for your future. To live self-responsibly, you must be able to influence your behavior freely in three major areas:

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Dog dressed as a bee with the caption "My SPSS skills are second to none..."

My SPSS skills are second to none…

Over the weekend I was reading the latest volume of Stephen Fry’s autobiography, More Fool Me. Throughout, the way he purports to see himself (sly, foolish, intellectually wanting…) is a million miles away from the way he is perceived by most of the ‘general public’, who – from an entirely unscientific skim of social media – tend to regard him as a terribly brainy good-guy, whose biggest sin is being a bit smug. This got me thinking (because I’m rock and roll like that) about the differences between how we see ourselves in a professional context and how others see us – particularly about the way in which we perceive our skill, abilities, strengths and weaknesses.

The internet is packed full of inspirational quotes assuring you that  how others see you is not important; how you see yourself is everything. But, let’s not forget that the internet is also full of dogs dressed up as bees, so, you know, caveat lector. Whilst I’d certainly agree that self-perception is incredibly important, in terms of career development and professional progression, the way we’re viewed by others is crucial.

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