- explain what kind of feedback you want (or don’t want)
- say when you need a response
- (but be mindful of how long it takes to produce detailed feedback, and for you to act on it)
- remember: criticism of the work is not criticism of you as a person
Not all feedback is equal. Some can be kind but useless. Some can be upsetting and useless. You might want guidance on a specific part of your work (e.g. whether the logic of your argument is sound) and end up with a lot of advice on writing style that you did not want, and do not particularly care for.
The key to getting the kind of feedback you want - or need - is to be clear about what you want, when you ask. Please do be open about this, as it makes it easier for your supervisor(s) to know what they should be focusing on. They will appreciate this as they can focus their time to be most helpful, and time spent on feedback you won’t use is not wasted. It’s also good for you, because you don’t need to deal with criticism you didn’t want.
It is also important to state when you need the feedback. There may be a deadline for you to submit, and you will need to reserve time to attend to any criticism. This also gives the reviewer a chance to say whether they think they can deliver in time (and at what level). This respects both your time, and the time of the reviewer.
What kind of feedback do you want?
There are many useful kinds of feedback - the amount of time needed to give useful responses varies, as does the utility to you. If you have a deadline of two days for submission, you might only want proof-reading, and probably don’t want criticism that suggests you completely restructure the document. If you’re months out of submission with a rough draft, maybe you don’t care about typos, but need advice on structure.
Here are some levels of feedback you might want to ask for specifically:
- Proof-reading (checking for spelling, grammar, typography, figure/table legends/numbers etc.)
- Checking references
- Document structure and flow
- Writing style
- The argument and logic of the document
- The level of the work (is it suitable for the submission goal)
- What is missing that could make the work better?
If it’s a complex document, then it might be helpful to annotate the work with notes to indicate what kinds of feedback you want in each section.
What does good feedback look like?
Positive feedback is easy: you can just say “That was great! No changes needed.” Constructive, helpful, feedback is harder. It requires the reviewer to understand what was intended, to identify the ways in which the work doesn’t convey what was intended, and - most importantly - to suggest a way in which the work could improve to get the message across better.
Constructive criticism might involve suggestions of changes and rewriting, or additional work. But it’s important to distinguish this from “negative criticism” (e.g. “That was bad!”) which doesn’t identify the problem or suggest a potential remedy.
The kind of feedback you want, need, and receive, will change over the course of the PhD, and over your career. It will also vary by document, and from topic to topic, depending on your experience in that area.
Separating criticism of work from criticism of yourself
One of the great, and sometimes tragic, things about being a scientist is that we tend to associate ourselves intimiately with our work. A positive aspect of this is that this helps us engage and dedicate ourselves to projects and problems that require a lot of personal investment and, when they are successful, we rightly celebrate our success as something personal.
A negative side to this is that we often identify ourselves so closely with our work that we cannot distinguish criticism of the work from criticism of ourselves. This is natural, and happens to us all. But it is important that we remember a criticism of what we have done is not a criticism of who we are. This can be hard at first, but becomes easier over time.
It is useful to realise as early as possible that criticism of your work is not criticism of you as a person. Many prominent scientists have not yet made this leap, and write angry, bitter letters in response to reviewers when their papers and grants receive criticism. They do not set a good example. It is fine not to agree with the criticism you receive, but there are better ways to express this than with anger.
Where can I get feedback outside the group?
The group, your supervisor(s), and colleagues can offer feedback, but we are not experts in everything. The university provides support for study and writing skills that you may find useful. This is a good opportunity to get independent advice that may not have the same social overtones (or baked-in biases) of getting it from your colleagues.