This post is inspired by a tweet by @HaPhDsupervisor where she asked, “In your view, what is good supervisor feedback?”

The following 10 tips are based on responses to that tweet and my own experience as a supervisor (and former PhD student).

  1. Ask questions and listen. Ask the student what they want feedback on. For example, if a student sends me a paper, I ask what stage the paper is at and what they want feedback on. The overall structure or the storyline? The presentation of data in the Results section? If the feedback relates to progress in their PhD, I ask first whether they think they are on track, what they think is going well and where they are struggling.
  2. Keep the bigger picture in mind. In my opinion, part of my role as supervisor is to keep the bigger picture in mind and put things into perspective. It is easy for a student to get bogged down in details and think all is lost because that one experiment does not work (I know I felt like that many times during my PhD and I now have my mentor to remind of that in my own career development). Remind the student how the current experiment or papers fit into their overall PhD.
  3. Suggest tailored actions for the student to implement. Ask the student what they think will help them progress. Suggest actions they can implement and provide a reasonable timeframe. Ask them whether they want you to ‘check in’ or leave them for a while. Some students need fixed deadlines and regular reminder (i.e. a bit of pressure). Others feel anxious about that and would like to be left alone until the next meeting or until they seek additional input.
  4. Don’t compare students. People are different, and we all have our strengths and challenges to deal with. Assess progress, or lack thereof, by referring to the student’s milestones or goals and not by comparing them to others.
  5. Keep it balanced and be honest. Acknowledge the student’s effort, tell them where they are going well, and be honest about where they need to improve. Our job as a supervisor is to empower the student. That does not mean you have to make them feel good all the time. Supervision and feedback are about helping the student finish their PhD and develop skills for their future career. In my experience, it helps if you tell the students why you are suggesting certain actions. Use your ‘emotional radar’ when talking about areas they need to improve in. If you feel a student struggles and needs encouragement, maybe wait until the next meeting to talk about difficult issues.
  6. Remind the student they are in charge of their project, but they are not alone. Which part you emphasise depends on the student and their current state of mind. Sometimes students need to be gently reminded that their project is their responsibility and that they need to take actions. At other times, students are committed and focused and need a reminder that it’s ok to not feel on top of things all the time. Tell them that you are here to share the load.
  7. Help them to help themselves. Provide resources and refer them to external help if needed. For example, if a student struggles with writing, provide them with resources on writing skills or suggest they join a local writing group. If they struggle with time management, offer daily planners. I am a fan of the resources from I think well, but there is plenty of other resources out there.
  8. Tell them that struggling is ok. A PhD is not easy, and it is normal to feel overwhelmed, lost, frustrated or stuck. Use examples from your PhD to remind them that what they are experiencing is not unusual.
  9. Adjust your feedback as they progress. At the start of a PhD students usually need more guidance. I try to develop my students into independent researchers that ‘think for themselves’. When they are towards the end of their PhD, I less and less tell them what to do but ask them, ‘what do you think you should do next?’
  10. Be accountable. I try to provide feedback on drafts within a week, 2 weeks maximum. I don’t always succeed, but I communicate it honestly if I know I can’t do it in the usual timeframe. If possible, I deliver something the student can work on.

 

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