Thoughts on the Supervision of PhD students’ Writing

Supervision and guidance in reviewing a PhD student’s work have been on my mind lately. I have been working intensely on my fourth PhD article and, therefore, received quite some feedback from my supervisors. Even though I think that supervising PhD students is a rewarding activity, it does come with challenges. If I’d be lucky enough to supervise PhD students one day, this is probably what I would tell them:

Recognising that you will be the one doing the hard work

Your supervisor is there to guide and support you, but the heavy-lifting is yours to do. Your PhD education is about you becoming an independent researcher. Therefore, you must try to show that you can achieve this. You will feel lost, you will run into blind alleys (and waste time), you will take sharp turns, and you will change your mind completely. And this is all part of the process. Remember that it is a privilege to be able to spend time in search of knowledge. So, cherish this time as a PhD student! To use the words of one of my favourite authors Yuval Noah Harari:

“Finding truth lies in experimenting with unproductive paths, explore dead ends, make space for doubts and boredom, and allow little seeds of insights to slowly grow and blossom. If you cannot afford to waste time, you will never find the truth”

Recognising that writing a paper is a long process

Seeing a published paper can make you think that the process of writing it was straightforward and easy, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. It takes several attempts to get a paper in good shape for publication. Do not wait too long with sending the first draft to your supervisors. Remember the 80-20 principle, i.e. send the draft for feedback when it is about 80% good. Wait to fix the 20% until you know that you are on the right track. If you focus on improving the draft to reach 100% you might end up spending a lot of time working on things that most likely will not lead to significant improvement anyway. Or, worst case, you might be working on the wrong things.

Recognise that supervisors can disagree

Your supervisors will occasionally disagree on things, which can make you feel confused. Whose side should you “choose”? The important thing to remember here is that, often, there is no right/wrong answer, and there are multiple “correct” paths to take. Listen to your supervisors’ advice but make your own decisions. In the end, it is you who will be held accountable for your choices, so it is essential that you can justify them. Also, you don’t always have to do everything your supervisors ask. But you have to be able to explain why you didn’t do so.

Recognise that your supervisors want the best for you

At times it can feel like your supervisors are out to get you or to make your life harder. Sometimes, their comments can feel harsh, but in the end, it is never about you; it is about the text. Keep in mind that your supervisors care about you and want to help you get your text to the next level of quality.

Last but not least, be humble

The writing process is time-consuming and takes a lot of energy. It can occupy your mind constantly. Also, the feedback you get can be emotionally draining. It can sometimes be hard to see your work for what it is, especially when you have been working with it intensely. Take a few days’ breaks from the text to regain motivation, energy and “fresh eyes”. Let outsiders’ eyes take a look at your writing. Once you get the feedback on your text, it can take time to understand what the reviewers meant. Therefore, don’t jump into a defensive position. It is critical to remain open to critiques. Be humble, persevere, (take notes of their comments if the feedback is not in writing), calm down, and return to the reviewers’ comments when you are ready. I am not implying that the reviewers are always right, but you should always take their comments seriously.


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