practical phd

a transparent source for all things PhD

Feedback is a central part of the work of someone with a PhD.  Colleagues and friends ask for feedback on papers. Conference organizers ask us to give feedback on presentations as discussants.  Journal editors ask for our feedback on manuscripts submitted for publication. Regardless of whether you’re a professor, a research professional, or a graduate student, there are ample opportunities to practice and cultivate a style of feedback that is supportive and encouraging, while being critical and direct across these forums of feedback.

Be Clear About What You Like

After reading or receiving verbal feedback, it should be just as clear what you like about someone’s paper or research project as what you think they need to work on.  You should lead any written or verbal feedback with what you like before getting into what could be improved. Hearing about your “impressive data collection” or the “exciting contribution the paper will make” makes it a heck of a lot easier to hear about the “fundamental flaw” in your argument.  In fact, many folks recommend that more critical feedback should be sandwiched with supportive and encouraging comments, so as to both start and end with the positive.  

Whether you choose to lead with the positive or sandwich the critical with it, it should be clear to the author what you liked about their work.  Not doing that focuses all the attention on what isn’t working, which can lead the author to think their work is not worth pursuing. I once sat through 45 minutes of critical feedback on what was wrong with my paper before someone said “I think this is a really interesting paper.”  By that point in the conversation, I felt like the paper was unsalvageable based on the issues they had identified. Had the conversation began with “I think this paper is really interesting,” I wouldn’t have felt like I needed to ditch the paper at all during the conversation.

Be Direct and Specific

The absolute worst feedback to receive is vague and unclear critique.  Oftentimes these are comments like “needs more polish,” “hard to follow,” and “could use expansion” without any additional direction.  Adding an example or specificity about what you mean will help the author fix the problem with their manuscript because they will know exactly what you’re critiquing.  Point out a specific paragraph that was “rough” and suggest a rephrasing. Repeat the author’s argument back to them in your own words and identify where it was confusing or made a leap that went too far.  Mention a specific literature or articles that would help them expand. After all the work you’ve put into reviewing, the author should know exactly what they need to do to improve their paper.

If you’re giving feedback to graduate students, remember that they may not yet know what elements they need for a good journal article or how to execute them.  Including general advice like “the literature review should be an argument about the prior literature and how your manuscript contributes” can be incredibly helpful no matter what their stage in graduate school.  Learning to write a strong journal article benefits from feedback on a specific paper, in addition to general advice about writing journal articles that can be translated to the next paper.  

Be Encouraging and Supportive 

People often assume that being direct is the opposite of being encouraging, but it doesn’t have to be.  For example, take the “hard to follow” argument above. You could tell the author “your argument was convoluted and hard to follow” or you could tell the author “your main argument could be a strong contribution to our understanding of X, but it was hard to follow as written” (and then provide more specifics).  While much of the encouragement and support will be in your summary of what you liked about the work, part of it will also be in the phrasing of your more critical points. Telling someone “the findings section was boring” or “what was the point of section 4?” is going to be a lot less encouraging than “your argument disappeared in the findings section because you were trying to present too much data” or “section 4 isn’t clearly linked to the rest of the paper.”  Furthermore, the less encouraging feedback is also often indirect and unclear.  

Give Both Written and Verbal Feedback

Whenever possible, it’s helpful to give the author both written and verbal feedback.  Obviously this is not possible when you review an article, but it is possible to provide both in most other settings.  This allows space for a discussion about the feedback you’re providing, but also gives them a record of what you suggested in addition to their notes on the feedback.  

In fact, when I’m giving someone feedback for the first time, I like to provide feedback verbally before sharing written feedback so that they can hear my tone when discussing what I like about their paper and what needs improvement.  I use track changes comments throughout the manuscript to provide my blow-by-blow response, but also include a page where I summarize my main feedback, which allows me to tie together the specific comments into broader critiques.  

Vary Feedback by Paper Progress

Not all papers you review need the same level of feedback.  Tailor your feedback to the stage the paper is in the pipeline to be most useful to the author and allocate your efforts appropriately.  You might suggest line edits for a paper that is near ready for submission to a peer review journal, but that detailed feedback isn’t necessary for an early draft that will undergo significant revisions in future drafts.  With this approach, you would provide broad feedback on organization and argumentation to any manuscript, but detailed feedback about language and phrasing only for closer to finished drafts.  

I apply this rule to everything I review, including when I do peer review.  Once it becomes clear to me the paper is not close enough for me to recommend a revise and resubmit, I focus on the broader problems of the manuscript.  However, for papers that I will recommend for a revise and resubmit, I keep track of very specific feedback including sentences or paragraphs that were hard to follow, terminology that needed definition, etc.  

Address the Author’s Concerns

With the exception of a blind peer review, the author often has specific concerns about the paper they’ve shared for feedback.  “Is this the right literature to engage with?” “Does the argument at the front end match the findings?” “How can I strengthen the discussion section?”  Make sure you address the author’s questions and concerns in your feedback in addition to any other feedback you have. If the author hasn’t asked about anything specific, ask them if there’s anything they would like you to pay particular attention to or any concerns they have about the manuscript.  

The most helpful feedback is always the feedback which helps me get through a problem I’m stuck in.  Two weeks ago, I was spinning my wheels on the framing in an introduction section that my writing group helped me solve last week.  Telling them that I was stuck on the introduction gave them a reason to pay closer attention to that part of the paper and think through what was working and what wasn’t.  

While some of the tips I suggest above might sound time consuming, remember that the more you do them, the more they will be second nature.  It’s an investment, but one that is worth making to provide better feedback to others AND role model what feedback should look like.  

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