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Author: Paula Beesley 


Paula Beesley is a Senior Lecturer in social work at Leeds Beckett University and is undertaking a PhD into collaborative social work student supervision. She is lead author of Developing your communication skills in social work and author of Making the most of your social work placement.


We all struggle at times when there is a deadline looming and we have writers block or lack of time and feel under pressure to hand-in despite knowing that it is not what we wanted it to be.

At those times we brace ourselves for our supervisor’s feedback and open the email or go to supervision with trepidation or anxiety. We are open, if not eager, to hear how we can improve the chapter, looking for tips on what to do next, happy to receive advice that will change the writing from bad to good enough.

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We listen attentively, write notes that we will return to with relief, explore ideas with the supervisor and develop a sense of what needs doing next. This can be a real joy and an important step in developing the final iteration of the PhD thesis.

However, there are times when we feel that we have made progress and are happy when we submit a chapter. So when we attend the supervision or open the email without anxiety, but are hit with a “we need to talk” response, that can really hurt.

This is the time when we need to listen the most and engage with the constructive feedback but we can often be unable to do so.

The first thing we need to do is acknowledge to ourselves, and then the supervisor, our feelings of shock, disappointment, anger, disagreement or sadness.

The reality is that this can be a body blow if it is unexpected; it can dent our confidence, leave us feeling incapable and cause us to question if we should be doing a PhD at all. It may even leave us defensive.

It is ok to feel the response we are feeling. The important thing is to feel those feelings, acknowledge them, and work through them. Part of this is about knowing yourself: do you need to immediately talk to your supervisor and reflect on the issues with them or do you need to take time quietly to reflect on the issues and resume talking to your supervisor at a later date? Remember that your supervisor is there to support you and should provide the support you need. But also remember that they can only do that if you let them know what you need.

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The second thing then is to pick yourself back up again. This is where you need to be both kind and firm with yourself. Take time to look after yourself. If you aren’t happy, you won’t be able to sort this out. But at the same time, you should not wallow in feeling bad.

Once you have looked after yourself, come back to the thesis. Be proactive and don’t give up on yourself or your PhD. Take time to reflect on the constructive feedback.

No-one is suggesting that you must accept every piece of advice, but taking most of it will help you. Re-read written feedback and meet with your supervisor to discuss it with them. Ask them for advice and seek out resources from the library or online – including our PhD Knowledge Base – so that you understand what is expected of you. Set small goals with your supervisor so that you know what to do next, but make sure  they are realistic.

Remember that the PhD is a learning process. You don’t have to get it all right first time.

When this happened to me recently, I rang my supervisor and cried for half an hour. It wasn’t fair, I said. I had worked so hard and was feeling great that I had got a chapter so developed, but it was all wrong. ‘Great writing, but wrong focus’, was the feedback.

But I wasn’t open to feedback that evening. I had to just let the pain and frustration wash over me. But as the week went on, I was better able to absorb the feedback in a more constructive way. I recognised that what my supervisors were saying was right, and that by implementing their advice my thesis would be significantly better.

With the support of my supervisors, I was able to construct a plan and identify what did work in the chapter, what needed to change, and the new direction it needed to go in. To regain my confidence, I set myself new tasks and made sure that they were achievable. But I also took the weekend off to look after myself.

To summarise, when you receive unexpected constructive feedback it is going to be difficult to hear. It’s important to look after yourself, take time to feel your response and only then start to engage with the feedback and your supervisor to develop a new plan of action. Most importantly, be open to listening to the feedback: it is for your own benefit, I promise.

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