Feedback, Again: Dissertation Proposal Edition

Reflecting on my dissertation proposal, the one topic I had to write about was feedback. I first wrote about feedback in my first year of graduate school. That post was my way of trying to figure out why the feedback I was getting in grad school, on class assignments and papers, often felt so bad.

While writing that post, I came across some helpful words from The Thesis Whisperer that helped me realize it wasn’t just me. Bad feedback is a systemic issue. But in the end, my proposed solution was still to mentally strong-arm myself into feeling better about feedback that, understandably, felt bad. My “solution” was reasonable at the time: as a first-year graduate student, I didn’t have any means to change the system nor the awareness that I could, to some degree, advocate for myself by asking for the kinds of feedback I needed.

Now, in my fifth year and fresh off my proposal defense, I know that harsh feedback is never necessary, easy to give, and inevitable. Knowledge doesn’t make it much easier to receive.

A Chronology of Feedback in Graduate School

Baby Steps

Since my first year, I’ve had a few memorable moments with academic feedback. The first time I faced anonymous reviewers was a big one, and probably is for every PhD student. My first peer reviewed journal submission received positive reviews with suggestions for minor revisions. My heart rate still spiked as I read the reviewers’ comments.

I fixated on the negative points, especially a comment that suggested I hadn’t done my due diligence to keep my submission blind (anonymous). “This reviewer is mad at me,” I surmised from the comment’s tone, and felt embarrassed about my mistake (and therefore intimidated by the entire revision process).

So I was feeling a general sense of shame and intimidation when I met with my faculty co-author who, to my surprise, remarked that the revisions suggested were minor and very manageable. I’d built up the critique too much in my head. She provided a reality check that I hadn’t realized I needed.  

She was right, and the piece was accepted for publication after our revisions.

Deep End

I received more intensive critiques on my first solo-authored submission. While the submission above was a visual essay, with text limited to 3,000 words, this paper was full-length. More than anything, the feedback on my submission was overwhelming, because there was so much.

Also overwhelming was receiving the dreaded “this makes no contribution to the literature” line, which sounded like a nail in the coffin for my paper. Some grad school friends and a mentor later dismissed this as a common critique, a single reviewer’s interpretation rather than a condemnation of my entire work.

Seemingly echoing my friends’ interpretation, the journal editors ruled that a “revise and resubmit” was reasonable and gave me only 10 weeks to complete major revisions. In retrospect, this limitation was wise. I didn’t have much time to ruminate over negative comments. The editors’ decision expressed that my article had potential. So I went to work, addressing some comments, remaining frustrated about others, and discussing my revisions with a few faculty mentors.

My stress levels during this process seemed reasonable, especially for someone doing a major R&R (revise and resubmit) for the first time. This paper was accepted too.

Finding a Rhythm

Around the same time, another paper submission, with a different faculty co-author, was rejected. The feedback didn’t read as harshly or intensely as the reviews of my last paper, perhaps because some of the comments were similar and had less power this time around. I was also dealing with the recent loss of both my grandmothers and a paper rejection felt insignificant in comparison. My co-author and I talked through which revisions seemed reasonable, and where we might submit the paper next. It felt more like addressing an order of business, rather than a fight with an emotional landslide.

Good Signs

The examples of feedback above are relatively critical, but I’ve had highlights with feedback too. One developing area of my research agenda involves using arts-based approaches to research (or ABR for short). I fully expect that some academics will see this as a little too “woo-woo,” too subjective, and/or not “scientific” or “rigorous.”

But the few times I’ve presented any arts-based-related work, the response has been positive. Folks appear interested or curious, rather than critical. Unprompted, they discuss the need for researchers to communicate findings in avenues other than paywalled journals, or talk about the novelty and potential usefulness of “merging science and art.” I’m still holding my breath, waiting for the harsh feedback to drop, but for now I’m encouraged to know there are people who already buy into the potential of using art in research. I’ll keep these experiences close to heart when I do eventually run into a critic.

Feedback on the Dissertation Proposal

To me, these experiences form a neat trajectory. They suggest that I’m getting more accustomed to receiving feedback on my academic work, even when the feedback is more critical than helpful. I’m growing that thicker skin required for academic work, or whatever. I’ve come a long way from being that first-year graduate student trying to convince herself that feedback is a good thing.

Then I received the following feedback on my dissertation proposal:

“This makes no contribution to the literature.”

Specifically, the reader couldn’t see how I was making any contribution to X, Y, or Z literatures, the exact subfields I’d covered in my proposal literature review.

I was shell-shocked.

Some additional context:

  • “The reader” was an advisor and mentor I’ve relied on since my first year. I’ve gone to this person when I was struggling with other people’s harsh feedback. Part of my shock came from receiving this comment from this particular person, not just some anonymous reviewer.
  • My proposal needed to be done in less than a month, so I could send it to my full committee and proceed with my proposal defense in two months. If this advisor thought it made no contribution, would I have to postpone my defense?
  • I was in a state of high and prolonged stress when I received this comment. I’d just had a string of grant and fellowship deadlines for the past three weeks. They’d all fallen on a Monday or Tuesday, so I’d also given up my last three weekends to meet these deadlines. Writing the proposal had also been a struggle and it felt like I’d barely finished a full draft in time.

So I stared at the “no contribution” comment. Then I cried.

I’m not someone who cries over feedback. I’m more the angry-venting-to-friends type. This may have even been the first time a comment on my work has made me cry. So I felt a bit silly for crying and chalked it up to my accumulated stress.

But I also felt validated whenever I’d bring this incident up with other graduate students. One student gasped and put her hand over her mouth. Others expressed their condolences. I wasn’t being too dramatic, their reactions communicated.

In the end, I met with my co-chairs, got clarity on their comments (including what “no contribution” meant to them), and revised the proposal to meet their expectations. I didn’t have time to mope. Or rather, I moped as I made revisions. I sent my full proposal off to my committee only a week later than planned. Then I moped/stewed/ruminated in earnest.

For weeks, the feeling didn’t go away. I remained stressed and angry, growing fiercely bitter about the whole process. I couldn’t shake these negative emotions, but leading up to the defense, others would tell me things like:

  • “The proposal defense can be fun!”
  • “It’s a chance to show off your expertise!”
  • “Think of it as a conversation with people invested in your project, not an evaluation. Don’t stress!”

I was in such a negative rut that these suggestions only made me more frustrated.

  • If this was just a conversation, why was the lead-up so stressful?
  • I don’t want to show off my expertise; I just want to pass.
  • Don’t talk to me about fun!
  • Maybe I should quit.

But even in the middle of this spiraling, I was vaguely aware that if I was going to get anything useful out of this proposal defense, I needed to get out of this rut. Even though it felt dismissive to phrase it this way, I tried to have a “better attitude” about the proposal defense. If only we could change our mental states by just “trying.”

Finally, I requested a meeting with my advisor, the week before my defense. I reasoned that if the professional relationship we’d built over the last four years was worth anything, I should be able to bring up a comment that was still upsetting me.

We arranged to meet a couple days before my defense.

I’m not sure why I felt compelled to do this, but I became determined to keep the conversation light. First, I felt like it was well within my repertoire to navigate a difficult conversation without making the other person feel bad. Second, this person is in such a direct position of power over me that it felt like a necessity to tread carefully. Third, confrontational conversations are awkward, and on a surface-level, I didn’t want to make things awkward with my advisor moving forward. I also didn’t want to give the impression that they couldn’t give me honest feedback.

When we finally met, I danced around the topic, claiming that I’d wanted this meeting to get more clarity on what to expect from the defense. Throughout the conversation, I kept mentioning that I was stressed and eventually got around to saying that their comment on the first draft of my proposal had felt really harsh, laughing it off as I spoke. I laughed again while asking if they could avoid giving me feedback in that way again, since they had acknowledged taking a “harsh reviewer” approach to my work.

The faculty member apologized and of course, agreed to not give me harsh reviewer feedback in the future. I don’t think I ever expected a different outcome, and I don’t want to demonize this person in any way. I’m more frustrated that within the academic system, it was so easy for a nice, trusted mentor to tear me down without realizing it.

Or that the work of doing a dissertation is so isolating, and graduate students are so dependent on faculty for approval of their work, that a single comment sent me spiraling, drudging up the consequences of what was most likely neglected mental health in the first place. Dissertation work is isolating; I just hadn’t realized it because we’ve been in various stages of COVID-19 isolation for the past three years.

A couple days later, my Zoom proposal defense went off without a hitch.

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