Dealing with Feedback in Grad School

I started a Word document last semester. (Obviously, in my first semester of grad school, I started many.) But when I created this document, I stopped dead in the middle of my work, hit CTRL+N, and typed these words:

Feedback is good.

Then I typed them again.

Feedback is good.

Then I word vomited all over the page. Four months later, I opened this document again and turned it into this blog post.

You don’t type aggressively positive statements into a Word document for no reason. As you might guess, this document came out of some struggling with feedback.

Red Marks and Track Changes

Receiving harsh critique is seen as an integral part of grad school. I expected that it would only be a matter of time before I got this experience firsthand. To be clear – and not unnecessarily dramatic – the experience I’ll be talking about here wasn’t brutal or mean-spirited in any way. But it still didn’t feel great.

The feedback in question was on the first draft of a research proposal. Given that this was a Methods class for first year PhD students, there was a lot of guidance. We’d already turned in multiple memos about our ideas, workshopped them in groups, and received individual feedback from the professor.

When I received comments back on my first full draft, I thought I would just continue with my incremental progress. Except this time, I would have a better idea of what I was doing because I had a full draft.

This round of revision was different. Because I started to feel a rising sense of dread, growing stronger with each comment I tried to address.

My framing was unclear.

I didn’t define my terms.

Why was I using those terms?

That paragraph should have been at the beginning.

What exactly was my project’s contribution to the literature?

And then simply:

It seems like you’re still struggling…” never mind the context; I was struggling?! Not improving?

As my enthusiasm, interest, and any semblance of hope in this project deteriorated, so did my ability to make coherent edits. Demoralized, I moped quietly for a day (or two). But the next deadline loomed over me and so the paper was consistently on my mind.

It turns out the moping period wasn’t all bad. Because during this time, I realized what was happening.  

I was viewing each comment as a mistake.

Each edit I had to make was a time when I should have known better. Every suggestion indicated another flaw, more evidence that this proposal didn’t measure up. And I felt each one like a blow to my academic self-esteem.

My negativity shocked me.

Obviously, on a conscious level, I understand that those things aren’t true. Feedback is intended to help you improve (most of the time). But unconsciously, I thought feedback was terrible.

I had to shift from a mindset I hadn’t even realized I’d been holding.

“Feedback” in School

When I stepped back at thought more broadly about our education system, this felt less surprising. Throughout middle and high school English classes, the fewer comments (red marks) you receive on a paper, the better. College papers elicit more comments, but the end result is the same.

More comments = more things you did wrong.

As a teaching assistant, I now perpetuate this no-feedback-is-good-feedback in my own grading. Student essays that receive full points get a hastily scribbled, “Good job!” If an assignment is really off the mark, that’s when I have a lot to say.

Accepting Feedback as a Skill?

In figuring out what I wanted to say about feedback, I ended up on a largely individual solution. Just accept that feedback is good! But I’m being trained as a sociologist, and so that answer didn’t sit well with me.

Initially, I wrote a long paragraph essentially about how grad students should be grateful for feedback. While that’s not untrue, it seemed wrong to end on that message.

It’s true that providing feedback is a valuable service that demands a lot of time from the other person. I am both amazed and appreciative to be currently surrounded by so many top scholars in my field who, if I only ask, will offer detailed feedback on my work.

And yet, I was missing something, until I came across a post from The Thesis Whisperer:

“Bear in mind that academics are never taught properly how to give feedback, which is why it’s such a slippery, contradictory, prickly process. As a PhD student, you’re not taught to receive feedback either, just to nod in acquiescence.”

Woah. Three thoughts:

1.) Giving feedback is a skill. That made sense to me. I think back to my work at Writing Centers and that one instantly clicks.

2.) Academics aren’t taught to give feedback well. Well darn. But given that many academics were never taught how to teach, I can accept this one too.

3.) Receiving feedback is also a skill. This one is another mindset shift for me. But the rest of the post helps clarify.

“Part of becoming a scholar is learning to receive feedback in a way that is constructive for you, not simply to please others.”

The author goes on to describe what I interpret as processes of emotional labor. Feedback-givers don’t have your well-being or productivity in mind when they write (or speak). The burden falls to you to take that feedback, process it in a way that’s healthy for you, and integrate it into your work (or not).

I’d definitely give recommend giving this Thesis Whisperer post a read: “Why Does Feedback Hurt Sometimes?

And while that post is my clear favorite, here are a couple others that address feedback in grad school:

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