Expert Feedback on a PhD Thesis

Bean longed to be able to talk these things over with someone — with Nikolai, or even with one of the teachers. It slowed him down to have his own thoughts move around in circles — without outside stimulation it was hard to break free of his own assumptions. One mind can think only of its own questions; it rarely surprises itself.
“Ender’s Shadow” by Orson Scott Card

A few weeks ago I took part in a course on academic writing. It was by far the best course on the topic I have ever participated in. The instructor not only had a lot of knowledge, he also knew how to deal with negative emotions in the course. For example, when one participant complained about his adviser, the instructor illustrated good academic advice on the basis of project management.

The effort needed to change a project increases over time. You have worked out ideas, started to implement them, even collected data. It takes more and more effort to change something. Conversely, the ease of influencing the project decreases over time.

This model of increasing effort and decreasing opportunity for change implies that the best feedback you can get is right in the beginning. You are dealing with the ideas for your research. You can change anything because you have not yet invested in anything but the ideas.

Unfortunately, when you do not have a supervisor who knows the (sub-)discipline well, then this person might not be able to give you high quality feedback. This supervisor might not know what might/should/will actually might work, what is an interesting question for the community s/he is not part of, or what is not currently researched by other researchers and thus will likely not hit the journals before you have finished.

There are two other situations when high-level adviser feedback is needed. Prior to the actual start of the study and when you are interpreting the results. Yes, a PhD thesis is your work, you have to show that you can work scientifically. But you should get expert advice, not only for the general idea, but also prior to the study. This is when things get expensive — in time and effort. And you should get help in making sense of the results, even if it’s only to discuss the results.

If you do not have such an expert in your department or institute, I strongly suggest collaborating with an outside expert. After all, you can offer this person a co-authorship. If your supervisor agrees, something you should check beforehand. Otherwise I think it’s really hard to get high quality feedback. It’s too late when you get it from peer-reviewers — the work is already done and the effort was invested. You can’t really change anything. I am also skeptical regarding conferences. Many academics are really … careful when it comes to criticizing research. Perhaps because the person giving feedback is also giving information about him-/herself.

No, in my opinion, you need someone who knows the community during the research project and especially in the beginning. You need to get feedback 1. about your idea, 2. about the way you conduct the study, and 3. what the results mean. Perhaps it is possible to work your way into the community, but I think that takes tremendous effort and skill. And it will not help you for your early efforts. It is much easier to work with someone who knows the domain and the field and can spare you a lot of grief. This is not an argument for insider agreements or the like. It’s using experts to do research according to the state of the art and according to the informal rules of the community in which you want to publish the results.

And if your supervisor cannot give you this perspective, get it from someone else — early in the project when you can still change things.


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  1. I made the mistake of having a supervisor who does not know the field. I’ve spent four years trying to come up with a project by myself and it has been very, very difficult. My supervisor only makes form and grammar corrections, with no input or feedback on methods, results. Etc. Needless to say, all my papers submitted to decent journals have been rejected because of methodological issues and have been forced (by both my supervisor and my PhD program) to publish in low impact papers. I wish I could quit and start over, but since I have a scholarship, if I quit my PhD I’m expected to pay it back. I’ve worked hard for the past four years but have only managed to go around in circles. Everyone at my lab is in the same boat as me, so the amount of disillusionment is incredible. While I doubt most people would be in this situation, I would urge grad students to make find someone with experience their top priority.

  2. Yep, I feel you. It’s incredible how bad advisers can screw scientific careers. Unfortunately, there does not seem to be a feedback process. When people leave, it’s “they did not want it in the first place”, or “that’s just science”. I haven’t found a good solution to it myself, but to warn PhD students to select their advisers with care.

    As for your case, perhaps you can at least finish your PhD and try to find someone else who can provide the necessary feedback. It has been a bad beginning of your research career, but it does not have to be the end.

    Good luck.

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