Responding to examiners’ feedback

I finally got my three examiners’ reports on my thesis this week, after just over 3 long months of waiting. I have been joking that I have been through something like the 5 stages of grief waiting an extra 5 weeks because examiner 3 was late with her report. At first there was a kind of denial (this can’t actually be happening – the report can’t really be taking so long. Maybe this is all some sort of weird email mix-up). Then there was anger (how could she do this to me? Doesn’t she know how hard I have worked?). After a couple of weeks of being really cross, I moved quite quickly through bargaining (if it comes this week, I will do all my corrections, I won’t procrastinate, I’ll be nice to everyone and walk the dog every day), to depression (I’m not going to graduate. The report will not come in time), and finally to acceptance (well, it will come in time for me to graduate or it won’t, but ranting won’t make it happen faster).

I think,  in hindsight, that the additional few weeks of waiting for the last report was a good thing although it drove me crazy at the time. I think it was a good thing because of the way it influenced my attitude towards my 3 reports when they did finally arrive. I was just so grateful to get them and to finally know, good or bad, what the examiners thought of my work and what additional work I needed to do in order to graduate that I think I took the critique better than I might otherwise have done.

Kate Chanock has these 7 stages of resentment about getting feedback on your work from reviewers, which can be adapted for how a PhD student might respond to examiners, whether the reports are written or oral in the form of a Viva (although I am aware that an oral exam in quite different to receiving written reports).

I think I can revise this list, personally, thus:

1. Relief – thank god the feedback is here

2. Anxiety and nerves – but what do the examiners say? What if it’s bad news?

3. Suck it up and read – you’ve been waiting for ages!

4. Wow – what lovely comments 🙂

5. What!? That’s not fair – I covered that in my discussion! I explained why I did that/left that out/showed that data and not the rest. Didn’t they read it carefully?

6. Hm, okay, fair point. I could probably make that a bit clearer. I suppose. Maybe.

7. Well, these are really good reports. I think they mostly got what I was trying to do. Phew! And actually, the corrections they want could make the thesis much better. Time to get going on them!

At first I read the reports, and called my husband and read bits to him, and told my mum, and my best friends and my Facebook people – they were all thrilled, as was my uber-supervisor – and I just basked in all of that for a day. Then I had a conversation with my supervisor about the corrections I will need to make (the final recommendation was that I make corrections to my supervisor’s satisfaction), and the reality started to set in. It’s not quite finished yet, and the corrections are not just typos. They require rethinking, reflection, rewriting, adding, clarifying, refining. It’s more than an afternoon with the ‘Find’ and ‘Replace’ functions, or fiddling with formatting. I wandered back into post-submission blues territory, and I’m still there, being a bit petulant and procrastinating because I just don’t really want to rethink and rewrite and revise. I just want to be finished now.

But, and there is always a but isn’t there, I really do have to engage with these reports and the comments and suggestions for changes precisely because they are not small, take-or-leave-them changes. In beginning with examiner 1’s report, I can see that a lot of what she is commenting on is vagueness in some of my definitions, explanations and discussion – partly because the literature itself is vague, and partly because I did not make my writing and thinking as clear as I could have. Examiner 2 has concerns about my analysis – he thinks I have made things a little to easy for myself – is he right? If so, what do I do to respond to his thoughtful and also probably somewhat accurate critique? Examiner 3 doesn’t think I need to make any changes, but she poses a couple of questions about my methodology I think I should respond to.

I do not have to do all of the corrections and follow-up on all the suggestions. I can decide which changes need to be made now to improve on my thesis, and which comments and suggestions need rather to be taken into account later, when I am writing up parts of my argument for publication. Examiners should and do go beyond the thesis to comment on other things you can think about and do post-PhD; they comment on the theory and how your have used it, on methodology more generally and on how you have realised yours, on the strength of your analysis and on things you could have done differently, and might want to do differently in future studies. A student’s work, then, in reading or taking in their critique is to work out what is for now and what can be for later (although not all students have a choice).

Hopefully, examiners will judge your thesis on its own merits, whether they agree with you or not, and will not make suggestions that have you writing their thesis into your corrections and revisions rather than your own. If you do have a choice, think very carefully about what they have said – they are experts in your field, and if you can open yourself up to the critique as well as the praise, I think you will find much food for thought. I certainly have. Of course, now I just have to work out what to do with all of it…

 

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