Advice for Dissertation Advisors

This was originally posted on the TAAOnline blog.

Dear dissertation advisors, as a dissertation coach, I don’t actually want you to do your jobs better, because that might cut into my business. But if you’re interested in saving yourself effort and hassles in working with your thesis and dissertation candidates, I have a few pieces of advice for you.

As a dissertation coach, most people who contact me are struggling with their work, and often those struggles are exacerbated by poor feedback or support from professors. This biases my view of the general quality of research feedback, but the general patterns of what makes good vs. bad feedback are still useful to keep in mind. Good feedback helps the student effectively, reducing demands on the teacher; bad feedback will hinder progress, and may ultimately increase teacher workload. It’s good when students finish their projects, for both student and professor!

Not only does effort spent giving good feedback pay off in satisfied and successful students, the good feedback practices that I recommend are less time consuming than what I discourage. In this series of posts, I make some suggestions for giving feedback that I think would help both students and professors work more efficiently toward better outcomes.

The best feedback is limited in scope and suited to the context, focusing on the important issues, and avoiding tangential concerns. The best feedback probably won’t touch on all the issues that need to be addressed; it will address a focused set of issues that should be addressed as a next step. Contextual issues are maybe obvious: if a student is going to file her dissertation next week, you probably ought to give her different feedback than if she’s still struggling to formulate her research proposal. By scope, I want to focus on giving a good amount of work—focusing feedback on a limited set of issues to keep students from getting overwhelmed, and to encourage their more frequent contact with you (more frequent, while potentially less intense, as things move more smoothly and evenly).

It’s no great insight to say “focus on what’s important and skip the tangential,” but it’s a principle that can easily be taken for granted.  What is important, and what is tangential? Your mileage may vary, but one way I would approach this is to say that what is most important is the same knowledge and insight that makes you—their professor—special, in other words, that which is at the heart of your research expertise. What is tangential is stuff that other people could tell them.  Approaching this point from another angle, we can say that the theoretical and intellectual content are important, and many or most practicalities and formalities are secondary. And from yet another angle, we could ask what a dissertation or thesis is for? Is it to teach them to do research in your field (where your expertise is crucial) or to teach them to write (an area where your expertise is less rare)? Spend your feedback time on things that require your expertise: the subject matter of your field, research methods in your field, and their research in your field.

Although most dissertation advisors would agree, I think, that dissertations and theses are meant to teach students how to do research, and that therefore feedback should be focused on research issues, I see a lot of feedback that skips by fundamental research issues like poor question definition or mismatch of method to question. (One concrete suggestion that could save dissertation advisors a lot of time is to look at the research question first: is it defined well? Only once you can answer that question in the affirmative is there any reason to look at anything else.) Of course, there are a lot of surface issues that can distract, especially the obvious errors in presentation, like grammar and style.

The paradigm for poor feedback, in my experience, is to focus on grammar and other formal elements (like citation style) when basic conceptual and content issues are obviously flawed. Grammar and formal elements should not be a professor’s main concern. I’m not discounting the importance of being a good writer and of producing works that are grammatically sound. Writing is an invaluable skill, and inability to write cripples an academic career. But writing is also something that a graduate student can learn from many people, while research is something that far fewer can teach. Additionally, I imagine that you would rather teach your expertise (research) than a general skill (writing). Here’s an argument to convince you to leave aside grammar: according to standard academic ethics, a dissertation writer can hire an editor to fix grammar and citation style, but cannot have someone else design or carry out the research. Help your students to do the things that they cannot ethically have someone else do.

Teach your subject and put the burden for producing a good document on the students—whether they learn to fix their writing, or they work with an editor is mostly immaterial. Tell them “Learn to write, it will help your career,” and “this will be inadequate for a final draft,” and move on to research problems. If a draft is so messy that it cannot be read, say “This is so messy it cannot be read. Edit it and return it.” Don’t spend your time fixing stuff that they should fix themselves. It’s worthwhile effort to look past grammatical errors and to focus on their intentions and ideas. Pragmatically speaking, while it may be really easy and quick to identify a single grammatical or typographic error, and it may take more time to find a conceptual error, on the whole, it’s much quicker to look for conceptual errors than it is to fix a string of minor errors. If grammatical errors are common, there will be a lot of them, which can suck away your time while adding little of value to the student. But, to give good feedback, you only really need to find one significant conceptual error–if for example, the purpose is stated poorly, or there is a problem with the method, then feedback can focus on that issue, leaving other concerns for a later draft (and if there is a conceptual problem, it doesn’t really matter much whether the grammar is correct).

Spend your time on the research issues, where your expertise is rare and necessary. Is the research question defined? Is the scope of the research reasonable? Is there a match between method and question? Are there important voices in the discourse that absolutely need to be considered?

Save time by focusing on fundamentals: If the research question needs to be defined, then there’s little need to give feedback unrelated to the research question.