Learning to Handle Conflicting Feedback

by | October 26, 2009

Collaborative research, like many other types of collaborations, can produce differing approaches to solving problems. Some learners labor under the misconception that topic definition, research question development, methodology selection and other aspects of the study should fall automatically into place. Doctoral learners are really apprentices or neophytes and are not expected to know everything or submit completely perfected ideas in the beginning. Their work will evolve as they experience many levels of review. More than likely, they will also receive some conflicting advice. Their job is to sort through the advice and proceed in the direction they feel is correct. If they need to redirect, so be it. It is all part of the learning process.

Sometimes in frustration, learners will say, “Just tell me what to do and I will do it.” That, of course, is the wrong approach. A significant aspect of earning a PhD is experiencing trial and error. Mentors and committee members do not lay out a “cookie cutter” approach to learners’ dissertations. Faculty members provide guidance, suggestions and critique. Critique should not be viewed as a negative word. Learners should gladly welcome constructive criticism.

I like to use the legislative process as a comparison. Constituencies or elected officials identify a potential problem and propose legislation to solve the problem. Legislation moves through various processes and receives much feedback and critique. Legislators work with one another to sort through their differences.The legislation’s authors make revisions and continue moving it forward until it is approved. Of course, some bills are rejected and need further revision. We are witnessing this process on a grand scale as healthcare reform is being debated and discussed.

The dissertation process, albeit on a much smaller scale and usually with far less rancor, has similarities. Doctoral learners advance their research proposals based on stated problems. Proposals move through the approval process and faculty makes suggestions for improvement. Sometimes, faculty differ on their approaches. It is up to learners, in consort with their mentors, to manage the differences. Learners then revise and rewrite until they have new versions to present for discussion and approval. This process continues until each proposal is deemed to have scientific merit and meets academic standards.

Understanding the importance and value of the iterative nature of the dissertation process is one of the most important lessons learned in a doctoral program. The sooner learners come to this understanding, the smoother their journey will become.

One Response to "Learning to Handle Conflicting Feedback"

  1. Charles Chipley says:

    Thank you for this perspective! I must admit that I had (have) some trepidation about my thesis, especially after hearing so many horror stories from my PhD colleagues. The above advice, however, makes perfect sense and removes some of my nervousness.