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I am consistently facing this issue: NO one (except some reviewers when I submit a manuscript) provides me with a detailed/core criticism over my PhD work.

My supervisor usually gives me general advices; sometimes try his best to understand and propose some trail and error approaches for the problem (most often I tried them before proposing). I simply can't find this guy who will smack me on the face and tell me the truth about my research.

After chatting with another PhD student; I found he has the same thing. However, he told me it is because PhD students have very specialised knowledge in a particular topic that makes it very hard -even for supervisors- to comment on it in a detailed manner. Well I still can't believe that's true in general.


What should you do when you can't find a smack on the face feedback?

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It's not clear exactly what you mean by "smack on the face". Are you saying your advisor cannot give detailed criticism because he doesn't have a sufficient grasp of the details of what you're doing, or just because he's too tactful to tell you what he really thinks? –  BrenBarn Jan 14 at 8:47
+1: I am on the same boat (see my prev questions). It's infuriating when you feel like you are making little to no progress, and you get 0 feedback on what you are doing right and what you are doing wrong. –  posdef Jan 14 at 10:41
It's all wrong! *Smack* Try harder! –  Trylks Jan 14 at 12:10
Do not listen to the Impostor Syndrome. Maybe your research is actually really good. What's troubling here is not the lack of negative feedback, but the lack of detailed feedback. –  JeffE Jan 14 at 21:16
You've already got some good answers. I often feel the same way as do other students in my program. So, I go over to phdcomics.com and realize that this is eternal recurrence, like the serpant that eats its own tail. :) –  TinActon Jan 15 at 9:26
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3 Answers

My first reaction is: why do you need a smack in the face? Research education aims to educate PhD students to become independent researchers able to perform research, publish it, write applications for new research supervise new PhD students etc. Once you pass the PhD defence the only smack in the face you get is when your papers are rejected, your funding application is rejected etc. Towards the end of a PhD it is normal that your knowledge in your topic stretches farther than that of your advisor. From this perspective, a smack in the face is not the most obvious test of your progress.

I can understand if you feel you do not receive feedback on your work. In an ideal situation you should be able to discuss your science and use such feedback to improve. Your advisor should be able to read your manuscripts and provide feedback and suggestions on how to improve it before publication (or if your write a monograph, before you defend). Now all advisor-students relationships are different since we deal with personalities. To some extent one need to adapt and find ones own way in that relationship, I know this from my own experience.

So although your situation is perhaps not ideal, it does not sound as it is truly problematic. It sounds like you get more feedback than you can expect after your PhD. If you need specific feedback on any part of the research process, you should look around to see if any other persons can provide such. For PhD students getting papers past peer review is the hardest hurdle to cross and as such the sign of the worth of your research. Most advisors try to help students reach this level so the worst smack in the face they consider is the dreaded rejection. If you get your material past peer review, you are really doing (perhaps more than) fine.

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It might be a perspective thing but I would have to disagree to a certain level. People do need both positive and negative feedback (which I believe is what the OP is about). Hearing "you're doing fine, just get that stuff done" over and over again, is really irritating to say the least. Maybe it's a thing about the generation Y, but having continuous and instant feedback is a great way of measuring your own progress and I think it's important for me, maybe the OP feels the same way. –  posdef Jan 14 at 10:45
I agree with you and acknowledge that there are many solutions to the problem. Being responsible for the research education in my dept and having my own students, I have experienced many varieties of student-advisor relationships and problems; not one of the latter with a standard solution. But a "smack in the face" is not a substitute for discussion and also this case has two sides of which we see only one. –  Peter Jansson Jan 14 at 11:42
Yeah, that's also true.. I was just trying to point out that different people might need different levels of feedback based on age (i.e. PhD students then vs PhD students now), culture or background. –  posdef Jan 14 at 14:57
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In the real world (after graduation), the only time you are likely to get feedback like that is from a friend or (if you're really lucky) a mentor. I suggest asking yourself: "of all the people I know, who would be the most likely to understand this after I explain it to him/her?"

Then, invite that person over (or out) to share beer and pizza, or whatever people sit and talk over where you are. (coffee and cake?) Sit and talk. Ask what (s)he's doing, be genuinely interested and express your appreciation. Then tell what you're doing. If they say "that sounds interesting," ask if they'd be willing to read and tell you what they really think about it. If not, ask yourself the question in the previous paragraph again, and repeat.

Don't be afraid to say "the reason I asked you over is because I thought you'd be able to understand what I'm doing, and I just wanted to talk about it with you." It's true, and almost anyone would be pleased to hear that.

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However, he told me it is because PhD students have very specialised knowledge in a particular topic that makes it very hard -even for supervisors- to comment on it in a detailed manner. Well I still can't believe that's true in general.

Well if the implication is that your work as a PhD so specialised that nobody can give you useful feedback, I don't believe it either. If you cannot communicate your work in a manner that someone knowledgeable in the general area can understand and provide feedback, then your research should be doomed to fail since you won't be able to publish.

What is more likely is that your supervisor is insufficiently "incentivised" to put the effort required into understanding your work to give you useful feedback. There are many shades of grey here too. Different supervisors approach supervision at different levels of abstraction. Some are hands-off details. Some are hands-on details. Some need little incentive. Some need lots.

(Similarly, if you cannot interest someone enough in your research for long to engage them for feedback, I think your research is, in the longer term, also in deep water since you'll need these communication skills when applying for funding grants, to gain citations for your papers, etc.)

In any case, if you're looking for feedback other than your supervisor or colleagues ...

I'm not sure about in your area, but in Computer Science, there are ample ways of getting feedback on your work at conferences and other such venues.

Typically these conferences hold events specifically for mentoring students called a "Doctoral Symposium", "Doctoral Consortium", "Mentoring Lunches", etc. The format is different for each conference, but typically students submit a paper outlining their topic; the paper is peer-reviewed under special criteria. If accepted, the student is paired with one or two "mentors" (senior researchers who know something about the topic) at the event. The student presents their work to the broader symposium and afterwards gets some alone time with their mentor(s) who are typically instructed to be friendly to the student, but also to give some tough love if needed. As a bonus, many conferences publish the papers from these events in their proceedings, giving you a publication.

Another excellent opportunity for feedback is to attend a relevant summer school. At least in some of the schools I've lectured at, in between talks, the mentors have provided ample time to talk with students about their topics and plans, where at the end of the week, each student goes away with the perspectives of three or four mentors as well as a multitude of their peers. (More interactive schools tend to be in remote locations; everyone hangs around afterwards. Less interactive schools tend to be in universities; everyone goes home afterwards.)

Also, think about getting your PhD topic accepted for a poster session somewhere. PhD posters can be a good way to get casual feedback from a wide range of folks.

If you don't want to go so far away, organise a talk in your school and invite people. Put a lot of effort into making the talk engaging. Try to invite as broad a range of folks as possible and try to get feedback from your supervisor on the talk itself beforehand. Present and take questions.

The simple catch with all these methods of feedback is to think: how can I make people want to give me feedback, how can I make people comfortable to give me negative feedback, etc. @Jeffiekins suggestion of beer and pizza is a good one. Generally you should never expect feedback; you should earn feedback.

Like in a poster session, if your poster looks unappealing and you look disinterested standing in front of it, and instead of engaging with the person, if you simply read through the text-heavy poster while they wait, then giving you feedback certainly won't be their first priority.

Similar principles apply for your advisor (and elsewhere).

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