I'm a first-year PhD student, and while I have an idea of what my research will involve, my path isn't very clear yet. My supervisor suggested that I work on a review paper as an achievement for the first six months of my PhD. I wrote the paper and sent it to my supervisor a month ago. However, we've had several rounds of edits and comments, with each set of comments asking for different things. It's been overwhelming, and I've started doubting my abilities. I'm anxious because dropping out and finding work isn't an option due to my student visa and the funding I am receiving from my supervisor for my PhD. If anyone has been through something similar, I'd appreciate hearing about your experiences and any ideas you have.

  • What's your field and what type of review are you writing? Commented Jul 6, 2023 at 9:21

2 Answers 2


Since the feedback is different every time, I think it is unlikely that the issue is your abilities. Changing feedback suggests a problem with communication. It sounds to me like one of two things is happening:

  1. Your advisor does not remember from feedback session to feedback session exactly what the goals of the paper are, and is therefore giving different feedback depending on their impression at that moment in time. This may be influenced by slight changes in wording, their mood, and recent things they've read or talked about with others. Remember, you are focusing on your project for hours on a daily basis -- your supervisor sees this project (maybe) once a week for an hour, and they spend the same amount of energy and effort on multiple projects a week. Assume that they will remember no details at all from week to week. If this is what's happening, then the paper does not have its goals and scope defined clearly enough. In other words, there is a communication problem in the written paper.

  2. The other likely option is that you and your advisor are not communicating effectively in the feedback sessions. Your advisor might actually be trying to communicate the same high level concepts to you through different means each feedback session, but they are not succeeding in getting these points across.

In either case, this warrants a high level discussion with your PI. Tell them that you want to understand why they are giving particular feedback. Gently point out examples where the feedback has been different from time to time and say that you want to understand what they're responding to when they give you those different pieces of feedback so that you will know what to do in the future. If you can, show them the whole paper as it was at two stages where you got different feedback. Sometimes a comment might be triggered by the combination of text in one section and a figure in a different section, for example. If the issue is that the paper doesn't communicate its scope and goals effectively (option 1), the two of you can talk about that and come up with a clear statement that you can add to the introduction of the paper. If there is some other higher-level feedback for you to absorb (option 2), this will help make it more apparent and you should be able to take it into account and move past this stage.

I say to be gentle here because you want to avoid any kind of "gotcha" moment where you imply that they are unreliable or their feedback makes no sense. Go in with the assumption that they have good reasons for all of their suggestions. As I understand it, you don't yet have a reason to think that it's anything other than a communication issue. Addressing it in this way will give your supervisor a much more positive view of you than if you are either critical or accusatory of them (for giving conflicting feedback) or too critical of yourself (for not getting it right after multiple feedback sessions).

There's always a possibility that your supervisor is just fickle or a bad manager, but I think it's best at this stage to assume that they are competent to do their job and are doing it in good faith.


Welcome to Academia and to the PhD world: The disillusion world of impostor syndrome and PhD movie.
Don't get yourself discouraged. Get going at it purposefully.

Although reviews/surveys may differ across discipline, the principles/fundamentals remain the same.

Review papers are not completely at tangent to 'result' papers, in the sense that you still need to be clear about the aim/purpose, key message being passed and contribution to knowledge.

Reviews can be systematic or rapid or scoping or narrative.
Some reviews are reviews of topics while some are review of reviews.

I wrote the paper and sent it to my supervisor a month ago. However, we've had several rounds of edits and comments, with each set of comments asking for different things

Regarding your supervisor, that you're getting feedbacks is a good thing. Keep the momentum.

It might be possible that your supervisor is struggling with the art of supervision. For now, you'll have to keep calm and trust the process. You don't want to rock the boat early.
Nonetheless, keep track of the changes and in doing so

  • check against the aim/purpose of the review paper. If there're none, that's your starting point: refine the aim/purpose and if there's one, the research question.
  • check changes against literature in your field.
  • gently and firmly bring well-researched and articulated views/amendments to the table.

In any case, you'll be going through revisions throughout your research life by engaging rebuttals.


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