I am currently finalizing my written PhD thesis. I think in practice it is often the case, that a PhD student has a formal advisor (often head of the lab, very busy) and then an actual advisor who is much more familiar with the PhD's work and progress. Often this actual advisor is a PostDoc and the student has regular meetings with him. This is also the case for me. With the PostDoc I have weekly meetings. I meet my formal advisor unregularly/randomly, about once a month.

So, I finished a first complete draft of my thesis and handed it in to my formal advisor, because he is my official advisor. As expected my formal advisor sent the draft to my actual advisor. My formal advisor is often traveling and very very busy. So I did never expect him to read the full thesis, let alone providing detailed review of my work.

The thing is, that I know that my actual advisor can be very picky about language stuff and how scientific texts are written. I know this from writing papers together with him which was always somewhat cumbersome due to his over-detailed reviews. His reviews were always very thorough causing some headache and also sometimes a shaking head on my side.

So today I received a first review from him just for the introduction chapter which is about 15% of my thesis. His review is extremely detailed, he picks on each sentence, and often even words. He critisizes the word order of my sentences and questions every argument I make. He tries to be perfectionist. The result is for me, that I feel really bad when discussing the review with him. It is frustrating to get corrected that thoroughly and it makes me think, that I am too dumb for this. Moreover, I am sure that my quality of writing and lines of argumentation have a decent level of quality and I think he is over-interpreting most things. Of course, I try to not take the feedback personally, and see it as an opportunity to improve my work. However, I think his level of detail is a bit too much. It also means a lot of work for me (to correct everything) and I think, it will take at least 2 more months to hand in a final version.

One example of his reviewing, which I know from a colleague of mine: My colleague needed to verbally express that two things are connected. The reviewer suggested to use the word link instead of connect. My colleague followed the advice and replaced all instances of connect with link. At the next reviewing iteration, the same reviewer suggested to replace all instances of link with connect again... So you know what I mean? It's just too much and he even seems to have different opinions when reading the same text a second time.

I also want to make clear, that I am very sure, that my formal professor does not doubt my academic qualities. For instance, he is aware that I received a Best Paper Award for one of my papers and we always have nice discussions about different research topics. Hence, I think he would not deem it necessary to have my thesis reviewed that thoroughly. I think, if I would confront my formal advisor with the review of my actual advisor, he would be stunned.

Finally, my question is: Is it normal that a thesis gets reviewed that thoroughly, even when the advisor knows me (and the quality of my work)?

And more importantly: How should I proceed? I obviously want to get this done really quick. Of course, I know that reviews are essential to improve the quality of my thesis and I am willing to put in substantial amount of time. But I think it's too much, if I need to change (nearly) each sentence of what I have written... Should I talk with my formal advisor about that? What should I let him know?

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    Should I talk with my formal advisor about that? Yes. What should I let him know? what you've just told us.
    – ff524
    Apr 4 '16 at 17:20
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    Honestly, I'm a little weirded out but this question. Might be because I'm picky as well (I'm not reviewing any thesis atm, otherwise I'd even wonder if it was yours). My point is: this kind of attention is rare. It is a whole lot better than a laissez-faire advisor that risks you getting shanked on the defence. Let him know that you are a little pressed for time, see how he reacts. Do not be offended. Do not think you are not good enough. Because if your advisor believed that, he wouldn't invest that much time on you. Apr 4 '16 at 20:47
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    Agree with @FábioDias. Better to have a reviewer who cares and comment. In the end, it's your thesis, you make the calls. But, highly detailed revision are a way to learn.
    – Emilie
    Apr 4 '16 at 20:55
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    I forgot something. I was on the other side of this as well. Looking back, I should have listen more closely to my advisor, I often catch myself saying the exact same things he told me to students, and my students behave better than I did. In fact, I apologized to him profusely several times now... Apr 4 '16 at 21:02
  • @FábioDias, I get your point. But picking on each word and formulation won't make my defense any better. In fact, the defense and the written thesis are two completely different pairs of shoes. Of course, essential parts of the thesis such as research questions or contributions need special attention. This is also where I want to get (picky) advice. But not for most of the other parts. Anyway, thanks for your comment. After all I think it makes sense. I just don't fully agree with getting shanked at the defense if my written thesis is not 100% perfect.
    – beta
    Apr 5 '16 at 8:06

This type of question doesn't have a single correct answer, but many different approaches. To that extent, here's what I would do.

There's two ways to go here: the difficult one, where you try to fight back, and the easy one, where you just make the corrections. Given that (a) this is a thesis, not a publication, making it essentially a single-purpose document unlikely to be referenced again in the future, and (b) the completion of the thesis is entirely dependent on this picky advisor saying that it's complete, I would DEFINITELY recommend just making the corrections.

Stated differently: choosing to fight this will likely cause far more damage than choosing not to fight.

Only caveat to the above is to only let this happen once or maybe twice per section. I.e., if this goes on for two rounds—i.e., if you make all his changes, and then he gives you another redlined document, where he essentially edits most of his own edits—then you're in infinite editing purgatory, and you'll have to work with him to figure out how to break the cycle and agree it's just good enough.

  • thanks. seems plausible. however, this contradicts the comment here: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/66285/… not sure what is the better option here.
    – beta
    Apr 4 '16 at 17:52
  • @beta - See my opening comment. This will depend on your personality and your impression of your advisor's temperament. Go with what makes sense in your situation.
    – eykanal
    Apr 4 '16 at 17:53
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    I would say, take the path with the least resistance too. Advisors tend to be a lil "defensive" and "cranky" especially when they are about to let a student graduate. Since he has the final decision and he is always busy, arguing will cause you more delays. I would suggest that when you see him again to give him both the new and old draft so he can see what he has changed earlier and possibly end the loop!
    – The Guy
    Apr 4 '16 at 18:09
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    The advisor being inconsistent with himself is a giveaway, of course. That shouldn't happen. However, if I have a student that would complain about my pickiness, my response would be that my pickiness reduces the chances of the referees/reviewers being picky. It's better to catch problems early and "in the family." And yes, some students are quite sloppy with formulations. Of course, we cannot know whether this is the case here, and if the advisor begins correcting him/herself, then sensitivity is too high for the given gain and parasitic oscillation ensues (keep the pun if you find one). Apr 4 '16 at 18:21
  • @CaptainEmacs I, sometimes, reverse my own comments. I agree that shouldn't happen, but sometimes the text itself changes around the remark and it doesn't make sense anymore. Sometimes my opinion changes, plain and simple. It doesn't happen often tho. Apr 4 '16 at 20:51

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