Benefitting Fully from Committee Feedback
Receiving feedback on drafts of your dissertation chapters may at times seem a mixed blessing, but it can be a positive and beneficial experience if you cope with it effectively. Since the usual procedure is to share your writing with your PhD supervisor first, receive his or her commentary and then revise your work in response, the parts of your dissertation that you share with your other committee members will usually be polished to some degree. This means that you will probably be dealing with fewer practical matters (such as writing style and formatting), but you will very likely need to deal with differences of academic or scientific opinion. Your committee members may disagree with each other, with you, with your supervisor and even with approaches you and your supervisor devised to resolve any initial disagreements the two of you had. Learning how to cope efficiently and professionally with what may be conflicting advice from your various committee members in order to work productively with them throughout your degree process is an essential aspect of successfully completing a doctoral dissertation.
You will certainly encounter contradictions as you write your dissertation: contradiction among the sources you consult; contradiction between your own work and those sources; contradiction among your committee members in terms of their advice as readers and scholars; and contradiction between your ideas and practices and those of your committee members. The number of members in your committee will make a difference, but both small and large committees have their pros and cons. Small ones mean less opportunity for contradictory advice and potentially more space for your own ideas and practices to flourish, but you also benefit from less and less diverse expertise and advice. Large committees, on the other hand, mean that you need to please more people, which can present many contradictions and, in some cases, become a little stifling, but you will benefit from a broader range of qualified readers and helpful opinions. Whatever the constitution of your dissertation committee may be, however, it was no doubt designed to meet your anticipated needs (interdisciplinary dissertations, for instance, often require more experts to cover the fields of study concerned and tend to involve a variety of potentially conflicting approaches), and almost every committee has the potential to guide a doctoral candidate through writing a successful dissertation. It is what you make of that potential that will determine your success.
Remember that your committee members have more experience than you do and are providing expert critical advice that can help you sharpen your thinking, improve your methodology, clarify your argument and meet the requirements of scholarly writing at the doctoral level as well as the needs of your anticipated readers. It is essential to remain professional and objective while reading the comments provided by your committee members, using each piece of advice in as beneficial a manner as possible, whether that means actually altering your approaches or simply explaining those approaches and your reasons for adopting them more precisely and thoroughly. If significant problems associated with conflicting advice from your committee members do arise, you should discuss them face-to-face with your supervisor initially and then, if necessary, with your other committee members (either individually or as a group). You should clearly state your own ideas and concerns in such meetings, point out contradictions in the advice you received, specify what you do not understand or what you think will not work and, if possible, suggest compromises that may lead to solutions with which everyone can feel satisfied. Most issues can be resolved in this way as long as you aim for honest and straightforward communication, maintain good manners, show respect for the ideas of others, demonstrate an open mind and combine it with a persistent focus on what you want your dissertation to do and be.
Contradiction lies at the heart of academic and scientific writing and debate. It is a healthy and inspirational aspect of quality scholarship that can improve your research and enhance your writing skills. Encountering and effectively dealing with it while working on your dissertation is not only a normal part of the degree process, but also excellent training for a successful academic or scientific career.
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