Doctoral Journey Challenges: Reviewer feedback
Doctoral Journey Challenges: Reviewer feedback
I recently completed the Doctoral Journey at University of Phoenix and earned a Doctor of Business Administration degree. As I was reflecting on the experience, I was reminded of the struggles I had with feedback along the way. The following is mostly my personal reflection, and is loosely intended for students who are currently pursuing their doctoral degrees and struggling with their dissertations.
The dissertation-writing process is the academic version of Mt. Everest. Few attempt the climb, and even fewer ever reach the summit. The challenges along the way are various. They can range from relatively minor temporary delays such as awaiting proposal submission results and securing committee members, to mammoth roadblocks surrounding IRB approvals and study population issues -- and everything in between.
In addition, other challenges in the doctoral journey include things like advanced coursework, assignments, comprehensive exams, residencies, internships and more!
For the sake of this conversation, I’ll focus on the dissertation-writing process which many consider to be the steepest mountain to climb on the doctoral journey.
While writing their dissertations, nearly every doctoral student has encountered, at one point or another, the frustrating reality of receiving what appears to be contradictory guidance from advisors, faculty, and dissertation committee members. Common examples include:
“Your abstract is too short and doesn’t hit all the needed points…” vs. “Your abstract should be concise and free of irrelevant information…”
“Your proposal should be fully polished with chapters 1 through 3…” vs. “A solid first chapter is all that’s needed, but with clear outlines for your literature review and methods chapters…”
“All headings need to be bolded…” vs. “Level 2 headings and level 3 headings are bolded, but not level 1 headings…”
“The purpose statement should guide the study…” vs. “The theoretical/conceptual framework should guide the study…”
“The purpose statement should frame the research questions…” vs. “The problem statement should frame the research questions…”
These contradictions can be quite discouraging and can make the student’s head spin.
Perhaps even more challenging for students is receiving feedback that changes aspects of the study design or approach, implementing that feedback, and then receiving new guidance later that changes it back to what it was originally. Each iteration of feedback like this often causes students to redesign and rewrite portions of their dissertations – eating up weeks and sometimes months of time and effort.
It may be surprising for most students to learn that challenges like these are quite common in doctoral-level programs. Indeed, inconsistent and sometimes contradictory feedback is a reality, even beyond doctoral studies and into the peer review processes for scholarly journals (Smith, 2006). In fact, “Inconsistency among the overall recommendations of peer reviewers is common” (Wagner et al., 2003). In other words, it’s normal to receive inconsistent and sometimes contradictory guidance! Oh, the humanity!
For a doctoral student encountering this kind of feedback for the first time, life can feel very distressing. However, while these challenges might seem daunting at the time, such trials often end up benefiting students in the long run by helping them refine their critical thinking skills, and preparing them for the peer review processes of their academic futures.
For doctoral students, it’s about outlook. It’s important for students to remember that feedback is meant to be helpful, and that how they react to inconsistent and contradictory feedback is entirely up to them. It can be debilitating, or can be a learning experience that benefits the student in the long run.
A few tips for doctoral students on traversing the challenges of writing their dissertation and surviving all the feedback:
Approach your dissertation Chair and specifically discuss these feedback inconsistencies that you have received. Meet in person or speak on the phone about these concerns. Emails often get too long and laborious when addressing concerns like these.
Stay calm and try not to stress. Different people are going to give you different feedback. That’s just the way it is. Knowing this ahead of time will help you temper down that initial rage or despair reaction (Kelsky, 2015).
Remember that inconsistent feedback isn’t necessarily conflicting feedback. For example, studies should be guided by both the purpose statement and the theoretical/conceptual framework, not one or the other. And also remember that if you can get over the initial irritation, revision suggestions from committee members and/or reviewers can be very helpful and can strengthen your study tremendously (Kelsky, 2015).
And for those times when you’re told to revert back to an original design or structure after you’ve changed it based on someone else’s prior feedback; discuss with your Chair, and remember that if it doesn’t kill you, it’ll make you stronger.
And who knows?
Your second or third rewrite could yield an award-winning manuscript that zips through the review process with flying colors. In any case though, it’s important to understand that over 50% of students who start doctoral programs never graduate (Cassuto, 2013), and those who do graduate endure years of psychological and emotional struggle – like dealing with inconsistent feedback.
But I promise you, when you finish the dissertation journey and graduate, you’ll be glad you made the journey.
Cassuto, L. (2013). Ph.D. Attrition: How Much Is Too Much? The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from https://www.chronicle.com/article/PhD-Attrition-How-Much-Is/140045.
Smith, R. (2006). Peer review: a flawed process at the heart of science and journals. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1420798/.
Wagner, A., Boninger, M., Levy, C., Chan, L., Gater, D., Kirby, R. (2003). Peer Review Issues in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. American Journal of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation. Retrieved from https://www.kultur.gu.se/digitalAssets/1300/1300983_Issues_in_Physical_Medicine_and.pdf.
Kelsky, K. (2015). When the Reviewers Disagree. Retrieved from https://chroniclevitae.com/news/954-when-the-reviewers-disagree.