Tag Archives: doctoral supervision

A PhD student receives a rejection from a journal. Here is how she and her supervisors responded

I was talking with a colleague recently who described an interaction with one of her students who had been rejected from a journal. The response of her supervisors sounded really interesting, so I asked if she’d mind forwarding the emails onto me for a blog post. Which she kindly did! There’s a lot here that is useful in thinking about how to respond when you get rejected. I should point out this is in a country where many students complete a PhD through publications, and in this case the article was written by the student, with all the supervisors helping her and named as authors.

First the student wrote to her supervisors

Dear supervisors,

At last I have got response from the journal regarding my second manuscript. Unfortunately they are not interested to publish it.

I´m very disappointed about that. I can agree with a lot of the comments, it is useful for me in the future process but it has taken over 6 months to deliver that answer and right now I don´t have so much positive energy to restart the work.

I think I can interpret their comments (at least from the first reviewer) as if I rewrite the manuscript I can try to resubmit it but I´m not really sure if that is their suggestion.

Then one supervisor replied, cc’ing the others

Thank you for your email. Yes that is somewhat disappointing, but from the comments, perhaps it is good that it isn¹t published in its current form: because from what the reviewers saw, I don¹t think the paper did full justice to your work and your thinking! Better to have a stronger paper published, even if it is later.

I have had similarly prickly experiences, particularly in this journal, with reviewers who really want accounts of research to feel as if the research was quantitative (a bit like reviewer 1 worrying about interpretation in ethnographic research etc).

On the plus side:

  1. Both reviewers appear to have read your paper in quite a bit of detail! (which is not always the case)
  2. Both reviewers have offered well-written comments that are quite easy to understand (which is not always the case)
  3. There is lots in the comments that will help to improve the paper.

I think both the reviewers offer largely helpful comments – they are not fighting the kind of story you want to tell, or questioning its importance. They do want to know more concrete detail about the study methods, want a clearer alignment between the question, theory, findings and discussion, and a very clear argument as to what is new and why it matters. They are all very achievable without having to go back and do more analysis!

I think the process now should be to wait a few days until you feel a bit less fed up, and then to start:

  1. Thinking of alternative journals (although R1 seemed to invite this the journal is definitely not asking for a resubmission as I interpret the email). XXX might be one possibility. Or YYY?
  1. Coming up with your own to-do list in terms of changes you think are worth making to the paper – and perhaps differentiating those that are small/easy, and those that require a bit more thought and work. You can also list those points the reviewers made that you¹re not so bothered about and don¹t want to make big changes.

So, when you¹re feeling you have the energy to take it up again, there are my suggestions 🙂

Then another supervisor added her voice

I understand that it feels a bit disappointing, particularly since they kept you waiting so long for the decision. But I can only echo what [Supervisor 1] is suggesting, once you have worked through the comments, your paper will be much stronger.  I think you should let it sit while you are completing the paper on the [different analysis], you are in a good flow with that one at the moment! And we should think of an alternative journal, I agree, we need to aim for one that is included in Web if Science.

And then a third supervisor added his voice

This is the kind of experience that is not only sometimes happening, but rather a rule than an exception. And just as S1 and S2 state; it will in the end improve the paper. But I do agree they could have given us this feedback at least half a year earlier….

I also think S2’s advice is right; go on with the paper on [different analysis] and let this paper rest (just like a wine; it will become better with time and maturation – ask your husband!).

So let this experience take its time and aim for a journal that is indexed in Web if Science, although the IF is not too important.

Then the student replies

Thanks for the support!

I totally agree with you all and as I said, the comments from the reviewers are very good for me in the future process and also for my paper regarding the [different analysis]. I  struggle with the same issues here I guess; clear arguments for the study, evidence for my findings and how to discuss that much more clear.

Brief comment from me

What I like here is:

  1. That we end up with the student being able to take the rejection letter as a way to identify some things that she needs to look out for in another paper
  2. That S3 normalises this kind of experience
  3. That S2 provides very concrete suggestions in terms of not getting distracted by the rejection when work is going well on another paper
  4. That S1 finds positive things to appreciate in the reviewers’ comments, even though it was a rejection
  5. That the student felt comfortable sharing this, and got such strong and immediate support.

Flipping PhD Supervision

First up this is not just about PhD supervision, but supervision of research degrees, whether Masters, PhD, Professional Doctorates etc. PhD in the title is just a convenient shorthand.

One of the interesting things that has been going on where I work is ‘Learning2014’. This is UTS’ approach to changing teaching and learning across all our campuses (including the online ones) and disciplines. One of the features of this concerns ‘New Approaches’ to pedagogy, and within this, a key idea is ‘flipped learning’.

Flipped learning is gaining currency as a way to describe certain ideas about what might happen before a key pedagogical interaction, such as a lecture or tutorial. While the term feels relatively new, it builds on key ideas that have informed teaching and learning for a long time.

Admittedly, I was initially a little cynical (as I tend to be about most things), but as I began planning classes in the coursework masters program, I found the idea of flipped learning was giving me a really important nudge in my thinking. Why was I asking students to read texts, or watch videos, before class? Could I explain this better to them? Could I scaffold them in doing so? How could I use this to improve what happens when we meet? I then started feeding the idea into workshops and masterclasses, and the feedback has been very encouraging. We’re able to get straight into meaningful discussion about key ideas, building on what students took from engaging with material, the questions that came up, and the issues that remain unclear. I’ve posted a short video that explains my approach to flipped active learning in classes and workshops.

Can flipped learning help with research supervision?

I began asking myself whether supervising doctoral and masters students might also benefit from some of the ideas of flipped learning. Here’s where I’ve got to so far.

Supervision is nearly always flipped in some way, anyway

Insofar as flipping means that students engage with some ideas or content in advance of a structured teaching moment, then many, if not the vast majority, of meetings between students and supervisors already have some flipped quality. Students might often write something, or be asked to explore particular areas of literature or methods, or do some fieldwork or experiments in a laboratory before meeting with a supervisor. This sense of flipping is widespread and really nothing new at all (it’s been going on in the Oxbridge tutorial system for centuries). Of course just because it’s not new doesn’t mean it’s bad or broken (that’s how I experienced all my supervision as a masters and PhD student and I did fine!). But as I’ve been working with the idea, I think there’s more to it…

In some ways supervision isn’t flipped

The more I thought about it, the more I could see some elements of the ‘student writes-supervisor reads-both discuss’ model potentially missed some of the benefits that I was seeing from other kinds of flipped learning in the classes and workshops. I realised that when a student arrives for a supervision, they often don’t know what I’m going to be saying about their draft, or what I’m going to be asking them. My comments and questions are being encountered for the first time, in the moment of supervision. At times this can be a very productive form of interaction, for many reasons, but it can also be experienced as quite challenging, even confronting. And I’m not convinced it always leads to the best discussion…

Flipping supervision

So I’ve been experimenting with two practices.

  1. Providing written feedback on students’ drafts (usually by hand), with a typed summary of key points and questions I will ask. I send this to students a few days before our scheduled meeting.
  2. Making a short (10 minutes or less) audio recording in which I talk through my responses to a piece of writing, and explain the questions I’d like to ask, and issues I think we should discuss when we meet. Again this is sent to students a few days before the meeting.

I think there’s potentially some value in these. What they do is give students a chance to think about the issues and questions before we meet. This changes it from an on-the-spot Q&A, to one where students have had time to digest the points, perhaps even read a bit, think of ways to defend their ideas, consider alternatives etc. The written version takes me a lot more time, but gives students a very concrete and detailed set of things to look at, and a nice shared reference point for us in meetings, as well as a clear audit trail. The spoken version is much quicker, and I like it because I can use my tone of voice to provide extra encouragement, and to soften the potential negative feeling when a draft needs yet more work!

So the potential benefits seem to be:

  1. It moves the discussion on a step when we actually meet, because I’m not introducing the points or questions for the first time, but rather can start with ‘so what did you think about my feedback?’. It becomes less about my response to the student, and more about her response to the issues and questions.
  2. It might make it less confronting for students, and make it feel less like a test in supervision. It might also help make supervisions feel more focused on positive aspects and next steps, rather than what is wrong with the latest draft.
  3. It could also foster independence in students, so they have time to explore resources and their own initiative in coming up with responses to issues and questions raised. I wonder how many times, in the past, a student has found it hard to ‘come up with an answer’ on the spot. What if she had had a few days to work on it?


But this is no panacea and some things I’m sensing a need to be careful about include:

  1. Making sure there isn’t increased risk of students feeling vulnerable or under-performing, because in the flipped mode, they read or hear the feedback when they are on their own, not in the meeting. So if it’s hitting them hard, I’m not going to be there to see that.
  2. Making sure students feel comfortable in saying ‘I’ve no idea!’, or ‘Yes that seems an important issue, but I really don’t know how to respond at the moment’. That is fine. What the flipped approach would allow us to explore is what a student tried out in the intervening few days, so we can think about why that wasn’t found to be so helpful, and explore alternatives.

In conclusion

It has been interesting to think through what flipped learning might mean in a research supervision context. I’ve tried these ideas out softly, and step by step at first, consulting with students as I go along, and trying to monitor what aspects appear to work well, why, and for whom. I can’t see that it would make sense for all supervisions with all students to use this approach, but it might offer some helpful variation in the rhythm and sequence of supervision pedagogy from time to time.

I’d love to hear from any other students or supervisors who are doing something similar. Maybe I’m way behind everyone else and have done nothing more then reinvent the wheel…

Top 10 ways to annoy your PhD supervisors


I should start this post by saying very clearly that what follows is by no means a comment on the many fantastic students I work with and have worked with. I should also be clear that this does not reflect official policy of UTS: it reflects my personal views and is deliberately provocative at times.

The title is a little flippant: this isn’t just about (not) annoying your supervisors, but about the broader and crucial issue of maintaining health supervisory relationships, and making the most out of what supervision has to offer. As you’ll see if you read on, successful doctoral candidature is also about being part of a wider institution and realising that doctoral education and support is much more than supervision.

This is written from the voice of your supervisor, and some points may be more relevant in social sciences and humanities, but most should be worth thinking about for all students.

1.   Disappear

This might sound obvious, but it happens quite a lot. Students, maybe because they are worried, or feel they haven’t been productive enough, can drop into radio silence. Chasing up disappearing doctoral students isn’t particularly pleasurable, and more importantly is a worrying sign. I’m not dismissing important and real issues around anxiety, and of course there are often good reasons why you might find it hard to keep up your work, or might lose confidence. Accessing counselling support services should never be discounted as an option. But going invisible / silent doesn’t do anything for your supervisory relationship and you should stay in regular communication with me.

2.   Mess me around with dates and deadlines

Yes, you might not always be able to meet when we planned, and yes sometimes your work will take longer than expected: unexpected other things in life can’t be ruled out. But as a rule, turn up when we agree to meet, and provide me with your work by the deadline we agree. If you are late, this can compromise my ability to give your work the time and attention it deserves. Equally: I have to make a firm commitment not to change meeting dates and to give feedback in a timely manner. It’s about mutual respect as much as anything else.

3.   Continue to work on texts that I’m reading for feedback

This really is annoying: you send in a piece of writing (draft chapter, etc) and we meet a week later. Meanwhile you’ve been working on the same text, and arrive by telling me that the text I’ve spent considerable time reading and preparing to discuss, is no longer the one you’re working on. Grrr! Make sure you have something else to work on while I’m reading particular pieces of writing.

4.   Assume I’m your default source of support

As your supervisor I’m an important port of call for many sorts of help, support, advice, and guidance. But NOT all sorts of help, support, advice and guidance. You have librarians, administrators, IT support, peers, friends, family, other academics etc as alternatives. Good students consider who is best to ask for help (I’ve published about this kind of relational agency). Asking me stuff that others could have helped you with is irritating and unproductive. Help keep our meetings focused on the stuff that I can bring most value to.

5.   Ask for help before trying to address something yourself

Related to point 4, but slightly different. This is doctoral study: high-level stuff where learning independence is a key factor. If you come to me with a ‘problem’ and want me to offer a solution before you’ve really tried out a number of things yourself, chances are I’ll say (yep, you guessed): “go and try out a few things yourself and reflect on how they go, then we can have a better discussion about how to proceed”.

6.   Agree to things that you know aren’t realistic

One of several points relating to clear, honest, shared expectations. If I say “when can you have a draft of your methodology written by?” and you say “one month”, then make sure that that is realistic. If you know you’ve got to look after the kids in school holidays, or have visits from demanding relatives, or a crazy month in your job, don’t be scared to tell me. I have to respect your other commitments just as I expect you to respect mine. I’d rather we negotiated a reasonable timeframe up front, than you agreeing to something unrealistic and then messing me around later (see point 2).

7.   Leave the supervision with no idea what I was talking about

Yes, I admit: I’m not always as clear as I’d like to be when giving suggestions to students I work with. I’m as guilty as the next person of being cryptic at times. I need you to help manage this. Don’t sit there nodding and writing notes in a supervision, as if you understand everything I’m saying, and then come back a month later and say “sorry, I didn’t do anything on that chapter because I didn’t really understand what you wanted me to do”. If say “It needs more voice” and you have no idea or are unsure what that means, then speak up! You’re not supposed to be psychic. But you are supposed to be an active partner in supervisions and to play an active role in reaching shared understandings of next steps.

8.   Agree with everything I say

One of my biggest fears is that as a supervisor I lead you into doing your doctorate the way I would have done it. I worry a lot if a consistent pattern emerges when you acquiesce to everything I suggest and don’t contest any of my ideas. This is your PhD, your name is going on the certificate. Show you’re becoming a scholar worthy of the title ‘Dr’ by being ready to disagree with me. You’re going to have to disagree with much scarier people in future, and stand up for your decisions, so get used to it.

9.   Talk to other academics without discussing with me first

As with any workplace, academic institutions are not free of politics. I very much encourage and support you to interact with and get support from as a wide a range of academic colleagues as is appropriate. But it’s much better to talk to me about this before going and knocking on others’ doors. I can then guide you as to who might be helpful (and guide you away from others who might throw a spanner in the works for whatever reason). I might also broker an introduction. Some supervisors might have, er, shall we say tense relations with some of their colleagues, so a bit of openness about reaching out isn’t a bad idea.

10.                 Expect me to know your field as well as you do

Simple truth: if I don’t know your field when we start, I certainly won’t by the time you’re getting close to finishing. I haven’t read everything you have. I don’t know your data as well as you do. You’re (becoming) the expert in that area. So think about what that means for how to make the most of your relationship with me as your supervisor.

Obviously, this isn’t the 10 commandments: they’re deliberately frank, flippant and perhaps provocative. These rules might not apply in your context, but I’m guessing the chances are something related to each point is relevant in some way to how you work with your supervisor.

Reference to the paper I published on wider relationships and relational agency:

Hopwood, N. (2010). A sociocultural view of doctoral students’ relationships and agency. Studies in Continuing Education, 33(2), 103-117.

My review of 2 books on doctoral education published

V short blog post today!

I reviewed The Routledge doctoral students’ companion: getting to grips with research in education and the social sciences and The Routledge doctoral supervisors’ companion: supporting effective research in education and the social sciences, now published in Studies in Continuing Education.

Both are excellent books and cover a wide range of issues that are highly relevant to doctoral students in social sciences and education research.