How to manage lack of feedback

For me, one of the hardest parts of doing a PhD so far has been the lack of feedback and external incentives to do my work.

The thing is, in a PhD – even when you’re writing articles – is that there are very few deliverables. There’s not all that much to show, and almost nothing tangible, for the work you’ve been doing . More importantly, you often can’t see the impact of your work until it’s done (if even then, depending on your research topic). Policy recommendations, cures for diseases, new applications for technology rarely come during the research, but rather after the hard work is done.

Even after having written a Master’s thesis, a PhD is just so much larger and slower that it’s a whole different beast. In Belgium, PhD students typically get four years full-time to complete their research, which will be in the form of four or five articles if you’re lucky. Of course most PhD students are also involved in other projects and academic conferences or other types of writing like popularised science or blogs, but there are still not that many milestones.

I think it’s been especially difficult for me as I was always the sort of student who enjoyed the challenge of getting high marks, the quantifiable reward for your hard work. Of course, there are no marks in a PhD. I’m also a reasonably impatient person: I read fast, I write reasonably fast, and during high school and university I was used to finishing all my work quickly without having to do too much re-reading and revision. Those days are over, too.

So what have I done to try to make it more tolerable?

First, I try to focus on my intrinsic motivation (a concept that comes from the self-determination theory in positive psychology). There’s nobody there to provide incentives for you to stick to deadlines, but there’s also nobody forcing you to actually do a PhD. Remembering why I was motivated to start research in the first place – and realising that it’s up to me to do my work, nobody is going to sit beside me and help me write – helps me to get started and keep going.

Second, and maybe obviously, is the need to set your own goals. Even though my university sets broad ‘milestones’ for PhD students in the form of annual guidance committee meetings and the documents we have to present there, these are very broad. Especially because my supervisor is a very hands-off style, it’s important for me to set smaller goals for each task I have to do – and then plan a reward if I get the first draft of that paper finished in time.

Finally, perhaps the most successful strategy for me has been finding another way to get immediate feedback through extra-curricular activities. For example, I am taking Dutch classes at university, where we get not only regular feedback (including praise) from the teacher, but also regular graded tests, just like in school and undergraduate degrees. But I also get the same feeling from non-academic pursuits: refereeing basketball gives me instant feedback in the form of players’ reactions, and volunteering in the community through my Rotaract club shows me directly how my actions can help others.

Maybe some people enjoy the freedom from external pressure and marking systems that a PhD gives them, but I wouldn’t be able to take it if I didn’t have some sort of feedback. But everyone has their own strategies – and following other PhD blogs has definitely given me plenty more to try!

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