First, do not take a recording device to the meeting as most professors do not like that. Several stories were told about only showing up with a digital recorder and being told to put it away. These students did not think to bring along a pad and paper, so they remembered little of the feedback given for the next 15 minutes. Some captured a little of it on their phone but captured little of the feedback using their thumbs on the tiny screen. Later they sat looking at the returned chapter wondering what was said and what to do next.
So take a pen and pad of paper unless you have a laptop and can type really fast. Still the pad and pen will help in drawing diagrams and connecting thoughts that may be fired at you high speed by one to three committee members. While your chapter is the center of your life, it is a small part of a very busy the responses are confusing or contradictory and the brief meeting seems to move at the speed of light.
As soon as you get home or can find a quiet place then rewrite your notes while the comments are fresh in your mind. Many of us reported sitting down in an empty classroom near the professor’s office and expanding our scribbling into full sentences that would make sense later when we sat down to rewrite the chapter. Expect contradictions and confusion in the feedback along with insights. Expect often to be told to redo something that they had you change the last time the chapter was written and handed in. Listen to the committee and realize this is like creating a statue out of a huge chunk of marble. A nice finished product is in there but lots of changes will be made. The process can be chaotic but the folks leading you are experts in their field.
The next decision of what to do is to decide what to rewrite from the confusing feedback. Let’s use an exaggerated but often seen example of the differences in verbal behavior and observable behavior. In life, these are the two forms of behavior that get people in trouble when they confuse them. In one case the man says to the woman that I love you and want to do things for you. He then never has a job, lives at her apartment, constantly borrows money and uses her car. In another case the man says to the woman I love you and I want to do things for you. He has a nice home he is paying for, is saving money, drives his own car and spends money on her to impress and win her over. He is emitting actual behavior and not just talking.
I used this over the top example to save time and get to the heart of your understanding. Some behavior from your committee is verbal only and words are all that ever will manifest. Some behavior is actual or observable and it will have an impact on the environment. This is what the committee really wants you to do. Pay attention to your committee and figure out what is verbal and what is actionable. Your professors are brilliant and they are paid for their speaking ability and that comes out when they are giving you feedback. In many cases, if you respond to everything that you are told you will be all over the place. You have only so much time and energy so listen carefully and decide what is real and what is just talk, arguing, posturing or actual useful feedback that you can use to rewrite your chapter.
If two of your committee members are in conflict, write down both suggestions then later contact your committee chair by email and in a light and respectful manner ask which direction you should go. Downplay the conflict and focus on the positive. I have heard from a few folks who due to their stress or personality challenged their committees for providing poor guidance and feedback. This is not a good idea. Each admitted that if they had not been under stress from the degree, they would not have made the statements that they did. Many times this type of event takes place near the end of the process after a year or two of work on the dissertation. It can sort of erupt and it can really damage the relationships. Each student admits spending too much time chasing verbal behavior from committee members only to find the committee members not remembering the suggestions later when they meet for the next review of a chapter. Anger towards the committee is not productive. It is best to listen and discern what are simply verbal behavior suggestions and what are real suggestions.
If the committee is nice enough to write down their comments and return it to you that is wonderful. Stick with what is written (actual behavior) and not what they spend the next 20 minutes saying to you in the feedback meeting (verbal behavior). Most of what they suggest that is not written down they will not remember the next time that you meet. My committee wrote their corrections and sometimes I received two separate ones that did not match but I worked it out. Sometimes they flipped and had me change back something that they had me change the last review. But chunks of that marble block fell away over time and the result was a very nice piece of work. It was far better than I could have done on my own. I will be forever grateful to those three professors.
Some students told me about committees that did not give written feedback. These students had a much harder time judging what was just verbal behavior versus real actions that were needed to fix the chapter. In these cases you must work even closer with your committee members. Listen closely when they give you feedback and try to distinguish what is real feedback and what is extra. While you may not use those extra ideas and comments now, they are nuggets of gold that may be used for later papers or research ideas. As you work with your committee you are sitting there with three highly educated and experienced guides. Few people will ever get to tap into such a group. Enjoy where you are and what you are doing and the people you get to learn from.
Look to you goals,
Dr. Randy Parker
National Doctoral Students Association