Encouraging Candidates to Write and Giving Appropriate Feedback

Candidates need to produce written work throughout their studies to articulate what they are thinking, to reflect upon their findings, and to gain feedback. But candidates may prove reluctant to write particularly in the early stages and need encouragement and support from their supervisors to do so.

Once they have produced written work, supervisors have to give feedback. It is important that feedback is high-quality and that it enables candidates to progress their research projects.

Typical Examples
  • Encouraging candidates to write from the start of their studies.
  • Supporting the development of academic writing.
  • Giving timely, constructive, and actionable feedback.

Supporting Materials

Literature and Evidence

The traditional view was that writing could be left to the end when the final submission was produced. But the consensus now (see for example Kamler and Thomson 2006), Bitchener 2018) is that writing is or should be an integral part of the research process and that candidates need to start writing at the beginning of their studies and continue throughout. 

Your evidence for this might include asking them to keep research journals/diaries and setting mini-projects involving written reports.

That said, it is not just a matter of producing text but of producing what is a highly specialised form of writing, namely academic writing. As a number of studies (see Can and Walker 2011, Lee and Murray 2013, Lindsay 2015) have shown, doctoral candidates rarely arrive at the start of their studies with the capacity to produce such writing and, left on their own, they may struggle to acquire it. In recognition of this, many institutions now provide courses in academic writing for doctoral candidates.

But, it is still you as their supervisors who are the first readers of their texts and who at least arguably should provide guidance about their writing. Evidence of such guidance may take the form of referring candidates to good examples in the literature or showing how to re-write a paragraph or two or encouraging them to join peer writing groups (see Aitchison 2010, Wellington 2010a, Carter and Kumar 2016, Wegener et al 2016).

Giving feedback on written work is of course one of, if not the, most vital functions of the supervisor. Such feedback needs to be timely in the sense of enabling candidates to move on with their studies (see for example Odema and Burgess 2015, Carter and Kumar 2016). It also needs to be constructive; as numerous studies (see for example Whitelock et al 2008, Wang and Li 2011, Can and Walker 2011, Aitchison and Mowbray 2013) have shown, candidates have a very strong emotional investment in their draft submissions, and criticism is often taken personally.

Finally, as McAlpine and Amundsen (2012) have pointed out, it needs to be actionable in the sense that candidates can understand the points being made and incorporate changes. Evidence would be of how you take these three considerations into account when you are giving feedback to candidates.


Expand the section below to view references the academic literature supporting this criterion:

5. Encouraging Candidates to Write and Giving Appropriate Feedback

Aitchison, C. (2010)

Writing groups for doctoral education.

Studies in Higher Education, 34(8): 905-16.


Aitchison, C. and Mowbray, S. (2013)

Doctoral women: managing emotions, managing doctoral studies.

Teaching in Higher Education, 18(8): 859-70.


Bitchener, J. (2018)

The relationship between reading, thinking and writing: the literature review component of a doctoral confirmation proposal.

In S. Carter and D. Laurs (eds/) Developing Research Writing. London, Routledge: 9-16.


Can, G. and Walker, A. (2011)

A Model for Doctoral Students’ Perceptions and Attitudes Towards Written Feedback for Academic Writing.

Research Higher Education (52): 508-536.


Carter, S. and Kumar, V. (2016)

‘Ignoring me is part of learning’: Supervisory feedback on doctoral writing.

Innovations in Education and Teaching International


Kamler, B. and Thompson, P. (2006)

Helping Doctoral Students Write: Pedagogies for supervision.

Routledge, London.

Lee, A. and Murray, R. (2013)

Supervising writing: helping postgraduate students develop as researchers.

Innovations in Education and Teaching International. 52(5): 558-70.


Lindsay, S. (2015)

What works for doctoral students in completing their thesis?

Teaching in Higher Education, 20(2): 183-96.


McAlpine, L. and Amudsen, C. (2012)

Challenging the taken-for-granted: how research analysis might inform pedagogical practices and institutional policies relating to doctoral education.

Studies in Higher Education, 37(6): 683-694.


Odena, O. and Burgess, H. (2015)

How doctoral students and graduates describe facilitating experiences and strategies for their thesis writing learning process: a qualitative approach.

Studies in Higher Education.


Wang, T. and Li, L. (2011)

‘Tell me what to do vs. ‘guide me through it’ Feedback experiences of international doctoral students.

Active Learning in Higher Education, 12: 101-112.


Wegener, C., Meier, N. and Ingerslev, K. (2016)

Borrowing brainpower – sharing insecurities. Lessons learned from a doctoral peer writing group.

Studies in Higher Education, 41(6): 1092-1105.


Wellington, J. (2010a)

More than a matter of cognition: an exploration of affective writing problems of postgraduate students and their possible solutions.

Teaching in Higher Education, 15(2): 135-50.


Whitelock, D., Faulkner, D and Miell, D. (2008)

Promoting creativity in PhD supervision: Tensions and dilemmas.

Thinking Skills and Creativity, 3(2): 143-153.


Download the Research Supervisors Bibliography PDF 1.15Mb

Example Application Content

Below is an example of how evidence could be provided for this criterion when applying to the Research Supervision Recognition Programme:

5. Encouraging Candidates to Write and Giving Appropriate Feedback

For my own doctorate, I was advised to get my research out of the way before doing most of the writing at the very end. This proved quite stressful because late in the day I had to learn how to do academic writing, which was time consuming. Also, I found that the more I wrote, the more things changed, and I kept having to go back and alter earlier chapters. This was because, as I discovered later, writing is not just the product but part of the process of doing research, i.e. it is through writing that meaning is made of the research project (Woolf 2010).

So, as a supervisor myself, I encourage candidates strongly to start writing on Day 1 and continue throughout their doctoral studies. In particular, I ask them to keep a diary recording all of their thoughts about their research and details of any books or papers they have read and the references to them. I also push them quite hard to present written work regularly. This can be like getting blood out of a stone, but I find that giving candidates permission to present rough drafts often does the trick.

Perhaps my most important job as a supervisor is to give candidates feedback upon their work. Again, in this area my own experience as a research student was unhappy as my supervisor was hyper-critical, covered my drafts in red ink, and seldom praised me. In order to avoid this, both for written and oral feedback I use the framework suggested in Taylor et al (2018), involving congratulating the student on the good points before raising issues in a constructive way and suggesting possible changes before again ending on a positive note.

Before giving feedback, I always consult with the second supervisor, and try to ensure that we are giving the same messages or, if not, that we clarify any points of difference with the student.

A recent innovation has been to use ‘feed forward’ to make sure that candidates take note of my feedback. I have on occasion given copious feedback on a chapter and found, when the next one has been handed in, that the candidate has largely ignored my comments! Now, I ask them to provide a short written report on how they have used my feedback – or if not why not – when they hand in the next chapter, which seems to have done the trick.