Blog Roundtable: How do you deal with criticism?
This blog roundtable is part of a series about graduate school – why do it, what is it like, and what to do afterwards. I encourage you to give your own opinions in the comments section, and if you disagree with a point made by the panel, voice your opinion! This is something a lot of my readers can relate to, so I’m hoping to hear from all of you. Note that these are the opinions of those involved, and do not reflect our institutions or departments in any way. For a full list of the questions, read the first post.
At all stages in your career, you’ll have to deal with it. First, it’s when you are applying for graduate school and applying for graduate school scholarships. Then, you’re applying for PhD programs and more scholarships, then post-doc positions (and post doc scholarships), then faculty positions and grants. And that’s just funding.
Looking to publish? You may have to submit a manuscript multiple times (with multiple revisions) before getting rejected and starting over with a new journal. As Travis Saunders put it – everyone has that one manuscript that becomes their Chinese Democracy. At each stage you’ll have to deal with rejection. It’s part of the research environment.
Some stats to put things in context: in 1980, 23% of NIH grant money went to researchers under 35, which dropped to below 4% in 2002 (1) while the success rate for NIH R01 grants dropped from 25.5% in 1999 and a low of 16.3% in 2006 (2). Success rates are higher in Canada for the tricouncil agencies (CIHR - 21%, SSHRC – 39% and NSERC – 58.1%), but the grants tend to be smaller, so you have to apply for more.
The question posed to the group was: How have you/do you deal with criticism and rejection; be it from advisers, professors, peers or funding committees? How did you deal with rejection when you were applying to schools?
Lets hear from the panel!
Criticism stings. To move forward, one needs to learn from whatever form the criticism takes. One can really excel if they apply the lessons learned from any type of feedback. It also really highlights how one can communicate effectively and clearly to different groups, such as your supervisor, peers, committees, and the general public. As for graduate school rejection letters, I got a few. I also received a few acceptances. As the saying goes; failure is always an option, it is what you learn from that failure is important.
Nobody likes to be criticized but as a grad student you are a moving target. You’re always under the microscope so to speak – with comprehensive exams and proposal and thesis defenses being the major criticism events (at least for me). You have to realize that it’s the job of your committee, examiners, and journal reviewers to criticize your work. This is the peer review process. Always remember that this criticism makes your work BETTER and improves your overall learning and understanding. You should try to avoid taking criticism personally as it is directed at your work, not you as a person.
Rejection with respect to journals and grant submissions is also a fact of life. Every researcher has experienced it at one time or another. Generally you can take some information away from these instances to improve your work in the future. Again, it’s never a direct attack on your character. It’s sometimes even more frustrating when your work gets rejected, not on scientific merit, but because it’s not the flavor of the month. That’s the real world, unfortunately, and you just have to suck it up.
Remember: criticism and rejection help us grow as researchers. If these never happen to us how we can possibly learn and get better?
Don’t get rejected.
Now, for those of us mere mortals, try to take rejection in stride. View most things as corrections or adjustments, rather than outright “No, you’re wrong.” Recognize that rejection, both constructive and otherwise, is part of life in academia. One of the best things to learn is what rejection and criticism to care about, and what to discard. You can spend months trying to conform to the whimsy of an anonymous reviewer, but in the end if it was indeed whimsy, it probably wasn’t worth your time.
As for applying for schools, I lucked out and knew I was in at least one school very quickly. But there were some schools I really wanted to go to that I got rejected from, and that’s hard. I think the best way to view those letters is that they are as much about the school as they are about you. Sometimes, things don’t fit. And faculty and admissions committees can spot that, and know a prospective applicant isn’t going to fit into the department, even if the marketing pamphlet you picked up makes it sound like the chosen land.
While working on my MSc., I received very little feedback from my supervisor – good or bad. His hands-off approach worked very well for others in the lab, but at that time, I needed more guidance as it was an area I was new to and I was unfamiliar with the research methods. I didn’t deal with this well, and in retrospect, I wish I’d been more proactive in asking for help. Don’t let yourself be intimidated, take advantage of the knowledge your supervisor and other students or post-docs have and in turn, share your experiences with newcomers too. The work that you do reflects on your supervisor – so it should always be in their best interests to help you. If criticism comes without constructive ideas for improvement, ask for it. I’d also recommend figuring out the best way to get feedback from your supervisor – does it work best to meet weekly in person? How long does your supervisor take to reply to emails?
That’s a tough one. I personally try to remind myself of other projects/applications/etc where I have been successful in the past, in order to remember that this rejection is limited to this one project rather than being a global rejection of me personally. It’s also good to remember that very few grants/scholarships get funded, so you’re almost always in good company when you get turned down for an award. This is also a good reason to apply for many, many awards, knowing that the odds of being rejected for any single award is pretty high.
With respect to constructive criticism, I like to focus on the fact that the paper/grant/etc is now better as a result of the criticism. In our lab we regularly critique each other’s’ work, including students critiquing the work of our professors. That makes it much easier to accept constructive criticism, since it becomes obvious that everyone has room for improvement.
I cried – a lot. Yet, over time I became more thick-skinned. Believe me it takes a while to build up the rawhide required in order to hear someone cut down your work in a one-on-one or conference setting. I would encourage you to learn (and quickly) how to manage your emotions and take a different/outside perspective on your work. It is important to remember that the individual giving you the feedback (likely your supervisor) has years of experience and thus, have a phenomenal memory bank to draw on. They likely know a lot more on the subject than you do and their feedback/criticism/rejection will only help to increase your knowledge.
Atif (me!) (twitter):
Separating yourself from your ideas is tough, and it’s something that people struggle with. You’ve spent a lot of time working on this project, and are very invested in its success. However, when someone criticizes your paper, it isn’t a personal attack. They’re trying to either understand the decisions you made, or correct you to make the paper stronger. Knowing that, you have to take it in stride and take relevant suggestions under advisement.
My advice is to apply to a lot of scholarships, and, especially early in your career, make the goal learning how to structure and write an application, and work to make your resume stronger. For example, if you know you would benefit from more presentations, seek those out. Taking your time to apply to lots of awards will help you, as you’ll learn how to structure an argument for your project and any electronic forms you need to be familiar with – such as ResearchNet and Common CV. Above all, talk to peers – everyone goes through it, everyone gets rejected, especially for scholarships/papers, and so know that you’re not alone.
However, if it ever switches from a criticism of the project to a criticism of you: don’t take it. You have got this far in your career, you’re obviously intelligent and driven enough to get through, despite what the critics might say. Personal attacks are never okay.
When I floated this question to the group, I think the most interesting response was that everyone could comment easily on it. Every single panel member had experience in this area, and every single panelist had their own technique from dealing with it. It’s not rare or uncommon, and knowing that you are not alone is sometimes enough to make you feel better.
Check back Friday for our next post: Are there tips for fighting impostor syndrome?
1) Goldman, E. (2002). RESEARCH FUNDING: NIH Grantees: Where Have All the Young Ones Gone? Science, 298 (5591), 40-41 DOI: 10.1126/science.298.5591.40
2) Steinbrook R (2009). The NIH stimulus–the recovery act and biomedical research. The New England journal of medicine, 360 (15), 1479-81 PMID: 19357402