It’s good advice you just can’t take: Dealing with criticism

Hi gang! Welcome to the week! Hope you all had lovely restful weekends looking after your mental and physical wellbeing. Today I’d like to talk about something which I find very difficult; dealing with criticism. Criticism is difficult to take, particularly if you are suffering from low mood or mental health problems, but it is in integral and unavoidable part of the PhD experience. Learning to deal with negative feedback is a skill which every PhD student has to develop, but it is not an easy journey. Confession time. I am not good at dealing with criticism. I put my hands up and admit that I’m a sensitive soul with self-worth issues and I do not like hearing about things that I have not done well. Maybe some of my strategies will resonate with PhD students who have similar issues.


(Taking a prithvi mudra; the yoga equivalent of taking a deep breath and counting to ten)

Sitting in your supervisor’s office, print out of your work in front of you, security notebook to the side, a general feeling of trepidation, waiting for judgement to be passed. This is probably a scenario that many of us have experienced. The style, frequency and detail of the feedback that you receive depends on your supervisor and the the kind of relationship that exists between the two of you. Your supervisor might keep a special smiley-face stamp on their desk just for you (unlikely), they might serve you up a helping of “shit-sandwich” (well done for handing it in – BUT HERE IS EVERYTHING THAT IS WRONG WITH IT – but the font is nice), they might provide you with reams of detailed feedback written in an unintelligible scrawl  or they might cross out entire sections with the explanation “it was a bit wanky”. I’m sure I’m not alone in having to take a calming prithvi mudra during a supervision. Really? Just me? Oh…OK. While the criticism you get depends on your supervisor, how you deal with it is your problem and yours alone. The advice I will give here is as much for myself as it is for everyone else, and I don’t guarantee that I’ll listen to it!

Criticism is an integral part of academic life. Part of the beauty of science is that it is open to challenge and improvement. As a fully grown academic, anything you want to publish will be subject to peer review and rejection. As academics, criticism is something that we have to learn to deal with and even look for as part of our professional lives. Just as a PhD should be train us to become fully fledged academics, it should also serve as an opportunity to develop the skills required to survive in the academic community. We do not go into a PhD completely competent in every area of developing, carrying out and writing up a research project. If this were the case, nobody would need to do a PhD. In the same way, we do not start out completely adept at taking on criticism. It is a skill like any other and we have to work at it.

Criticism helps us to learn. As Dr Pulanski of the Starship Enterprise would say, “We humans learn more often from a failure or a mistake than we do from an easy success.” Feedback on where we are going wrong in our research from those more experienced and more qualified than us can help as develop our own researching skills and academic writing style. But if criticism is so important to a career in research, why is it so hard to hear?

Why do we take criticism so badly? Receiving negative feedback on something that you tried hard on is not a fun time. In daily life, we deliberately avoid things at which we are bad. This is why you will never see me taking part in any sport where projectiles might hurtle towards my face. I am bad at team sports and so I do not do them. It is entirely possible to make it through school and an undergraduate degree without directly dealing with negative feedback. Essays may be returned, if we ever bother to pick them up, with some cursory comments which we largely ignore, or we receive a grade which we celebrate (with wine) or commiserate (with wine) then put out of our minds. Postgraduate study might our first exposure to detailed feedback on the minutia of our written work. It can be a bit of a shock to the system.

Why does criticism make us want to cry in the toilets? If you are struggling with your mental health, criticism can have a very nasty sting. Depression makes me my own worst critic. There is nothing that anyone can say to me that is worse than the things that I have said to myself a thousand times. I can and have spent days in bed going over and over again every bad thing that I have ever said or done. Someone very wise pointed out to me that problems in coping with criticism of your work may reflect problems with coping with criticism in general (Hi Ross!). I think that this is true for many people and that we need to develop all round as well as academic resilience. It seems to me that hyper-self-criticism is something that I have always lived with, but it might not be my fault. It might be society’s fault (Hooray!).

A really cool academic called Carol Dweck has written extensively about self-theories and their effect on learning. The gist of her research is that learners either hold an entity theory of intelligence (it is an unchangeable part of who I am) or an incremental theory of intelligence (the more I learn, the smarter I get). Dweck also suggests that learners can be performance oriented (aiming to get an A) or mastery oriented (aiming to learn). When performance oriented learners are faced with problematic learning situations, they are less able to take risks and learn from their mistakes as this detracts from their performance goal, whereas mastery oriented learners are more open to making mistakes as part of their learning experience.  When learners who are performance oriented and hold an entity theory of intelligence run up against problems in their academic life, they can display negative self-attribution and an unwillingness to engage with problem solving. What does this say about the current practice of tracking students’ grade from primary school onwards and of prizing academic achievement about everything else? As someone who sailed through school with the greatest of ease and the minimum of effort, I never received a grade lower than a B. Being smart was part of who I was. My feelings of self-worth were, and still are, intrinsically linked with my academic performance. On the wings of advanced higher (AS level) knowledge, I coasted through my first year of university, which is where I began to come unstuck. Learning to learn did not come easily to me. Receiving a lower grade than I expected or having to deal with negative feedback can send me into a spiral of self-doubt. This is something which I am slowly learning to deal with. It’s something which you might have to learn to deal with too. Try to remember that your value as a person does not depend on getting everything right first time.

Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me. Can we all stop saying this please? It’s obviously complete bunkum. It’s true that sticks and stones and falling off the monkey bars may break our bones, but words can burrow deep into our flesh and fester there like a sore tooth that you can’t stop poking at with your tongue to check that it still hurts. Sometimes you have to be in a situation where you will have to hear critical comments on your work., such as a supervision. Here are a couple of coping matras that help me when I find myself in these positions:

I am Teflon-coated

(Basically, think of yourself as a non-stick frying pan. Nothing can get through your tough teflon exterior or stick to you. I gleaned this piece of wisdom from a Prima magazine circa 1998. Yep, I was a precocious kid. It was intended to be advice on dealing with your relatives over the festive period but I think it applies equally well here.)

I am rubber, you are glue. Your words bounce off me and stick to you.

(Childish? Yes. Effective? Yes. Thinking this to myself during a supervision can give me the millisecond break I need to get myself together. Note: DO NOT say this out loud during your supervision)

I am not telling you to blithely disregard the feedback given to you by your supervisors. It is, after all, intended to help you. I am just recognising that sometimes you need to take a time out and regroup. Ask your supervisors to provide you with written feedback that you can deal with it later on.

What can we do about it? So how can we help ourselves tackle criticism head on and use it to become better researchers? Here are some tips and hints which have helped me or have been suggested by some lovely PhDers (Thanks @ChristophLyon, @SarahAlden1, @photophoto, @StupendousBoo, @SimonIanCook, @HeatherTrickey, @LabmonkeyW, @milkyjess, @labrascals and @TheBardolator!)

  1. Take a deep breath (or a prithvi mudra).
  2. Get back to your desk, close the door and have a good old rant to your student friends.
  3. Try to remind yourself that your value as a human being does not depend on your ability to write a perfect essay first time round.
  4. Remember that you are still learning to be a researcher and that learning how to improve and learning to deal with criticism is part of the process.
  5. Think about the things that you are good at and the things you enjoy doing. Try to do them as often as you can.
  6. Remember that your supervisors are people too. They are busy and stressed out just like you. That comment that they made probably didn’t mean what you think it meant.

Do something nice for someone else. This is my final piece of advice. If you are still reeling from the worst supervision you’ve ever had and you feel like a totally worthless human being, bake a cake for your grandparents. I’m totally serious. Once I made a cake for my grandparents. It was just lemon drizzle or something, nothing amazing, but they thought it was the best thing they had every tasted. I don’t think they were just being nice. I think that they genuinely believed that it was the best thing they had ever tasted because their amazing and talented grand-daughter had made it. Whenever I am at my lowest, I try to remember that someone out there thinks that everything I do is the best and they don’t care that my essay wasn’t perfect or that I can’t work out my research questions. So give yourself a break!

Well done for making it to the end! I hope that this helps some of you. A final word of advice…the best view is from the top, but you have to earn it. Onwards ever upwards!

happy trails

3 responses to “It’s good advice you just can’t take: Dealing with criticism

  1. Thank you. Reeling from the personal aftermath of receiving criticism on my lit review I have read this. Because of course my instance response is that I’m simply not up to the job. I’m rubbish – not academic and should probably just give up. The comments seem harsh and in parts accusatotory. Leaving me to lick my wounds and consider my worth as a human being.

    You have helped me! I’m not alone in feeling this way after criticism. I need to regroup. And move forward in my learning taking ‘me’ out of the criticism. And simply reviewing my words with critique necessary to improve them.

    And the last half an hour spent cuddled in bed with my 6 year old whilst he told me about his day yesterday had helped me to remember that I’m valuable in his world!

    Thank you.

    • Hi Sarah! Thank you so much for your comment. I’m really glad that you found the post helpful. I’m really happy that you have your wee one to make you feel better. I’m pretty sure being a Mum is far harder than doing a PhD!
      Best wishes,

  2. Thanks for this post, I found it very interesting..and I totally relate to these issues. I had a great PhD supervisor, but I still struggle with criticism, even when it’s probably helpful when I’ve taken some time out to calm down and think about it first!
    Keep up the good work.

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