I had a hard time for the first two years of my PhD dealing with negative feedback. Before my first year exam or confirmation, I had to submit two reports: a pilot project report to test if my initial idea was scientifically valid and the first year report. Needless to say that they were both rubbish. When I got told that my data and the way I led my experiment was poor, I freaked out. Who is willing to be told that their work isn’t good enough?
Looking back at the past, I just think that I can’t be grateful enough for the people who kicked my ass as an early stage researcher. Their criticism and constructive feedback really shaped my skills and knowledge as a scientist in a positive way. And to be fair, it’s pretty normal for first year PhD students to make mistakes, analyse data poorly or not be accurate enough. Becoming a scientist is a hard job and making mistakes is part of the learning process.
I can’t be greatful enough for the people who kicked my ass as an early stage researcher.
As I am approaching the final stage of my PhD, I learned one thing or two on how to deal with negative feedback.
A NEGATIVE FEEDBACK ISN’T A PERSONAL ATTACK TO YOU, it is meant to assess the scientific quality of your work. After my two traumatic experiences, I had the chance to talk with more experienced coworkers who told me that negative feedback is a pretty normal thing in science. They are meant to put you back on track and make you evaluate critically what you have been doing. Would you be happy for someone to tell you that everything is okay and you’re doing a cracking job and the truth is that you work is really bad?
As much as it sounds terrible, DISCONNECT YOUR EMOTIONS FROM THE FEEDBACK. There is no need to evaluate the feedback immediately. It’s always best to calm down, let all the emotions go away and address it with a more rational approach. For example, when your paper gets rejected, the first thing that comes to your mind might be to shout out your frustration to the referee in a nasty way. Write down the email on paper, put it in a drawer and wait. After a few days or even a week, take the letter and see if you are still willing to send the email.
Unpopular opinion here: part of the training of becoming a scientist is also MAKING PEACE WITH THE FACT THAT YOUR WORK WILL GET CRITICISED/EVALUATED CONSTANTLY. Science is a never-ending process, there is always something you can do better, adding a new experiment, providing more numbers, using a different set of statistic to analyse your data etc. And from personal experience, none will ever tell you, you’re doing great!, well done!, Bravo unless your work gets published on Nature or Science.
Another unpopular opinion. Not saying that everyone is like this, but most scientists have the emotional intelligence of a chimpanzee, I apologise to all chimpanzee of the world. They just don’t know how to give feedback without being rude. Being negatively criticised is hard to accept, being criticised in a poor and derogatory language is dreadful. Please remember that the feedback might still be valuable from a scientific point of view. And above all, note that the derogatory language is by no mean a reflection of who you are but most likely a reflection of who they are.
None will ever tell you, you’re doing great!, well done!, Bravo unless your work gets published on Nature or Science.
Learning all this had been a long process and it’s still hard for me to take feedback from people that I don’t like personally. I am also a very emotional person and I cry any time people attack me or my work. So, don’t worry if you find it hard at the beginning, it will come easier with a bit of practise and committment.
Check out this article for more specific advise on How to deal with difficult supervisors!