How to handle criticisms in science: Achieving a balance between confidence and modesty in the work place
Whether it was the new Star Wars movie, sparkly outfits worn by people going out on New Year’s Eve, or your aunt’s Christmas pudding, we all likely spent part of our holiday break making assessments, judgments, and the occasional criticism (especially towards puddings). We can all be very critical at times, judging the outfits worn by celebrities or passing judgement on whether a movie or song or day was good or not. But while some may pity those who live their lives in the critical limelight, scientists also find themselves the brunt end of criticisms, whether these criticisms come from peers, mentors, or colleagues.
Science progresses through a combination of new hypotheses and the constant scrutiny which is necessary to establish and validate them. Unsurprisingly, the scientific field is rife with people ready to tear down what you do and judge each individual piece of your work to make sure that what you’ve done or shown is really worth it’s weight. Those of you in graduate school or early career researchers have likely had your fair share of it already, but here are a few more examples to set the tone for the rest of the post:
The first step in handling criticism is choosing how to respond to it: Learn how to receive critique and grow from it, take the good out of comments, and forget the overly personal parts. At the end of the post there are a few short suggestions of how to do this. Before that, however, we’ll look at the extreme ends of how people can fail to deal with criticism in a positive way:
The softening response: Becoming overly sensitive and losing self-confidence
If you are naturally not a self-confident person, you may find that criticism can hit you very hard and very fast. While you can likely recover on your own with time, the pace of a career in science, especially as graduate students, does not leave you much time in the way of building yourself back up again before the next round hits or before you need to get up and going again. Without time to recover from prior wounds, your outlook can quickly become overly pessimistic. You lose the ability to benefit from criticism and assume you’re simply not cut out for research. This attitude is often self-perpetuating, which can lead to reduced motivation and increased sensitivity to additional comments.
The hardening response: Becoming overly confident and losing self-criticism
On the other side of the spectrum are those who have very high opinions of themselves. They deflect all types of criticism by having an inflated self-image, but by doing this they can lose critical insights by being too quick with their defenses and assuming the critic was wrong. While in no danger of losing self-confidence, they can easily become attached to their own ideas and may deflect valid critiques or alternatives, just because they don’t want to admit they might not be 100% right. Too much pride can lead to a stubbornness which can hinder scientific progress, and can even bring a person to a dead-end halt in the middle of their career if they do end up eventually being wrong.
The nonexistent response: Becoming apathetic
A third option is to become entirely apathetic to the stream of criticism. Instead of defending their own ideas, trying to improve their work, or trying new ideas they do none of it, an apathetic researcher carries on stuck to their plan of research and avoids deviating from it. While not at the extreme of either case, apathy generally leads to mediocre research based on questionable ideas that were never defended nor improved upon, with any chance for greater success or implementation lost in the stagnation of effort.
The balanced response: Stay true to yourself while learning what to fix
As with our rubber vs steel post, there is a balance in work and in life where we must be strong and unwavering yet flexible and adaptable. It’s working towards this same type of balance that helps you deal with and grow from criticism during your career. There are times when you need helpful criticisms to improve your work while not letting the overly negative/personal criticisms get under your skin. Tell yourself that, despite the occasional misstep, you are on the right track and are learning more every day.
For the moments of being too soft: don't take criticism directly to heart, but listen instead to what the message at the heart of the issue is. Instead of taking it personally that your committee member made an off-handed negative comment about figure legends, think less about the tone and more about the message, and work towards making clearer figures for your next committee meeting. And for the times or the people that are too hard: It’s possible that those grant reviewers were all jerks, but it’s also possible they had something valid to say. Even if it was an idea you really cared about, a fresh set of eyes provides a perspective that you wouldn’t have had if you had only looked at things your way-even if the critique itself was a bit of a blow at first.
Part of achieving a balanced response is by knowing what side of the spectrum you tend to stay on and doing exercises to keep yourself balanced Even if you already have some new year’s resolutions on your ever-growing to do list, you can start off the year by working on the following as you muse over your own personal reactions to criticism in the workplace: