Criticism in Academia
Updated: Feb 4
As a PhD researcher one will encounter criticism. From the first moment you present your research plan to the end of your academic career you will receive and give feedback.
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One of the first things my PhD’s supervisor taught me is that I should discard the unconstructive criticism and focus on the constructive one. Her point was that when one receives an unconstructive criticism, the person can do nothing about it. What she meant, I realized after the review of my first article. All three reviewers rejected my article. Two of them wrote long comments on what they failed to understand and what could be improved. For example, they pointed out some grammar mistakes, or suggested that we should send the paper for proof reading. Regarding the research, they had specific comments in specific places in the article, which was really helpful for me to understand how to improve the text. However, the last reviewer had a two-line comment that said more or less the following:
“It is obvious that the author is not a native English speaker, and the paper looks like the first part of a PhD thesis”
This reviewer was right! I am not a native English speaker and that was the first article of my article-based PhD dissertation. What am I supposed to do with this information? Should I become a native English speaker or write my first paper like it is my last? I just discarded the reviewer’s comment in the next version of the paper. The paper got accepted.
But why cannot they understand?
Have you ever received these reviews that make you think the reviewers are stupid and unable to understand, or that they comment on a completely different paper? How is it possible to understand something different than what I meant and how is it possible for them not to understand my points? Well, it is. Sometimes one can be really focused on their research when they write an article, forgetting that they make sense of the text only because they already have done the research. The result is to perceive parts of the research as common knowledge, let them unexplained in the text, and assume the reader would understand. When I take back this kind of reviews, I just leave my office. They make me so upset that I must go for a walk or at least take a break away from the source of my misery. When I calm down, I go back, read the comments again, read my text as if it was another person’s and try to rephrase parts to be clearer.
Culture and criticism
A friend of mine, previously organizer of TEDx events, offered to help me make a speech for CHI lights (an event like TEDx but focused on Human-Computer Interaction). He is my friend, so I knew that whatever he was saying was for making me improve the idea. That said, I started explaining the idea until he said “so what? Why should I care about this subject?”. You can imagine that for a moment I was astonished! Why he would say this? He knew the importance of the subject; we had discussed it plenty of times. Then I realized, it was the “aggressive” training technique (as I would say “Americanized”) a way of making someone unfold their thoughts, he did it to improve my speech. I would say that I am not a fan of this technique as it is painful, but still my idea got improved.
Last week, I had a meeting with my current supervisor. I was stuck in my thoughts about a proposal and I needed someone to bounce the ball back and point out what I failed to see. After and during the meeting it was obvious that she was concerned with how I was taking her criticism. Being from different cultures, I barely felt any harsh criticism but having lived in Sweden before, she was probably too direct for a Swedish person. Her comments helped me see serious problems in my idea.
Two ways of giving feedback, two different cultures. However, in both cases I asked for it. If I had received the exact same criticism, but without me asking for it, my understanding would have been different. In the first case, I would have been really angry and in the second, I would have probably failed to understand the issues my idea had. These were also people I trust, meaning that I believe they may say what they say to help me, not just to hurt me. Having people around that you can trust, accepting their culture and way of giving feedback is important for the development of the ideas especially in the first stages. These are the people that one should first go to, before moving on to the faceless reviewers.
Here we go again.
Sometimes, I am working from cafes. The day after my supervisor’s feedback, I spent it working on the idea. I searched and searched in scientific databases to counterattack her arguments. Half a day passed, and I found nothing satisfactory. It was time to change cafes. As I was on my way to another place, I had this weird but familiar blue feeling. It felt like it would be impossible to find what was needed to prove that the idea was of value and at the same time I somehow knew: here we go again. It was a pattern, every time after having a criticism one may feel lost, that it is impossible to prove that the idea is good but some or lots of articles after there is always hope.
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Feedback and constructive criticism are sources of inspiration. Without them, the ideas stagnate and stop evolving. A feedback may be harsh but there is always something you can take out of it and if it sometimes seems that your idea got crushed, just give it some time, rethink it, and search. It will grow and eventually everyone will see its value.