Take the good and leave the rest

Oct 18 2016 Published by under academia, confidence, criticism

I took a postdoc with a intense advisor because I wanted to be tougher.

I had a great grad school experience with a great mentor. I worried that, although I felt strong from this experience, perhaps I felt this way because my advisor had shielded me from criticism. I worried that I would not be tough enough for the “real world” of science. So I challenged myself by taking a postdoc with a mentor who holds nothing back when it comes to criticism (indeed, one whose interview style led me to cry in my hotel room).

I thought that just by experiencing the criticism I would grow a thick skin. I thought that by daily facing this challenge I would learn to take criticism better. Maybe in time I will see that I have gained strength from this (or understand that it saved me from something that does not suit my personality, as academic blogger The New PI says that you need to be made of steel to be a PI), but going through it has felt like an unnecessary tearing down of my confidence instead of a positive skin-thickening, strength-building exercise. Criticism still hurts. And, as Drug Monkey recognizes, this approach does not necessarily develop strong academics. While one needs to be tough in science, what one needs even more is confidence. So lesson number one learned so far: build confidence to face challenges, don’t put yourself in a negative space to face challenges.

I recently have come to lesson number two. I realized that what I need is not actually  to be tough in the face of criticism. It is to see criticism for what it is. It is the ideas of another person colliding with my ideas or my creations. Their ideas are not inherently better than mine. It is not my job to take all of their criticism and patiently see how wrong I am. It is to critically evaluate their ideas and my ideas and create better ideas out of the two. Instead of allowing criticism to bounce off I need to allow in the good feedback and let the ideas I don’t agree with, or those that are simply negative, slip on by.

I started off this year looking for confidence. I wasn’t expecting to find it in the same place that felt like it was taking away my confidence, but here we are. Everyone in academia deals with criticism regularly, and while I’m sure some are naturally less sensitive to it, I’m sure many have developed strategies or ways of thinking about the criticism that make it manageable. How about you?

5 responses so far

  • DJMH says:

    The best part of being in an unpleasant work environment is leaving. And realizing, it doesn't have to be like that ever again.

  • pyrope says:

    I agree with DJMH - this sounds like a toxic work environment to me. I don't think surrounding yourself with negativity makes rejection easier to take. It just makes you unhappy. Rejection sucks regardless, but it is easier to take when you surround yourself with people who will celebrate your successes and cheer you on. I know plenty of great scientists who are also great people. Go find them!

    • peirama says:

      Thank you both for confirming my feelings about this lab environment. I'm not trying to excuse it, but I am trying to learn something so that it is not a wasted experience. I am trying to get out in a way that is best for me and my family and unfortunately it is taking some time. In the meantime I try to convince myself that it is not as bad as all that and I should be able to handle it and unfortunately that has probably made me stick around longer than I should have.

  • becca says:

    The feedback you need as a novice is often different than the feedback you need as an expert.
    But in either case, a prerequisite of effective criticism is a foundation of sufficient trust that the person would actually like to see you get better. Some people go through life with enough positive people in their experience that this trust is a default, some people do not. You can develop this faith as long as you are working with someone generally of good will, though it's probably easier with someone who has a somewhat compatible personality.

    • peirama says:

      That is a really good point. Starting out, feedback/criticism is there to help you learn and grow from a point of knowing very little, and its in your best interest to take it in and allow it to help you improve. As a mature scientist, the feedback you get from review panels, peers, etc., is of a different nature. At that point, you can use your years of wisdom to evaluate it and decide if it is really helping your or not. I think part of my realization was that I am a capable scientist and while I have a lot to learn, I am also at a point where I can evaluate criticism instead of accepting it all as I did earlier in my career.

Leave a Reply