Critique makes you better

A few months ago I attended a conference where a student (from a Non-English speaking country) told me his personal experience. He told me about the harsh comments his supervisor made on the initial draft of his paper at the end of his first month as a doctorate study. This is not the first time I heard of a student talking about tough and critical feedback from their supervisors/advisors. Many students question about the reasons for these comments/critique because of how demotivated/discouraged they feel. Here is how I feel about it.

PhD is the highest research degree and most of the times students who opt for PhD intend to pursue academia as their career. Working as an academic involves updating teaching methods/contents consistently, writing research papers/grants that undergo review process and serving as reviewers/editors. Most of these aspects of their job involve
rejections/critique by their students and peers. So, having critical comments on one’s work post-doctorate is something that cannot be escaped, making it vital for students to be able to defend themselves or explain their standing/position on different issues. Hence, just like any other pre-job training, it is important for PhD students to be able to cope with challenging feedback in the right way during their PhD studies. Since many PhD students get into PhD right after their Masters (sometimes even Bachelors), getting a much tougher/critical feedback becomes difficult to digest. It is important to understand that sine the system at the PhD level is like that of peer-review, taking the critical feedback should be a natural expectation. I am listing down some of my personal experiences/habits to cope with critical feedback that might help many of you too.

1. You should approach your advisor/supervisor consistently to get a regular feedback on your work instead of sending them the entire chapters. This will help you to stay on the right course and avoid disappointment and doing the things twice.

2. It is also a good idea to discuss your work and get feedback from experts other than your supervisor/advisor. However, this must be done with caution. Your advisor should be aware of it to avoid distrust.

3. You can also setup monthly meetings and present your work in front of other PhD students (in a conference style). If you can invite some PhD students from other departments it can even help you more to invite early criticism from people who do not know your discipline. It will help you strengthen your work and develop an essential skill of criticizing your own work from opposing points of view.

4. Remember that you have a supervisor/advisor to guide you by criticizing your work. Hence instead of being demotivated, you should take it as a challenge. Do not work on revising your work the day you meet your supervisor/advisor. Give it a day or two and then start revising your work with a fresh mind.

5. Think about each point carefully before embarking on the changes. Each point needs to be carefully read, and its importance should be understood and assessed.Rank all the points/revisions in terms of their importance or ease of doing (depending on your own preferences) and then started working on them one by one.

6. While you will agree to most of the points, you may not agree to some of the points made by your advisors/supervisors. It is completely fine to have disagreement with your advisor as far as its shown within the confines of a mutual respect. If you disagree to an of the revisions required by your advisor, make sure to have a solid justification and ground.

7. Remember that you may get criticism on your writing language and structure but that shouldn’t be taken very negatively. If the content of your work is good, language and structure can be fixed easily.

Having said this, I also understand that some environments are toxic and abusive where (very unfortunately) students experience verbal or physical misbehavior from their advisors. In that case you should speak up because there is no strategy to deal with that behavior other than speaking up and leaving that toxic and abusive environment. I wish all of you the best in your research endeavors.

This is an original post by Dr. Faizan Ali, Assistant Professor at the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee. Don’t forget to subscribe to Prof. Ali’s YouTube Channel.

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