Friday, April 27, 2012

Skin Thickness Monitor

Following on yesterday's post, which raised the issue of confidence (including fear of rejection, mentioned in the comments) when deciding whether to apply for a particular job (such as a faculty position), a colleague noted to me that those who are cautious about applications are likely also cautious about proposals, papers, and other important things in the life of academics at research-oriented institutions. That is, even if you get a job, the fear of rejection persists.

I think that is likely true for some (many?) people, given, for example, (anecdotal) evidence that impostor-syndrome feelings don't quickly vanish as a result of academic and career success. Similarly, most of us probably have one or more colleagues who devote a lot of time to "perfecting" manuscripts in response to imagined negative reviewer comments, or not even writing for long periods of time because it is too painful to think about the possible future negative comments. This seems to be a characteristic that is not easily vanquished.

Nevertheless, painful though the process may be, it is possible to become more impervious to criticism and rejection with time and experience, as long as you keep hurling yourself into the fray and finding ways to cope with the inevitable negative comments (and using those that are relevant/substantive to improve your work). Criticism is a feature of academic life, of course; that's why I have a blog-post label for "criticism or rejection or failure".

If you have been involved in academia (or any career) for awhile, do you feel that you have developed a "thicker" skin over time as a result of the constant judging and evaluation, have you become more sensitive, or have you stayed about the same (whatever that may be: from very fearful of criticism and rejection to quite calm about these things).


Has your ability to deal with criticism and rejection changed over time?

  
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If you feel that you have developed a thicker skin over time, did you have any particular strategy or get any particular useful advice or was it just a matter of time and experience? I think for me it was the latter, greatly helped by the support of colleagues and friends, an element of stubbornness, and a feeling that the interesting and fun parts of my job more than made up for the difficult parts (criticism).

19 comments:

Morgan Price said...

Once I felt more established, the fate of one paper didn't seem to matter so much and it seemed less personal. And whatever the editor or reviewers say you do the same thing -- make some modest changes and resubmit. Still, for the day after I get the first round of reviews back on a paper, I'll be a bit agitated.

Anonymous said...

I think that the answer here would have to be "it depends." Negative paper reviews don't bother me as much any more, since I get so many more of them these days.

On the other hand, I had a (very) negative tenure letter. While I may get tenure anyway (I'm through the first two levels at my university), it's been very traumatic. While a part of me wants to quit and not have to deal with the crap any more, a bigger part of me doesn't want to let the negative letter writer win.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't have been able to develop a thicker skin if I hadn't had at least some successes mixed in with the rejections. Tenure evaluations/letters are a different story -- too much at stake, too personal, too....yuck.

Colleen said...

I happened to pick a graduate advisor whose strategy is "tough, but fair." He will happily tear apart whatever theory or results you present, starting on Day 1. It takes some getting used to, but you soon realize it's entirely good natured and well intended, and good prep for the real world. I encounter other students who recoil the minute you suggest, for example, that maybe they don't want to use a widely debunked theory as the lynch pin of their theoretical framework (they didn't realize this was the case of course). Because they can't take a critique.

nicoleandmaggie said...

Yes, like Morgan Price says, after you're established the fate of one paper isn't as important.

Also, I think as I've gotten more established the quality of my reviewers has gone up. Editors don't send my stuff to jerks who say nasty things anymore. Even rejections are more likely to contain useful and constructive advice than they used to be.

Anonymous said...

Somehow I find manuscript rejections less painful than fellowship rejections (I am finishing my phd and have applied for some postdoc fellowships).
In a grant or a fellowship application I'm more likely to feel that I'm putting myself (i.e. my big ideas) out there.

Anonymous said...

As someone whose been in the basic biomedical science business for 30 years now, my response has been multiphasic and complex. As a student I somehow didn't personalize things as much--I wasn't happy when things were rejected, but then I rapidly moved on. This continued through my postdoc and early faculty years, perhaps because I had pretty reasonable success rate and when I didn't I knew the first submissions were a reach. However, I have recently begun to hate looking at our paper reviews--not so much for the criticism, though that still stings, but because of the certainty that they'll want another year plus more work, and that is simply dis-spiriting. This didn't used to be so much of an issue.

Mark P

NatC said...

Part of it was having some validation in the form of papers accepted/grant/job interviews. But mostly I realized that criticism, rejection, were not a personal attack. Once it became less personal, it was easier to deal with.
The best advice I received was "Be upset for a couple of hours, have a glass of wine, then tomorrow move on".
Turns out, rejections, scathing reviews are [almost] never as negative as it seems in the first read through. Often there are even useful comments.

Anonymous said...

As someone who has applied for multiple postdocs this year, I completely agree with Anon 8:30am. I recently received 2 sets of negative reviews for 2 separate postdoc fellowship apps in which the criticism seems very personal--much more so than it usually seems in abstract, paper, or even other proposal reviews.

This actually brings me to the main point that I wanted to mention. Although I have become accustomed to negative reviews by now (as in, I've learned to expect them), it has taken me awhile to come up with a way to deal with them constructively, in terms of my mental health and resisting the urge towards venegefulness. My advisor's way of dealing is to look at some figurines of thick-skinned animals (elephants, hippos, etc.) that he keeps on his office windowsill, and a postdoc friend of mine deals with it by listening to songs about perseverance. Some people also use distraction (movies, exercise, etc.), which helps me a bit, but after these distractions have ended, I always find myself ruminating.

After having read 6 negative fellowship reviews, I needed to totally purge my brain of the negativity, so I tried something I'd never done before: I watched an episode of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood dealing with competition. This may sound ridiculous, but it totally worked for me, because the show actually addressed my negative feelings about losing and made me feel better inside. After having watched the show, I no longer felt like "returning the favor" by skewering the next manuscript that was sent to me for review.

I'd be very curious to know what methods others use to help them deal with negative reviews constructively.

Anonymous said...

I'd have to say that it feels like it's getting worse. I've always worked hard and done well, but I am finding it increasingly more difficult to actually live up to the expectation. The problem of course being, that this expectation is fuzzy to begin with and probably most of it is in my head. It seems I can't really enjoy the tiniest bit of success anymore. There is always the next hurdle to overcome and it's becoming a bit draining.

BTW, I am at the postdoc moving to faculty (hopefully) step.

I agree with Anonymous @8.30 AM though. The more personal, the worse rejection is.

GMP said...

Negative comments on manuscripts don't phase me any more. I don't really remember the last time I received a really nasty paper review; they seem not to even be particularly negative any more, usually the criticism is warranted, we revise and it flies in. Or maybe the reviews are the same as ever, but my mind frame has changed.

Negative comments on proposals still completely throw me off. Each proposal is so much work, and money -- thus student salaries -- is at stake, and you have to wait a while till you can resubmit, and it's a crap shoot even after you address criticisms... Each rejected proposal still ruins my mood for days, and it is really frustrating how often the comments are completely useless.

But, as FSP and a few people upthread said, having had successes generally helps, because rejections are no longer about all of your scientific self being a failure, but rather about a specific flawed proposal or paper.

zinemin said...

There is one single thing that has helped me develop a thicker skin: having enjoyable life outside of my job.

If I have enough meaningful things that make me feel good about myself in my free time, like good relationship or an interesting hobby, then I feel less dependent on my job to nurture my ego and less devastated by criticism.

But if I let the job eat up too much of my life I get more thin-skinned again. So if I want to cry because someone complains about my plots, I know it's time to find a new hobby or friendship.

mamallama said...

This week got an unusual kind of paper rejection: editor ripped apart the paper after all the reviews came back positive. Actually, it didn't bother me in the least, as it might have 5-10 years ago. More annoying than anything.

I disagree that fear rejection of you as a whole (e.g., job application, tenure file) is really the same as fear of rejection of papers and proposals. One is putting your self on the line (personality and all), and the other is just a piece of your work. They are still linked, sure, but taking risks in research and taking risks in terms of job applications isn't the same.

Anonymous said...

I'm cautious but that's probably due to a very good first industrial supervisor who've had it bad with his boss. Anyhow, it's always better to be prepared for whatever comes at you, so less time is spent on dealing with the 'rejections'. It's not so much that it hurts but it's just a pain in the ass...

Anonymous said...

I think that thicker skin comes from time and experience. Especially as I started doing more reviews of manuscripts, proposals, etc., I started to read the reviews with more sympathy for the busy reviewer than as a personal attack.

Also, in making a more conscious effort to look for the constructive criticism - being honest about accepting the advice when the reviewer really might be right - seemed to result in thicker skin/less frustration for me personally.

That said, I dislike getting negative reviews, of course, but it has been rare that I couldn't find something useful in them when I was willing to look.

EcoNerd said...

As a young asst prof, I am mostly past being hurt by negative reviews of my own papers. But now the issue is helping students (my own or my collaborators') deal with those early shocks. What some reviewers are willing to say can be shocking and disheartening early on.

As I approach tenure, I am sure my ability to be dispassionate about reviews will wane.

Anonymous said...

It's interesting to read that a lot of people feel early successes helped them deal better with negative reviews later on. I remember the first review I got back for the first conference abstract I ever submitted. It was 2 words long. "Not relevant" is all it said. It was crushing! I had taken every weird suggestion my adviser had made and it was rejected! For resubmitting this to a different conference I had only taken the suggestions that made sense to me and left it written in a style I was comfortable with. Every paper/abstract I have submitted since has only required minor corrections. But I still get upset thinking about it. I am convinced it was reviewed by my adviser's nemesis who was working on a similar project.

quasihumanist said...

When it comes to job applications, I don't even think about not getting any particular job. Last time on the job market I applied for about 100 jobs, and some of these received over 600 applications, so the odds on any job are pretty small anyway.

I haven't gotten any reviews that I would consider unfair. I don't know if it makes it better or worse that I have basically agreed when the reviewers when I have been rejected. The comments on my last NSF proposal basically said that my research is not interesting enough to be funded. Frankly, that was what I expected going in; I only submitted a proposal because submitting one makes me look better to my department. (I am in mathematics at an RU/H, and most of my pure mathematics colleagues are active in research but not funded. Funding is nice but not necessary in mathematics.)

My last paper submission aimed fairly high as well; I'll see eventually whether that journal thinks it's interesting enough. My mentors think it's quite reasonable, but my area of research is their area of research, so they of course find my research more interesting than mathematicians even just a little bit farther away.

Anonymous said...

FSP, thanks for posting this. Now when I get depress from rejections, I'll read this page!

Paper rejections are water off a duck's back. Criticisms on grant applications, however, are painful! Mainly because they tend to be 'personal' -- "your track record is not 'good' enough" or "win a Nobel prize first before you apply!"