Monday, April 30, 2012

It Seems to Get Better

The results of Friday's poll are quite encouraging, I think. More than 75% say that they have gotten better at handling criticism, rejection, and failure with time. This is not to ignore the pain of those for whom it has gotten more difficult with time (or for whom it has always been difficult); nevertheless, ~77% is a hopeful proportion, even if it is based on a limited dataset in this case.

An interesting topic raised in the comments is whether dealing with criticism etc. becomes easier with time because there is less of it with time, as we advance in our careers. Some possible scenarios for how this might play out in the course of a career include:

- Reviewers etc. become more positive as you pile up achievements and other evidence for success in the relevant aspects of your career. This may because you are truly awesome and have an endless supply of excellent ideas that you express well, or it may because of the so-called "halo" effect; that is, if you reach a certain level of success, people assume even your stupid ideas must actually be great and you can coast on your reputation; or

- You may still get critical reviews, but the personal attacks that can appear in some reviews and other evaluations disappear or at least decrease with time; for example: "I don't agree with Professor X's interpretation of these data, and would suggest instead that s/he consider ...." instead of "Professor X is a total moron".  (a complication on this scenario is when the author list includes one or more students and one or more distinguished professors; what's a reviewer with a penchant for personal attacks to do in that case?)

- A combination of both: negative reviews and personal attacks decrease, but never go away entirely. This decrease, combined with an increased ability to deal with non-stop evaluations of various sorts, leads to a general feeling of being able to deal with criticism and rejection more easily (although there may be notable exceptions from time to time). I think this is a likely scenario for many of us.

Even for highly successful academics, criticism and rejection never entirely goes away. For example, the impressive scientist, person, and blogger Athene Donald wrote just the other day, "My first individual grant failed; my last one did too with a churlish email sent at some insane time of the night from our Research Councils ‘shared services centre’ only last week.  Clearly in between I have had occasional success, and for any individual receiving the sharp end of rejection it is well to remember Robert the Bruce."

Remembering Robert the Bruce might not work for those who are not citizens of the UK (and isn't he the one whose embalmed heart went on a Crusade?), so I am wondering if there is some other historic person for North Americans and others to think of in times of need. I personally just like to think about my cats when dealing with the sharp end of rejection (I do like that phrase), but perhaps I am not thinking big enough. Any suggestions?


Lisa said...

To submit or not to submit: that is the question!
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous reviewers,
Or to take arms against a sea of criticisms,
And by opposing end them.

Anonymous said...

Not North American, but Winston Churchill comes to mind:

"..never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never-in nothing, great or small, large or petty - never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense."

iGrrrl said...

Drugmonkey, a researcher and blogger on all things NIH, had an interesting post on this subject about a month ago: The original post and comments might be of interest to your readers, although it's all NIH focused.

I think that people not only get better at receiving criticism, but also get better at not taking statements personally, and learning to recognize that the statements aren't necessarily meant to be personal attacks. (I've seen personal attacks in grant reviews, and Program Officers have told me that they remove the "egregious personal remarks".

Anonymous said...

Anon 11:14am from 4/27 here. A couple of thoughts:

Mr. Rogers: Specialized in seeing the good in others and forgiveness. Helps me remember that (in some cases) the detracting reviewers may have good intentions, and helps me resist the urge to retaliate against whoever's work appears in my inbox for review next. (*This neighborly review brought to you by Mr. Rogers*)

Abe Lincoln: Lost multiple elections before becoming one of the US's greatest presidents. Helps me remember that even the most successful people in the field are fallible and are subject to public criticism and rejection.

Other grad students: Helpful to commiserate with, since they often face similarly scathing reviews. A "safe space," in contrast to many faculty, who, in many cases, would really just rather not hear our woes re: professional criticism.

If I had an SO, a therapist, or pets, I suppose I would list these, too.

agradstudent said...

I'm a PhD student, and most of my criticism comes from my advisor. However, his criticism is always constructive and very helpful. I view his criticism for what it is: he is showing me what I can do to be a better scientist/writer/etc. I very much trust and respect him as a scientist. I think having positive outcomes from responding to constructive criticism early on is the best way to experience criticism. I have helped one of the younger students in the group on appreciating the criticism from our advisor and coping with the lack of positive feedback.
Our advisor is known for giving a lot of criticism and almost no positive feedback, and this was part of the reason I didn't work with him when I first came to grad school. I did my MS with someone else, who gave praise in addition to criticism. Over time I learned that my MS advisor's praise and criticism were very erratic and usually without any basis, and eventually I lost trust and respect for him as a scientist. I also lost confidence in myself as a result of this lack of meaningful feedback, which made it very difficult for me to deal with any criticism at all. Hopefully the exposure to constructive criticism during my PhD will help me cope with the variety of criticism I am sure to encounter in the future!

Anonymous said...

I think about babies. I like to think about the time I gave birth with no epidural. OK so that reviewer thinks I am stupid but I bet he never pushed a baby out of his vagina.

David S said...

"(a complication on this scenario is when the author list includes one or more students and one or more distinguished professors; what's a reviewer with a penchant for personal attacks to do in that case?)"

On a paper submitted with a lecturer as primary author, a couple of students in the middle, and some senior professors as last authors - the reviewer said that the paper had differing writing quality and some of it seemed to be written more like a student project, so it needed one author to go through it all and bring it up to a consistently high quality.

The implication was that the good parts were due to the academics and the bad parts were due to the students. In fact, the lead author wrote all of it and the students just collected data.

Anonymous said...

Not North American and may be a mis-attributed but I'm still thinking about putting it on my door:

"If a Mongol is knocked down seven times he rises to fight eight." - Genghis Khan

Grants get re-thought, re-written, and then resubmitted - until there's some sort of victory, same with with papers (hopefully not actually 8 times but...).

Anonymous said...

Harold Stassen's favorite line of poetry:
Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what's a heaven for?

Suresh Venkatasubramanian said...

One way in which criticism hurts less is that when you accumulate more papers/grants/whatever, the marginal pain from each subsequent rejection is a little less. But when you get excited about a paper and it gets rejected, it still burns.

Abe Lincoln is a good American model for success, but I often point to 2 year olds as an example of someone unperturbed by failure and totally fearless. That's the "child-like' state we can aspire to reach

Dr. Dad, PhD said...

I think I have desensitized myself to the sting of criticism. It hurts to get a bad score or rejected manuscript, but within seconds of that initial pain I'm already analyzing the critique, looking for things to change/address in a resubmission.

I've also noticed that now I frame criticism differently. I don't immediately think of reviewers as clueless a$$hats, but look back and decide if I could have described something better. Nine times out of ten I can find something that I should have done differently.

I also want to mention that totally off-the-wall review comments may indicate that the wrong audience was reviewing your story. Change the venue and things tend to improve...

Anonymous said...

I channel the dude and compose a dudely response to the reviewers: "That's like, your opinion, man"

Or commiserrate over at Reviewer 2 group: