Career advice: how to deal with criticism

Coping with negative feedback can be difficult, but it is a crucial part of being an academic, say Kevin O’Gorman and Robert MacIntosh

June 22, 2017
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Home truths: find a mentor who will challenge you, rather than tell you that you are great and that feedback must be wrong

Remember it isn’t just you
Try not to take any feedback you are offered personally, even if it resembles a thinly veiled personal attack.  

Remember that feedback is everywhere in universities: student evaluations, annual reviews, journal editors and the infamous “reviewer 2” encountered in peer review. Academia trains us to spot areas for improvement so even positive feedback comes laced with “however, you could do better here and here”.

Even Einstein had to deal with negative feedback. His paper on gravitational waves was rejected by Physical Review, so remember that negative feedback happens to everyone.

Don’t shoot the messenger
There is a long tradition of not shooting the messenger. It can be traced back to 475BC, in the “warring states” period in China, when chivalry and virtue prevented the execution of heralds of the opposing side. You will do well to remember this in modern academia. 

Yes, negative feedback may hurt your feelings, but students and colleagues quickly recognise when someone is impervious to feedback and stop offering it. Never attack the messenger, especially when they are students, journal editors or your line manager – it could be career limiting.

Don’t dismiss it
Hurtful though it may be, try to understand where criticism is coming from.

For instance, student evaluations may be personal, but you can learn a lot from them. Try to sift out the petty slights about dress sense from more substantive concerns about content, then try to take some positives from the feedback that could help you improve next time around.

Find a friend
In Homer’s Odyssey, the goddess Athena disguised herself as the old man Mentor to guide young Telemachus through a particular time of difficulty.

Heavy disguise is optional in contemporary forms of mentoring, but it remains true that in order to be guided you need someone who is going to challenge you, rather than just tell you that you are wonderful and that the feedback must be wrong. 

Family and friends will excel at tea, cake and “surely there must be some mistake”, but a good mentor will offer an honest opinion about what to do next rather than a forensic analysis of life’s injustices. 

Observe and be observed
Don’t just be a dispassionate observer – actually engage, learn and be changed.

Observe the teaching of colleagues who always seem to win awards. Ask others to come in to your classes and critique you; you may have to tease comments out of them, but you can learn much from being observed.

When it comes to research, and in particular publishing, there are tricks of the trade. Go to every “meet the editor” session that your university or learned society runs. Listen carefully to what they say their journal is looking for and accept that they may just be telling the truth.

Develop a plan
Ignoring negative feedback and hoping that it will deliver outcomes is, at best, optimistic. 

Throughout most of the 20th century, conventional wisdom held that gastric juice caused ulcers, until a pioneering doctor infected himself with a bacterium and gave himself an ulcer, simultaneously proving that conventional wisdom was incorrect and winning the Nobel Prize in Medicine. Adopt something of that experimental mindset and try something completely different to see what happens.

You may not win a Nobel prize by innovating but you could win a pay rise, or at least a warm sense of academic envy in the coffee room. If it works, you’ll have positively responded to negative feedback. If it doesn’t, go back to the drawing board and think of an alternative way forward. 

Be patient
Overnight success is rare in academia. Physicists at Trinity College Dublin started an experiment in 1944 to prove that bitumen was a viscous liquid at room temperature rather than a solid. In 2013, they were vindicated when a camera captured one drop of tar pitch falling from a funnel into a jar – for the very first time. Patience is therefore an important virtue. 

When it comes to teaching, changing practice, experimenting with techniques and learning new skills can take time. Not everything works immediately. A small improvement observed next time may signal the beginnings of a more dramatic recovery.

Robert MacIntosh is head of the School of Social Sciences at Heriot-Watt University, where Kevin O’Gorman is professor of management and business history and director of internationalisation. Both regularly write about academic life on the Heriot-Watt blogs It’s Not You, It’s Your Data and

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