PhD Survival Guide; How to grapple with criticism

The world of research and academia is critical. Full stop. No ifs or buts… your work will get criticised. The very basis of publication involves ‘peer review’, which is where other researchers in your field provide critical feedback on your work and decide if it should get published. Your proposal will be criticised by panel members. Your drafts are criticised by your supervisors. Your conference presentations are criticised by audience members. As I said, research and academia is critical. However, this is an essential part of academia and criticism is not inherently negative. A few tips for dealing with, actually, embracing criticism.


Separate you from your work- When you spend hours, days or weeks on one piece of work it can feel as though it has morphed into one of your limbs- a third arm or perhaps another thumb. However, it hasn’t, your work is not you, it is a product of you, but not a part of you! I think that needs to become a mantra- repeat after me- “your work is a product of you, but not a part of you”. This separation is so important because when your work is criticised, you as a person are not being criticised. No matter how terrible your work day is, when you leave you are still you.

Listen to the feedback- The people providing the feedback are not actually trying to be the meanest people to ever walk to planet. They are being helpful, they are criticising your work to improve it. Listen to them, take the criticism on board and improve your work.

Use your peers- Send your early drafts to peer members that you trust (other students in your office or classes). This is a great way to pick up on little mistakes before you send it to your supervisor (or anywhere else).

Use your friends- Friends, outside of your research (or studies) are really important. They will most likely have very limited knowledge of the peer-reviewed journal article process or the three minute thesis presentation. Meaning, when you go out with them, they will not ask you questions about it. You can blissfully enjoy a night/day out without even the slightest thought of those editor comments.

Use your family- Your family (and/or significant other) have a nifty habit of putting up with your crap. When you want to scream or cry because your article has been rejected for what feels like the 5673rd time, they will let you. Use them, but do not overuse them!

Celebrate the wins- Because the research and academic world is hard and critical it is so important to celebrate all the wins (however small) you achieve. This includes having a couple of wines after you submit your proposal, or having a celebratory dinner when you and fellow peers complete a presentation, or baking a cake to celebrate a first publication.

Educate yourself- Never stop educating yourself- you can never know too much. Read a book about how to deliver an effective presentation. Join a writing group. Take a grammar course. Attend all the seminars your university offers. Education is the best way to improve your work.

Remember it is not just you- Even the most respected professors have to go through the peer-reviewed process where they also receive criticism. I think this is such an important thing to remember, particularly when you are starting out in research (at the bottom of the academic food chain) and it can feel like you are receiving criticism because you are not supposed to be there.

Click here to download this weeks PDF- A page to document the wins you are celebratring this week.

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