To be successful in science, you have to learn how to take criticism. This is one of the reasons I left the bench. I didn’t like feeling like I wasn’t good enough all the time. At that time, I thought that the best coping strategy would be to ignore the criticism. Unfortunately, this left me feeling like I wasn’t sticking up for myself, and that my science was barely mediocre.
I currently work as a writer, and I have two editors who pour over every word I write, and two supervisors who also occasionally throw their thoughts in the ring. When I started, I thought I might last only a few weeks in this hypercritical environment. Instead, I learned to deal with the criticism in a much better way.
I should preface these insights by saying that even if I could go back in time and tell my-frazzled-grad-student-self these things, I don’t think it would have made a difference. For starters, I am not writing the most important document of my life. As a student, every manuscript, abstract, figure legend, or result summary, felt like an opportunity to prove myself, to show that I was growing as a scientist, and no longer that amateur who had their lab meeting derailed by some persistent question about primer design.
Now, I am much wiser, smarter, and totally on track to graduate, right? In grad school, everything you write, everything you do, feels like it needs to be the best thing you’ve ever written or done. (For the record, I’m not sure this is true, but I certainly felt that way.) In my current job, I write tons. Some of it isn’t great. That doesn’t seem like a career killer anymore.
Here is how I have learned to deal with a constant stream of criticism:
- I don’t take it personally. In graduate school, every criticism of an experiment felt like a thinly veiled way of saying, “You aren’t good enough.” Now I am working with a team that is all focused on producing a high quality product. Sometimes, the product isn’t good enough yet. And then we fix it. As the writer, I’m responsible for making a good final product, even if it starts out as a terrible first draft. I used to think if I were good at my job, I would never get criticism, so I resisted making improvements if I thought I could argue that it was good enough already. Now I see that instead, if I were bad at my job, I wouldn’t improve things that need to be fixed.
- I have editors I really trust. This helps a lot. I trust them to be objective, to help me create the best writing possible, and to do it without making me feel bad. Some scientists edit like they are jilted writers. Their feedback isn’t necessarily to make the document the best it can be, it’s to make it more like they wrote it. Finding editors and mentors that I trust made a huge difference in my willingness to respond positively to criticism. I’ve also learned that building a good, trusting relationship with an editor helps everyone out.
- I lie. I am awful at having to sit face to face with someone giving me criticism. What do I do with my expression? What am I supposed to say when all I can think is that I’m never asking for advice ever again?? The awesome thing about my job as a curriculum writer is that I get most of my criticism by email. It’s pretty easy to type back “Awesome, these changes are going to make this document so much better. I’m excited to make them! :)” when I am thinking, “What?? I thought this was perfect!” I try to include some note in most of my correspondence about how I appreciate the feedback, how the document is improving, or I really needed the help, no matter what I am really thinking at the instant I send that email. I try to keep in mind that if you have to give someone criticism, and they resist it all the time, it can be really hard on the criticizer as well.
- I make the neutral changes. Like I said, I used to think that making edits was some type of score keeping, that the fewer total changes I made to a protocol or document, the closer I was to being really good on my own. Now that I have done a fair amount of editing, I see that it takes a lot of effort to make a really detailed edit. If I put in all that work, and half of it is ignored, it seems like a waste. When I would get sort of neutral suggestions about experiments, it was easy to think, “Loading my controls on the other side of the gel is not going to make the missing expression magically appear!” Making those neutral changes is instead, a subtle way to signal that I’m listening and value the time it took to make that suggestion.
- I move on. Sometimes I make dumb mistakes. Some of my writing isn’t crystal clear. Sometimes I forget to double check the formatting. My editors catch it, I fix it, we all move on. They have never once tried to remind me of “that one time when the image requests weren’t filled out right,” or berated me for sending imperfect work along. This is the advantage of working with really good editors your trust. It’s acceptable to share a work in progress, and be confident that it can be improved.
Despite having a lot of practice and a good approach for dealing with criticism, I still have moments that feel overwhelming. I’m fortunate that I usually have some other work to turn to until I feel resilient enough to hear more criticism. If criticism is a key part of your job, it’s a good idea to find healthy ways to cope with it so that it can serve the purpose for which it is intended -to make you better at your job.
Sandlin Seguin, Ph.D. earned her doctorate in molecular biology in 2011 from the University of Pittsburgh. She currently works as a curriculum writer, writing career education materials. She is the Executive Director of Education at HiveBio, Seattle’s new biohackerspace and DIYBio Lab.