Wednesday, February 5, 2014

When being mean is actually being nice ... and when it is just being mean

It's a harsh world in here, in academia. We all already know that academic science is not a carebear teaparty, and apparently now things are worse than ever as far as potential jobs for Ph.D.s and funding goes. 

A brief interruption, for an ad:
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 And now back to your regularly scheduled blogramming.

Scicurious has a great post up at Neurotic Physiology about what it is like to be out in the 'real world' and out of academia. She has some fascinating points about how academia has skewed her perspective on things, but one in particular jumped out at me: That now she has to re-learn how to take criticism.

Scicurious says:
"I remember a time when I took criticism well. I did a lot of theater and music, it was something you HAD to take well. I took it, I improved, worked harder, fixed things, and did better. Sometime during grad school, however, criticism began to paralyze me. Every critique felt like a critique of me, as a scientist. Since a scientist was what I WAS, all criticism began to feel like criticism of me, as a person. Sometimes it was indeed phrased that way. You are careless. You are not smart enough, why don't you get this?! You are not focused."
This got me thinking because, honestly, I feel exactly the opposite. I think I learned how to take criticism in grad school partly by learning how to give it.

It's for your own good! (source)

When I am editing a paper or grant for someone, I am trying to help them. The more critical I am the better their paper/grant will be. The paper is headed to peer-review which will determine whether it gets published or not , and the grant is headed to a study section which decides whether it gets funded. Both are grueling and rigorous examinations of quality and scientific merit. These review processes are so important because published papers and funded grants are 'science currency' and will determine your future. In some cases the funding status of a grant can determine whether a lab stays open or a PI gets tenure.

If there is a paragraph that doesn't make sense, or (gasp) a typo, it is obviously better for me to catch it than for someone important to see it and get confused or frustrated.

Understanding this concept, that constructive criticism is the nicest thing a scientist can do for another scientist taught me to take criticism much better than I had previously. I was one of those students who was always 'better enough' than the other students that teachers rarely bothered to push me to true excellence. So I was really not used to criticism, and the initial slings and arrows in graduate school did sting. However at one point it really sunk in that these criticisms were making me better... better at everything: writing, presenting, scientific thinking. 

So that is when being mean is actually being nice.

That said, I never had anyone tell me I wasn't 'smart enough' as Scicurious says. Just because constructive and thorough critique can sound mean, but actually be nice, doesn't mean that there is no such thing as 'meanness' in academia.

Sometimes being mean is really just being mean. A criticism that does not help me improve in any way is just mean. 'you are not smart enough to be a scientist' does not help anyone be a better scientist. It is a completely different kind of criticism than 'you really need to read more about X because you don't understand how X works.' Both are directed at 'you' personally, but one says you can't do it and the other says you can do it and even suggests how you can do it.

© TheCellularScale


  1. I totally agree with this post. I always try to make the person I'm revising for understand that I have their best interests at heart, especially students I work with. That said, I always get intensely nervous before I read the feedback other people give to me, even though the comments I get are constructive for the most part. I think being insecure is natural, but it's definitely something that can be overcome.

    On the flip side, the biggest issue I had in graduate school was definitely that my advisor did not give me criticism when she felt I needed it, which hurt our relationship and her willingness to give me good recommendations. I was given no chance to improve in her estimation, and I feel that was one of the biggest slights of my professional career.

  2. Yeah, I feel a little nervous getting feedback too. And it stings when there is something I thought was really great, but is generally disliked. But overall, getting constructive criticism shouldn't be too painful an experience. Cultivate a healthy attitude of 'that's just their opinion' and don't feel like you have to make every correction suggested.

  3. I think another thing to note in Scicurious's post is where you place your self worth. If you are in an environment that devalues life outside of work, you are more likely to be personally offended by criticism, constructive or not.

  4. That's true too, but I think the 'i AM a scientist, so any criticism of my science is a direct jab at me' is flawed. A 'good scientist' is not one that never messes up, but one that recognizes a mistake or shortcoming and tries to fix it. Good and bad scientists are both criticized.