Water off a Duck's Back

Dear Readers,

At a recent event, I found myself responding to a question: What's the best way to deal with criticism, even, or especially, when it isn't justified?

I have great respect for the grant-review process and the people who make it work. Grant-review committees and study sections, in my experience, are full of idealistic folks who care greatly about the sanctity of the process and the future of science. But even so, mistakes are made, and not everyone is honest and free of ulterior motives.

Furthermore, becoming a faculty member is all about reviews. Grant proposals are reviewed. Scientific manuscripts are reviewed. Your person is reviewed--at interviews and during the tenure and promotion process. And certain of these review processes--the tenure process, for example--are altogether less exemplary than the grant-review process. So the issue of how to deal with criticism in the most strategic way possible is a crucial one for rising academics. Then again, strategy isn't everything; it's also important to retain your self-respect. A certain not-too-obvious cockiness can be a great asset. These can be hard to maintain in the midst of the tsunami of criticism most young faculty are subjected to.

So let's not limit ourselves to reviews that are done poorly; let's also consider how to respond to the ones that are done well. I asked three people--two experienced-but-not-yet calcified scientists and one program officer--for their opinions on how best to deal with negative feedback and the review process generally. First off, we have the program officer, who, at first, seemed to be assuming that all the comments you received were justified. Here is what he wrote:

So, you've just gotten your reviews back ... and the scores or ratings are lower than you imagined, and you ended up at the bottom of the panel rankings. What to do? Read the reviews through once, quickly. You may be upset, embarrassed, disappointed, or angry. Those are normal emotions. So, kick the door, take a walk, share your disappointment with a family member or a close friend. Hold off on talking to your colleagues or mentor for a bit.

Give yourself a week or so, so the emotional response can subside a bit. Try to not think about it, don't obsessively re-read the reviews.

Once you can think about this without the emotional response, you are ready to talk over the situation with a trusted colleague or mentor. It's your choice whether to give them the verbatim reviews or summarize the main points. You can do a bit of "if only" wishful thinking, but your focus needs to be on the future.

Many funding agencies encourage you to call the review officer/program manager/grants officer to discuss your reviews. It might be easiest to send an e-mail to make an appointment to talk so you can be in your office, with all your documents handy, with the door shut, ready to have this discussion. You can talk briefly about what went wrong, but your focus has to quickly move to "'How could I improve this proposal?"' or "Should I resubmit?" Ask the review officer what the major decision points were; they might surprise you!

You may think some criticism is unfounded or unfair. It is fine to point this out. A review officer will try to avoid sending your proposals to someone who has an unreasonable prejudice against your work, or who might have a competitive bias. Try to avoid whining; keep the tone of the conversation professional and constructive. After all, this person will probably be handling your next proposal.

Some common traps to avoid:

The reviewers just didn't understand my brilliant idea. The program officer/review officer must have picked a bunch of losers!

Reviewers are scientists chosen for their research expertise and background. If several competent scientists didn't get your idea, you have to do a better job explaining it.

The reviewers all picked on different things, none of which are that important.

Sometimes reviewers will pick one example and go into one thing in great detail. They might have general reservations but only express one or two specifics. You have to think both about what is said and unsaid.

If only I do this one thing, I am sure to get funded next time!

It isn't always that easy. Remember the old saying that you never step into the same river twice. In 6 months or a year, when your revised proposal is reviewed, much could be different.

But what about dealing with unfair or incompetent reviews?

Talk to the review officer about your concerns. In some cases, that might not have been a major decision point and wouldn't change the outcome, but you have gone on record with your concerns.

If this was a major decision factor and the reviewer(s) screwed up, ask the review officer what your options are. Frankly, your best option might be to revise and resubmit, especially if your point was ambiguous or poorly presented. But if a reviewer did just screw up, and this was a major decision point, you might have recourse to an appeal or reconsideration.

Next up, a scientist who has served on grant-review panels at NIH and NSF:

I've seen people take defensive and desperate positions and not fare as badly as I would have expected, mainly because either a senior person or a program officer advocated for them. People recognize that getting grants funded can be a matter of make or break in a career, and so I have found people more sympathetic than I would have expected toward what I would consider unseemly behavior.

Still, I think it makes sense to be gracious and to grant your reviewers as much deference as possible. In the case where a reviewer is clearly wrong, politely approaching a program officer with clear evidence of how his views are not correct and [are] inconsistent with the views of others is probably the best approach. I don't think that being angry and insolent is ever in one's best interest.

Finally, we hear from a scientist who exists in a sort of parallel funding universe, where "the agencies ... are not the kind that 're-work and resubmit' mean a lot to." Instead of grant proposals, he focused on manuscript reviews, particularly inept manuscript reviews--which, in his interdisciplinary field, apparently are not uncommon.

We all encounter reviews that are less competent than we like. I feel it's most often a result of people not having enough time to read material thoroughly and think about the parts they have hung up on. There are several things I do when I see this in papers:

1. Put the reviews aside for a few days to "cool off."

2. Involve my students (for papers at least) since they are co-authors. They also may need a cooling-off period, so they get the reviews the same day I do.

3. If the reviews are flat-out wrong, I find and cite the relevant literature to refute them. The accompanying discussion is included in the paper, so others don't make the same interpretive mistake the reviewer did. I also spell out the correction, with references, very clearly to the editor. If I have to, I quote the relevant source verbatim.

4. If the reviews make personal comments or accusations of unoriginality ... I challenge the editor to ask the reviewer for the relevant citations or clarification. It's always possible I missed something out there. I am very ready to apologize for missing it if I am at fault.

5. I send it back to the journal, usually certain that as a contested paper it will have re-review and a longer than normal publication time. If the reviewer is clearly an attack dog and responds by finding a new list of objectionable material in the paper, I make what corrections I feel are necessary and just ask the editor to judge. Not everybody will like all the papers I produce, so at that point, rather than go into a cycle of review/respond, I'll ask the editor to go ahead and make a judgment and just be done with it.

I'm kind of compelled to respond the same way even when I think the reviewer is a stupid jerk with no imagination and too much free time.

I don't believe the response pattern should be different for tenured vs. untenured faculty. I suppose we're all constrained by the rules of civil conduct here, even if some reviewers don't feel those restraints.

As an added bonus, my first anonymous scientist had some advice for scientists participating in another crucial review process: interviewing for faculty jobs. I found his advice surprising and compelling.

I'd recommend trying to be as much yourself as possible. You are going to work with these people for years, so it is probably best for everyone if they get to see the real you and you get to interact with them as the real you. I'd encourage a candidate to listen a lot. You really don't have to sell yourself. As a hiring committee, we already have a lot of information about you. We don't need that much more to make a decision. We want a great talk and a good teaching lecture. We want to see that you make eye contact with your audience and are excited about what you are doing.

Other than that, though, you are probably better off listening as much as possible and trying to learn about the department. It is hard to offend people when you are intently listening to them, genuinely seeming interested in what they have to say, and asking good questions. Try not to focus on yourself and worry about how you come across. Focus on communicating your work to others and really caring that they understand your work and why it is interesting.

Dealing with intense criticism is difficult, but if you do it well and carefully, you may manage to survive with your self-esteem, and your career, intact.

Be Well,

The GrantDoctor.

The GrantDoctor is here to help! Send questions to grantdoctor@aaas.org. Please put 'GDR' in the subject header of your e-mail.

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