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The Joy of Criticism

As a young scientist you are probably intimately familiar with criticism! We face criticism when our assignments are graded; we are criticized when we give talks; we receive criticism when our papers come back from review. ... And, oh yes, who can forget that most joyous 3 hours of criticism we experience when we defend our theses? "Joy" is not the first word most of us would associate with criticism!

I used to find criticism hard to take and even harder to dish out. When I received criticism, I couldn't help thinking that I had failed to live up to some expectation or was deficient in some way. And when I had to criticize others, I was concerned about hurting feelings, straining relationships, and causing unhappiness. If you define criticism in these ways, it's impossible not to feel bad about the whole process. Some people feel so bad about giving or receiving criticism that they may burst into tears. Others find giving criticism so difficult that they would rather fix the problem themselves or ignore it altogether. Neither approach is all that constructive in the long run.

There is, however, another way to think about criticism, one that does not invoke the same set of negative emotions: Criticism is information that can help you improve.

Viewed this way, receiving criticism can be both beneficial and positive. Similarly, giving criticism is intended to improve and strengthen the recipient, not tear them down. Consider the spinach-on-the-teeth dilemma. You are with a co-worker at a function and notice that he or she has a big piece of spinach on their teeth. What's better: Letting them look ridiculous for the rest of the evening or telling them about their problem so they can remove it quickly? When you do tell them, aren't they usually grateful for the tip?

Much of the criticism we receive in the course of doing science is intended to be positive. The negative comments we receive on our manuscripts, assuming that they are constructive, are meant to improve and strengthen the work. Similarly, the criticism we may receive after presenting a talk is intended to clarify issues, point out weak areas, and improve understanding of the subject. After all, we're all pursuing the same fundamental goal: truth and accuracy in our understanding of the natural universe.

Dealing With Negative Criticism

Of course, if every critic gave advice in a positive, supportive, and encouraging manner, people probably wouldn't have too much trouble receiving criticism. Sadly, most people (especially professors) are horrible at giving positive criticism, which leaves students feeling hurt, defensive, and shy about being criticized more. Negative criticism typically fails in one or more of the following ways:

  • It isn't strategic. The critic does not think about what specifically they want to change or what goals and solutions they can offer.

  • It isn't improvement oriented. The critic doesn't make suggestions as to how to improve.

  • It attacks self-esteem. The critic uses labels (such as "lazy"), speaks in absolutes, and does not allow the recipient to save face.

  • It uses the wrong words. The critic uses negative statements and words like "should" instead of "could."

  • It comes with no supporting evidence. Critic does not support comments with evidence or fair comparisons.

Negative criticism is always hard to take. However there are several strategies you can adopt to minimize the damage to your ego and improve future communication with the critic.

First, it is essential to welcome criticism at all times. Often critics will react negatively when those they criticize are defensive and unreceptive. Try to listen to the ideas behind the criticism, not the actual words. If you assume that your critic has your best interests at heart, it will be easier for you to be more open and less defensive, which in turn may help to assuage the critic's concerns and to reduce the emotional charge of the situation.

Second, it is important to listen carefully and ask questions. Often people are so scared when they receive criticism that they are silent throughout the entire encounter. Asking clarifying questions in a non-defensive manner can help identify specific issues. One of the best questions to ask is, "What suggestions do you have for me?" Echo what the critic is saying to make sure that you understand their points.

Third, allow the critic to deliver the sum of their criticism before responding. Do not try to rebut each point as it comes up, but do listen attentively, make mental notes, and discuss your perspective after you've received all of the bad news. Because criticism is often as hard to give as it is to receive, letting your critic fully vent may be genuinely appreciated--and there's a good chance that they will be more receptive to your perspective if they feel you've given them the opportunity to be heard in full.

Finally, it is absolutely critical to stay cool. It is natural to feel defensive when being criticized, and it can be hard not to convey that message in your body language. You may find yourself crossing your arms and hunching your shoulders, and your breathing and heart rate may increase substantially. Try to relax. Take a few deep breaths. Be aware of your own physical cues. If the situation becomes truly unbearable, ask to take a quick bathroom break or suggest that you resume the conversation at a later date.

How to Be a Positive Critic

It is likely that you will have plenty of opportunity to do your own criticizing in the future. Rather than adopting the bad habits and poor communication skills you have observed in others, consider ways of becoming a positive critic. In particular, you could ...

  • Become more aware of yourself. Seek out information about yourself and actively solicit criticism through questions such as, "How could I be doing this better?"

  • Become more aware of the people you are criticizing. Consider their emotions, actions, and feelings.

  • Acknowledge the necessary subjectivity of your observations.

  • Give concrete and fair criteria for criticizing.

  • Lead not only through words but through actions. Set a good example, and follow up on criticism with questions such as, "How can I help?"

If your boss is unskilled in the art of positive criticism, you may want to sit down with them and discuss the ways that they can be most effective in their criticism. But if you fear that such advice might not sink in, you can always print out a copy of this article and slip it quietly into their mailbox or attach it to the latest draft of your manuscript!

Peter Fiske

Peter Fiske is a Ph.D. scientist and co-founder of RAPT Industries, a technology company in Fremont, California. He is the author of Put Your Science to Work and co-author, with Dr. Geoff Davis, of a blog (at on science policy, economics, and educational initiatives that affect science employment. Fiske lives with his wife and two daughters in Oakland, California, and is a frequent lecturer on the subject of career development for scientists.

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