I recently wrote about taking the time to reflect on PhD progress and mentioned that I had my end-of-year appraisal coming up. I’ve had it since and I think it went fairly well on the whole. Despite this, something about the experience has been bothering me. This something is a more general feature I’ve noticed about academia.
When I arrived on time for my “mini-viva”, my panel asked me to wait outside the room so they could have a quick chat beforehand. Though friends had mentioned this happening to them, I thought it a little strange; the panel could easily have met slightly earlier or just told me to show up later. Waiting outside, I could hear bits of what they were saying through the closed door, even after moving to stand at the far end of the corridor. This was both a little embarrassing and intriguing as it gave me some idea of what to expect. They started out their chat by briefly saying they think I am definitely on track (yay!) only to proceed to try to come up with negative things they could say about my report. I got the impression that although they thought things were going well, they didn’t want me to feel that I could rest on my laurels (as if I would!) and that there was room for improvement (obviously). So, although the actual interview was fairly relaxed, it had a definite feel of questioning and (constructive) criticism about it, with me attempting to defend my work (presumably as practice for my real viva in >2 years’ time).
I know that although I’ve worked hard and my supervisors said they were pleased with my progress, my work to date is far from perfect and at the moment, that is still ok. And I understand that the job of the panel was to draw attention to any imperfections, check that I understand various important issues and make suggestions for improvement. I’m actually really happy with how my mini-viva went and I received some useful feedback and suggestions for what to do. My panel were not mean or rude and certainly did not seem to be trying to poke unnecessary holes in my work – in fact, most of the issues they brought up were things I was already aware of to some extent. However, they seemed to shy away from saying anything overtly positive, so that it took some reflection afterwards for me to decide if it had actually gone well or not.
The thing I am trying to get at is that I get the impression that there is a general shortage of explicit positive feedback in academia and a tendency to be overly critical. Granted, a healthy amount of scepticism and constructive criticism is an essential component of science. It’s also vital to learn how to take such criticism and advice without taking it personally. As early career researchers, we are explicitly taught and encouraged to look for flaws in and criticise previously published studies. Our supervisors and colleagues edit our work and return it covered with tracked changes in all the colours of the rainbow. Journal reviewers can seem to go out of their way to be hostile and rude in pointing out limitations, even those that we have already acknowledged and discussed in our manuscript. Understandably, Q&A sessions after talks tend to focus on what has not been done or addressed fully. From my limited knowledge, grant committees appear to be the fiercest of all critics. There is always room for improvement – this is not a bad thing, just a statement of fact.
The not-so-great thing about this attitude is that there can be a lack of positive feedback, leaving us PhD students attempting to infer what more experienced researchers think is good or interesting. Once all the reports, essays and exams are done with at university, there is little in the way of formal feedback in academia. There are no grades and it can be tricky to know how well we are doing. Perhaps, ideally supervisors and mentors should offer encouragement and praise where deserved, but really, there is no reason others cannot do so too. I think that drawing attention to strengths is an important way to balance criticism of limitations. It’s not just polite but also pleasant when someone from the audience starts a question after a talk by saying “I really liked how you did X, but can you tell me more about Y” or when a reviewer says “this study makes an important contribution with regards to X, however there are some limitations which could be addressed…”.
Many PhD students suffer from imposter syndrome. This is why feedback should be a combination of positive and critical comments. Nobody (certainly no PhD student) always does perfect science but if you have got as far as successfully enrolling on a PhD programme, you obviously have potential and this potential needs to be nurtured. Occasional affirmation from those you look up to can go a long way towards boosting confidence and feeling like you are on the right track.