On Taking it Personally

By making the decision to study towards a postgraduate degree, you are grabbing accountability by the horns. In looking back on my postgraduate years, I’ve been thinking a little about the implications of this accountability on my ability to evaluate my success. Undergraduate degrees, of course, involve constant assessments and an increasing amount of autonomy as you move through the three years. However, nothing quite prepares a person for the responsibilities of a postgraduate degree. With more control over what you research and, as a consequence, what you are judged upon, it feels like so much more is at stake. This is especially true in the case of doctoral studies. The doctoral student usually plays a major part in designing the theme of the research, and though supervisors may advise their student to take in in one direction or another, the responsibility is ultimately the student’s. Even if you are working on an already-established project in order to gain a Ph.D., you still have a lot of control over your individual input. SO, when critique comes your way, it feels so much more personal.

good 'nuff road - sign

Before embarking on my master’s degree at Oxford, I worked for a year as a Marketing Assistant, split between two organisations. For six months of that year I worked in a job I hated, for a massive multinational company. Then for six months of it I worked in a job I loved, for a university-based government organisation. These jobs had very little in common, except the fact that I never quite thought about them in the same way that I did my Ph.D. In each job, I worked very hard, putting all of my effort into every project, and doing the best that I could to contribute towards the organisation’s success. In the first job, I had days that made me so stressed that I got quite upset. In both jobs, there were moments when I felt tremendously proud. However, if a project was not as successful as I’d hoped, if I had an unproductive day when my writing was rubbish, or if a marketing campaign was not successful, I could evaluate the reasons rationally. Perhaps I needed more training in a design software. Perhaps I should re-structure my day so I do certain tasks at a different time? Perhaps someone else could do this part of my job better than me?

Evaluating your Ph.D. successes and failures can be more difficult – in the humanities especially. For a start, there are fewer objective measures of your success. There are no marketing figures or profit margins. There are no visitor numbers, and few or no examinations. Ultimately, there’s only a) whether you are happy with your work, b) whether your supervisors are happy with it, c) what your peers think, and finally, d) whether your examiners think it’s any good. These are all subjective measurements, and are ultimately very difficult to predict. Of course, there are certain qualities that will be universally appealing to any supervisor or examiner – ie. a well-researched, original, coherent, piece of work with few mistakes and exciting potential for future development. But aside from the fundamentals, part of their perspective might originate from their own research interests and ideas, and, besides, it is always really hard to predict exactly what someone else will think! Finally, unlike in the equivalent non-academic job, postgraduate students often expect so much of themselves, that anything short of ‘this is amazing’ is crushing. Without objective goals and expectations, it can be really hard to know what you should be achieving.

So, how do I think a postgraduate, or early-career researcher, can evaluate their performance without damaging their self esteem?

in-the-mirror

Well, I am still undecided about how far a Ph.D or early career project can be treated like a ‘job’, but I think certain aspects of research could benefit from a more ‘business-like’ approach. If I had my Ph.D. time again, I would seek appraisals just like I did when I was a Marketing Assistant. What kind of appraisals? Well, aside from formal measures of progress, such as the ‘thesis advisory panels’, there are non-formalised ways of checking whether the development of the thesis is on track. For instance, I would like to have written more journal articles from the very outset. To graduate journals if my ideas were not ready for the more prestigious peer-reviewed journals yet. I might have presented my ideas more frequently at conferences. Plus, I would discuss my work with senior academics in my field of research (other than my supervisors), and maybe even send them some of my written work. I was in fact advised do this, but I was so absorbed in my research that I did not, and instead left it until after my viva. At a roundtable that I recently attended, an academic who had a wealth of experience in the academic recruitment process emphasised the need to nurture referees who were not ‘sweethearts’. These non sweethearts should be individuals who have read and evaluated your work, really like it, but are not personally invested in your success. I think this was an excellent point – nurturing a few of these evaluative relationships from the very outset would have been a good idea.

I think I have always been good at accepting criticism as it is intended: as a way of helping me to develop my ideas into more sophisticated ones. However, I have always taken them more personally than I did my non-academic appraisals. Fear of criticism can sometimes lead to a ‘burying your head in the sand’ approach as you ignore the unpleasant issue and hope that it goes away, or else get really upset and take it as a damning reflection on you, personally. All teachers know that undergraduates tend to skim the comments that are made on their work, and look straight for the numerical grade. Postgraduates are prone to the same: mentally file comments away as ‘good’, ‘bad’ or ‘so-so’, and ignore the intricacies as ‘too hard’, ‘unchangeable’, or ‘too time-consuming: I have a deadline’. If I had my doctoral time again, I would keep a notebook of anything positive, negative, or neutral, that anyone’s ever said about my work and really think about them – it would be amazing to be able to look back now and see my improvement. Plus, on reflection, many ‘negative’ evaluations are not actually that negative. Through a combination of these techniques, I think I could have gained wide-ranging, challenging, ongoing appraisals of the sort that I would have had when I was ‘in business’.

In many ways, doing a Ph.D. is nothing like any of my non-academic jobs. However, by facing academic evaluation in a similar way to a non-academic appraisal, it might be possible to stop taking things so personally. Instead, it might be possible to view criticism as a way of improving your work, not you.

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4 comments

  1. Great post! I also consider myself good at taking criticism constructively and letting it remain in the realm of the professional. Nevertheless, a strategy I used when facing up to my first ‘real’ peer review report from journal reviewers – anticipating that I might find it difficult to confront just this kind of ‘personalness’ sensation – was to ask a trusted and relatively objective student friend who is familiar with my work to read the reports too and meet with me to go through them. The idea wasn’t for my friend to give advice about how to respond substantively to the comments or critiques, but to help me decode them: seeing that they were ultimately helpful, positive comments, or even – in some cases – misunderstandings of my argument that simply meant I needed to articulate it more clearly, rather than personal jibes. This worked really well, and I highly recommend it to students everywhere! (Of course, it presupposes that you have already established good bonds with at least one other student whose opinion you trust to be rational, constructive and disinterested as possible.) I think getting a fellow student to do this, rather than a supervisor, is also significant, irrespective of how well you get along with your supervisors. Fellow students know what it feels like to be at that stage, facing that critique of one’s work because they’re doing it too – as opposed to a supervisor who, despite best intentions, may have had some or several years to forget the anxieties of those first experiences.

  2. Jennifer · · Reply

    Like you, I had an administrative job before starting postgrad studies, and since then have often thought that I would cope better in the postgraduate world if I learned to think about my research projects and career the same way I did about my administrative work.

    As you say, in my ‘job job’ I was much more open to impersonally evaluating how things were going in terms of time management, the times of day I was most productive at certain tasks, the kind of daily ‘rhythm’ that helped my work, and considering everything in terms of a project that needed completion to a certain standard. It was much less about me as a person and more about what needed to be done.

    It’s helped in my PhD when I can take that more project-focused approach, stepping back from my own performance anxieties and just considering the thesis as something that’s separate from me. Is it on track? Why not? What’s missing? Do some goals need to be altered due to changed circumstances (i.e. new information, misguided assumptions)? If I can assess these things without taking any ‘negative’ assessments as an ascription of personal failure, it’s much easier to see what’s actually going on with the thesis. And as you say, this attitude is necessary when taking others’ criticisms as well as when dishing it out to oneself!

    1. Thanks Jennifer for the thoughtful comment. I’m glad that someone else believes in taking a step back from the thesis and avoiding treating critique of your work as personal criticism.

  3. All PhD candidates should read this post! I love what you have to say about a topic that (if I’m honest) usually makes me want to stick my head in the sand. I definitely need to learn to ‘view criticism as a way of improving [my] work, not [me]’ and it’s great to read your thoughts on this in the last few months of my PhD. Thanks for being so upbeat!

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