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Giving and Getting Constructive Criticism

I’ve been thinking about constructive criticism–the kind we give to graduate students or mentees–and how they receive it. Over the past few years I’ve noticed a bit of push back from students and mentees. My faculty friends and colleagues have told me they get the same kind of push back. Now, don’t misunderstand me, there is nothing wrong with push back–you have to stand up for what you believe. However, I’ve watched individuals struggle and have difficulty with their job search while neglecting to follow any of the advice their mentors have given them. Sometimes these students are headstrong. Other times they are convinced that they know what is best and that they know how to build a faculty career. Here are a few examples:

I have had students and mentees who present at academic conferences on a regular basis but they don’t publish the resulting papers. Many times, I’ve attended their conference presentations and have been thoroughly impressed with their ideas and skill. I always follow up, asking them to revise the paper and send it to a journal. However, unlike their counterparts who follow my advice, these students put the paper away for months, sometimes years, and it is no longer relevant or others have already published similar work. When they receive feedback from prospective employers that questions their lack of publications, they are frustrated.

Other students and mentees are interested in everything and refuse to focus. I often tell these students that they have a lifetime to pursue their research interests and that focusing on one or two areas of research is advantageous. Still, they continue to be interested in everything. Again, there is nothing wrong with curiosity and a wide interest. However, focus leads to success in research. It’s better to finish one peer-reviewed article than to have started the introduction for 10. I’m not exaggerating. I’ve seen students do this.

Still other students and mentees over write, refusing to simplify. They think that bloated, complicated language makes them look smarter. Despite my constant “less is best” mantra, these students continue to use seven words when two are enough. They also continue to wonder why their work is critiqued by reviewers and not accepted in journals. The best writing is writing that can be understood by anyone.

Although it is important for students to maintain their voices in writing and research, it is also essential that they hone that voice and make it as clear as possible. It’s great to have ideas but even better to share one’s ideas and make a difference in people’s lives and beliefs. When I was a graduate student, one of my mentors told me to swallow my pride when it came to constructive criticism. He told me to back up my claims or perspectives if I felt strongly about them but to swallow my pride when appropriate. He also told me to listen to those with experience, to ask a lot of questions, and to be respectful of those who had gone before me. He encouraged me to carve out my own voice and research agenda. I did so by following his lead. His great advice has paid off in that I have been able to pursue my goals.

When we are given the same constructive criticism over and over, it’s time to listen and listen closely. It is only then that we will begin to reach our goals.

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