Take the good and leave the rest

I took a postdoc with a intense advisor because I wanted to be tougher.

I had a great grad school experience with a great mentor. I worried that, although I felt strong from this experience, perhaps I felt this way because my advisor had shielded me from criticism. I worried that I would not be tough enough for the “real world” of science. So I challenged myself by taking a postdoc with a mentor who holds nothing back when it comes to criticism (indeed, one whose interview style led me to cry in my hotel room).

I thought that just by experiencing the criticism I would grow a thick skin. I thought that by daily facing this challenge I would learn to take criticism better. Maybe in time I will see that I have gained strength from this (or understand that it saved me from something that does not suit my personality, as academic blogger The New PI says that you need to be made of steel to be a PI), but going through it has felt like an unnecessary tearing down of my confidence instead of a positive skin-thickening, strength-building exercise. Criticism still hurts. And, as Drug Monkey recognizes, this approach does not necessarily develop strong academics. While one needs to be tough in science, what one needs even more is confidence. So lesson number one learned so far: build confidence to face challenges, don’t put yourself in a negative space to face challenges.

I recently have come to lesson number two. I realized that what I need is not actually  to be tough in the face of criticism. It is to see criticism for what it is. It is the ideas of another person colliding with my ideas or my creations. Their ideas are not inherently better than mine. It is not my job to take all of their criticism and patiently see how wrong I am. It is to critically evaluate their ideas and my ideas and create better ideas out of the two. Instead of allowing criticism to bounce off I need to allow in the good feedback and let the ideas I don’t agree with, or those that are simply negative, slip on by.

I started off this year looking for confidence. I wasn’t expecting to find it in the same place that felt like it was taking away my confidence, but here we are. Everyone in academia deals with criticism regularly, and while I’m sure some are naturally less sensitive to it, I’m sure many have developed strategies or ways of thinking about the criticism that make it manageable. How about you?

This entry was posted in academia, confidence, criticism. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Take the good and leave the rest

  1. Ragamuffin says:

    I so appreciate reflecting on these two lessons right now (almost 2 months into my postdoc).

    Confidence was given a boost when I landed this position, then plummeted when I started, and has only recently begun to claw its way back up when I let myself admit how capable I am given the circumstances.

    Your point is well made that when one is confident, it’s far easier to funnel criticism into more appropriate compartments than “disagreement equals failure”. I often enjoy investigating criticisms and either finding out where they might have merit, or that I was right in the first place. I learned during my PhD that just because someone asserts a position strongly or with arrogance does not mean that they are right or their idea is better, even when they are your boss 🙂


    • peírama says:

      That is so great that you’re realizing this and gaining your confidence so early in your postdoc! I love your way of putting it – disagreement does not equal failure. Good luck and may your confidence take you far!


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