Receiving a manuscript or proposal rejection, or negative feedback, is undoubtedly a very difficult thing to experience as a student. However, it is important to examine the feedback carefully, think about whether you agree or disagree with it, then move towards making changes that will improve your work product. When you first receive the feedback, you may cringe. You may feel that you have failed or that you missed the point of what you were supposed to produce. You may even feel sad or depressed.
As graduate students, we are all going to receive some negative feedback at some point in our budding academic careers. It is the job of our professors, advisors, and colleagues to give us feedback, and some of it will be negative. It is best if this feedback is constructive as well, but sometimes it is not. This blog post discusses how to get over the initial discomfort of receiving negative feedback, how make the most of constructive negative feedback, and how to deal with non-constructive negative feedback and feedback you disagree with. It will also discuss the benefits of learning how to deliver your own negative feedback. If you want to learn about the normal day and the life of a PhD student, you really have to check out this post.
This post was written by Stephanie A. Bosco-Ruggiero (PhD candidate in Social Work at Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service) on behalf of Dave Maslach. This is part of the R3ciprocity project (Check out the YouTube Channel or the writing feedback software). R3ciprocity helps students, faculty, and research folk by providing a real and authentic look into doing research. It provides solutions and hope to researchers around the world.
What do you get feedback on in graduate school?
As students we receive feedback on a number of work products including our classwork assignments, class projects, research proposals, comprehensive exams, dissertation proposals, and journal manuscripts. Hopefully, most of the time that feedback is positive, but inevitably some will be negative. There may be certain times when we should expect more pointed and detailed feedback because of the nature of the work product. For example, dissertation proposals must be scrutinized thoroughly to pass often stringent departmental requirements for what must be included in a proposal and at the level of professionalism required of dissertation work. (Once you are done reading this blog post, this comprehensive guide on assessing doctoral students will surely be a benefit to you.)
Also, comprehensive exams will be strictly scrutinized. Before moving onto the next level of a PhD program, professors want to make sure you understand broad concepts and theories pertinent to your field. Before you can go on to teach others, they want to make sure you understand the basics of your academic field or industry. Negative feedback on comprehensive exams or papers can be particularly difficult to deal with because it means your time in the program is prolonged and may have to continue exploring the basics of a subject you thought you were already expert in.
Likewise, a journal manuscript must be thoroughly peer reviewed to meet the high standards of publications in that field or industry. Journal do not want sloppy writing or research designs that do not meet their standards. (By the way, you should really read this post about why Dave started the R3ciprocity Project. He wanted to help people become better researchers and improve their writing.) Journal editors want thoroughly professional pieces that have been carefully written and reviewed. Feedback on journal manuscripts will most likely will come from a team of reviewers and a committee, respectively. Journals often have up to three reviewers who provide written feedback to the author which she must take into consideration in making edits and resubmitting. Often journal articles can be outright rejected with no chance of revisions being made. The latter is the most difficulty negative feedback to receive on a manuscript because it is a clear rejection of your work; however, there is always the option of submitting your article to a different publication. From negative feedback you can get ideas about how to improve your draft manuscript, so it is not rejected again.
Negative feedback on the phases of a dissertation can be particularly biting because you have invested in an idea and now it is being questioned or outright rejected. You may have to go back to the drawing board and propose a different study or design as study similar to what was proposed in your original proposal but with major changes. It is a dissertation committee’s job to vet you as a professional before you go out into the field to teach and mold others. Negative feedback on a dissertation proposal or the research chapters can cause you a lot of headaches; however, if you do not correct your mistakes in how you approach research as a student, you will have to confront your errors later on anyway when you are a professor and by that time people will not be as understanding.
How do you get over the initial shock of negative feedback?
When receiving negative feedback as a PhD student, what you first must do is get over your initial shock, anger, or feelings of defeat. This may take a few hours or a few days. With pivotal projects, such as dissertation proposals, the reaction may last for weeks. It is ok to have a strong reaction because you are a human being who has invested a lot into your academic career. You also have the natural human instinct to be protective of your work, ideas, and ego; but in time, you really do have to be mature about the feedback and forgive yourself for your initial reaction. If you are ashamed of your initial petty or immature response to the feedback, or to errors you made in your work, remember the following idioms: “everyone makes mistakes” and “learn from your mistakes.” Maybe you really missed the mark of the assignment, or weren’t as focused as you should have been on your work, but ultimately you must move on and make it a learning experience.
Read what Dave has to say about cutting yourself some slack in this post about the “Myth of The PhD Expert” and whether you are smart enough to do a PhD.
If you need more advice, you should watch this video of how to deal with disappointment in your PhD:
Making the most of constructive feedback
In his video blog below, Dave talks about how to deal with negative feedback and a time when he received negative feedback and made it into a constructive situation. Dave suggests using negative feedback as “pivot points to not only make your idea different but also to improve upon the idea.” He also explains that negative feedback is important to “learning how to position your current work relative to existing norms and expectations of the audience.”
First, as Dave says, constructive feedback can be a pivot point at which you change your idea or how to express your original idea. You may have not seen your idea or expressed your ideas as clearly as you could have the first time around. Constructive feedback opens the door for making a needed adjustment to your final product whether it be a journal article, dissertation proposal, funding application, or course assignment.
You may not be able to resubmit your work product immediately, but the ideas will percolate; and when the time comes to resubmit your work product will have more clarity because of that constructive negative feedback. You may not even be able to resubmit a work product if it’s a funding proposal or course assignment, but you can always makes improvements based on the feedback for when you resubmit the work to another organization or when you complete your next assignment. There is always room for improving on your work whether it is in the immediate or far future.
Second, as Dave points out, you may have missed something about the culture of your field and that miss created a barrier to your communication of an idea. For example, in designing a research study, you may have proposed a research design that was not adequately rigorous considering the field’s current standards. Or, your study was “too” novel. It was not that your first design was not good, but it just wasn’t good enough considering the current standards of an organizations, publication, or an entire field. Ultimately, however, the constructive negative feedback will push you to produce a work product that does meet those high standards.
In his video blog, Dave described a situation when feedback helped him produce a much better work product. It was a journal article he submitted that was rejected very quickly. He digested the feedback and really thought about it. The feedback had to do with a research methods he was using; so he dove back into the literature and discovered a book that described a method he was not previously familiar with. This was an aha moment for him and led him toward a new formulation of the classification of his research. He was also able to come up with a strong rationale for why he was using this methodology.
Constructive negative feedback challenges you, keeps you moving in the right direction, and shapes how your understanding of how to write and produce products that are in line with your field’s culture of research, practice or product standards, or professional norms. Constructive feedback in any area of life should be welcome. It is meant to help you grow, not to keep your down. But what do you do if the negative feedback has an altogether different tone, or you disagree with it completely?
How to deal with non-constructive or problematic feedback
There may be times when negative feedback is not very constructive. It is not pushing you in the right direction or giving you much to work with. It is just there, and you do not know what to do with it. The reviewer may have intended to be constructive, but it just is not coming across in that way. You either do not understand the feedback or it is not communicated clearly.
Some negative feedback may be very pointed or even seem nasty or belittling. This is the reviewer’s problem, not yours. Hopefully, you will experience this type of negative feedback rarely or not at all in your early career. It is unacceptable for a professor or reviewer to make comments that are nasty. That person may have an ego problem or even want to make you feel inadequate to make them feel like more of an expert. This is their problem and you probably want to disregard feedback of this nature — switch chairs or reviewers if possible or get some fresh feedback elsewhere. Remember, you worked hard to get to where you are and feedback that challenges your belonging in the field, or your knowledge or expertise, is probably off the mark.
There may even be instances when the feedback seems blatantly wrong. It just does not feel or sound right, and when you go to investigate further you find that the feedback is in fact erroneous. This is a difficult situation because it is hard to confront a reviewer or professor with the fact that this feedback is just plainly off the mark; you may have to though, to safeguard your work and ideas. You need to push back if advice given can be disproven or others you share the feedback with agree that it simply is not realistic or accurate. Again, you may just have to abandon ship if this feedback has come from a dissertation chair, a peer reviewer for a journal, or an advisor. Find someone new, or a new publication. You just do not have to time for feedback that is hurtful.
Learning how to provide your own negative feedback
By the time you are ready to provide your own feedback to students, peers, authors, etc. you will have experienced a great deal of being on the receiving end of academic feedback and criticism. This is a part of academic life. Reflect on how you felt when you received feedback as a student and budding academic in thinking about the style of your own feedback.
As you move through your PhD program you will be in the position to provide feedback on student papers, peers’ manuscripts, book chapters, and perhaps funding proposals. It is a good idea to become that person who provides the feedback because it will help you develop your own skills in providing feedback, help you understand the quality of your own work, and help you understand the culture of a field. You will learn from your students’ writing, journal manuscripts, and funding proposals, and will learn how to provide your own constructive feedback.
It is worth mentioning ways in which you can get involved in providing professional reviews and feedback. Journals are often happy to have reviewers who are not yet PhDs. They know being a reviewer is something students want to put in their CVs. You will not be paid for your work, but it will be one of the most worthwhile learning experiences in terms of how to provide professional feedback. You may also have the opportunity to review funding proposals on behalf of a foundation or government agency. These organizations often look for research professionals from the field to help vet large numbers of proposed research studies.
As a result of these opportunities you will be able to hone your own skills in providing negative feedback. Providing feedback may feel uncomfortable at first. You may even feel like an impostor — who am I to tell this person their work product isn’t good enough? (Check out our thoughtful post about dealing with impostor syndrome in academia.) But you too, will begin to learn the value of providing negative feedback in a constructive manner including concluding negative feedback on a positive note.
Remember, negative feedback can be the greatest gift and lead to great ideas and innovations. The greatest thinkers and writers all received negative feedback at some point in their careers. It is a natural part of being called an “expert,” in something. To improve the value of our work products and ideas, we must continually be open to receiving constructive negative feedback throughout our careers so we can confidently wear the bade of “expert.”
View more of the R3ciprocity channel on YouTube at R3ciprocity.com. Or you can check out these other helpful past posts: