Response To Valuable Criticism


Scientists just have to sack the fuck up on this, and let go of the “he was meaaannnn when he told me my analysis was flawed/writing was shit/control was irrelevant”.

I forwarded the Specific Aims page of a grant I am currently working on to one of my colleagues to get some input. His input was a list of about a dozen things that need to be improved, and how to improve them. It was all just purely factual, but no punches pulled, none of this fucking molly-coddling “it was reaaaallly good, but could use some minor improvement”:

(1) blah, blah sounds stupid; write it like bleh, bleh.

(2) reviewers are gonna kick your ass for yadda, yadda; get rid of it.

(3) x, y, z makes it sound like you don’t even believe your own bullshit; change as follows

etc

My immediate reaction to his e-mail was, “Fuck you! These specific aims kick fucking ass! And what the fuck do you know, anyway?” This is everyone’s immediate reaction to substantial accurate criticism. Having experienced this a fuckthousand kajillion times, it took me only about 100 milliseconds to sack the fuck up and feel extremely grateful for his penetrating insights.

Comments

  1. says

    “‘Fuck you! These specific aims kick fucking ass! And what the fuck do you know, anyway?’ This is everyone’s immediate reaction to substantial accurate criticism.”

    True enough. It’s also, sadly, everyone’s response to doofuses who actually don’t know fuck all.

  2. AnthroBabe says

    Ah, yes. “That” response. I was trained by a hard-ass in my postdoc and went through hell. I thank her every goddamn day that she was like that to me. My academic writing and thinking about hypothesis-testing is so much clearer than where I was before the postdoc. Here I am, however, advising my own students. I absolutely HATE molly-coddling but sometimes I have to or my students cry (!!??)

  3. says

    I have at least one senior colleague/competitor at another institution whose advice is regularly proffered and which I eagerly listen to. This is because going directly against the resulting suggestions is an almost foolproof way to get funding.

  4. says

    I usually take the time to say “X was really good” because, jesus, knowing what part of your work was really good is *at least* as important as what sucks. Otherwise is a recipe for insanity and more OCD than the normal university bullshit.

    Besides which, while you really *should* get over it when someone is mean, if they’re accurate, it is also not the case that to be accurate one must be mean. I don’t know, the couple seconds it takes me to phrase something more like “This could use substantial revision because it is totally unclear” than “this sounds like you don’t even believe your bullshit” is minimal.

    There’s no reason to toss out good advice no matter what form it comes on. But as a reviewer, it is also not true that to be honest you must be derisive. Blunt, yes. And taking the time to stroke someone’s ego is often unnecessary/bullshit/annoying. On the other hand, if it’s your mentee, insofar as you can train someone to be less thin-skinned, you don’t necessarily have to do it all-or-nothing, Day One, with bluntness to the point of disregard for their feelings. You might be able to teach someone to swim by tossing them in ocean. To maintain that’s the only or best way to teach them to swim is sadistic “take your lumps I had to take mine so I don’t see why you should get a pass if I suffer everyone has to” bullshit.

  5. Phledge says

    Y’know, I’d kill for good, uncensored constructive criticism. As a fourth-year med student I get two kinds of feedback:

    1) Personality-based bullshit (“talks too much,” “cares too much about her patients”–yep, not making that up, “wants to be involved in conversations”), some of which probably has hierarchal economics built into it (I’m an opinionated, outspoken woman; that doesn’t fly with some attendings), OR

    2) Happy shiny unicorn farts (ie oh you’ve been our BEST STUDENT EVAH and oh you have great fund of knowledge, whatever the fuck that’s supposed to mean) that make me feel good but don’t really surprise me or give me insight. Also they make it hard for me to fit my head in my car.

    Look, I know there’s room for improvement–there has to be. The only way is up, people. So which direction is it? Everyone who gets feedback like that to which CPP is referring should thank their fucking stars that they have someone who gives enough of a shit to take the time and effort to call it like they see it.

  6. namnezia says

    Phledge:
    You know, I’ll take all the happy shiny unicorn farts I can get. After all, they do fart rainbows, don’t they?

  7. says

    “none of this fucking molly-coddling “it was reaaaallly good, but could use some minor improvement””

    Being taught to be feminine your whole life made me talk like that for a long time.

  8. says

    Being taught to be feminine your whole life made me talk like that for a long time.

    It has been rightly pointed out to me that various sorts of privilege I enjoy permit me to both speak very bluntly and to feel comfortable being spoken to very bluntly. It is a discussion worth having whether those who are less privileged should be expected to “just sack up” with respect to these matters.

  9. says

    They should not necessarily be expected to “just sack up”. They should expect repeated and kindly mentoring from their enlightened PI and/or colleagues to the effect that “this is not a personal attack” in an attempt to partially make up for a lifetime of conditioning.

  10. says

    One of the more valuable experiences I’ve had–as a woman operating in arenas that were mostly male, for most of my life–was playing sports. I observed that, by and large, men (and presumably women; I mostly played sports w/ men, too, because no other women played the sport I played where I played it) play really fucking hard against each other, while in the sports arena, and then go have a beer with each other. It was a valuable object lesson in “it’s not personal.”

    At the same time, as someone who is quite blunt–and I am comfortable speaking bluntly and being spoken to bluntly–I also note that it is not behavior that is generally regarded as appropriate for females, and I have had to search for arenas where my bluntness was appreciated. Either that, or I end up having to do a lot of fucking handholding, which makes me want to smack someone.

  11. says

    In my not inconsiderable experience as a manager and executive, I have to say that a spoonful of honey makes the medicine go down. Of course, I’ve spent my career in the private sector, and, as the saying goes, they expect results. Results evaluated and measured in days and weeks, not years, and there ain’t no such thing as tenure, even for senior executives.

    I’m fortunate in that I’ve been an engineer my whole life, and engineers in general have very little patience for bullshit domininance-submissive games. Indeed many of us are so socially… differently-abled… that they don’t even pick up on d/s games. Managing engineers is like herding cats, and the secret is that you don’t try to herd them: give them the right feedback and incentives and they’ll do what’s necessary on their own.

    I’m also fortunate that I’m a really fucking good engineer. I don’t miss much, and when someone does point out something I missed, I can usually see it right away.

    There’s a difference between being *direct* and being *rude*. When dealing with subordinates, I try to be as direct and unambiguous as possible about what I want, that I want it, and that as the boss I expect as a matter of course that I will get it — unless you take your one shot and persuade me otherwise. When dealing with peers, the quality of the work is their responsibility, and their superior’s, not mine. I’m happy to make suggestions, but it’s their baby, not mine.

    That being said, the people that I supervise appreciate sincere positive feedback. If, overall, the work is really great, and it needs a few tweaks, I’ll say exactly that: “This is brilliant; it needs a few tweaks and it’ll be perfect.” If it’s not really great, I’ll say at least, “Well, that’s a good start…”

    If it really sucks pond water, I’ll say, “This task does not appear to be within your range of competence yet. We need to see what we can do to get you up to speed or on a more suitable task.” And that only after I’ve looked to my own instructions and expectations to make sure that I myself could not have done a better job: at least half the time when I’ve received inferior work, it’s been completely my own fault.

    I expect courtesy, politeness and ordinary respect. If my peers or superiors can’t manage that, I’ll try my luck at the business next door. And I know that if I myself can’t manage it, my superiors will courteously, respectfully and politely make me try my luck next door.

    Of course, I’m dealing in an environment where people can and do easily move around. I’m not dealing with a student who has to succeed or blow $100,000 in student loans. I’m not dealing with people whose results cannot be measured in time-scales shorter than years. I’m not dealing with people who have tenure. Things may well be much different in such an environment. Indeed one of the reasons I didn’t get a formal education is that the academic environment creeped me the fuck out. YMMV.

  12. says

    One of the things I notice about myself is that at work, I’m a super nice guy. My peers typically like me and respect my work, and my subordinates think I’m the Best. Boss. Ever. and I consistently receive superior work. And I myself deliver superior work to my superiors and usually get along well with them.

    When I blog, however, I’m a gigantic fucking asshole. (I’m trying to mitigate this tendency, not because it’s “wrong” or “bad”, but because it’s exhausting and futile.)

    The difference, I think, is that at work I’m always part of a project; we’re all there to deliver tangible results that can be measured and evaluated, that will objectively succeed or fail. If we don’t start out with the assumption of good will and mutual cooperation we’re fucked right then and there, and no amount of psychological bullshit is going to fix it.

    When I blog, there’s no way to measure results. There’s no assumption of good will. I stopped talking directly to Christians because it’s simply pointless: pretend as they might, they simply do not want to listen to reason. The only thing that has a chance of working is bullying, castigating and pounding one’s shoe on the desk, and that really takes it out of me.

  13. Phledge says

    Barefoot, thanks for this. I’m glad to know that someone, somewhere out there, actually knows how to give suggestions, criticisms, and encouragement without being a douchebag. I think you’re right that different environments will play this differently.

    Of course, I’m dealing in an environment where people can and do easily move around. I’m not dealing with a student who has to succeed or blow $100,000 in student loans.

    AAAAAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!1!!1! Change that “one” to a “three” and you’re a little closer to my total indebtedness after med school. Not to mention the fact that if I fuck up later on I might, oh, kill someone. I lose levels of safety nets as I go…

  14. Isabel says

    I was toughened up at a competitive art school. The critiques there can be brutal.

    Currently I have an advisor who can be straightforwardly critical but also very complementary other times. Even when he is critical I don’t mind; “Your talk was great except that you were looking at the screen the whole time” is at least helpful.

    I also have a socially inept lab mate who is very blunt with his criticism and I have learned to appreciate it. Honest criticism is hard to come by.

    DM how is “kindly mentoring” going to help toughen women up?? Also we can’t ignore the complicating fact that women are criticized more in society and get away with less, so are perhaps more sensitized.

    For example all the women around here are apparently charmed by CPP’s behavior, even when he does wacky things like policing the feminist blogs, while I am unfairly viewed as crazy!

  15. says

    I am unfairly viewed as crazy!

    You really are crazy, Isabel. I don’t know how to put it more kindly.

    Never mind the content of your commentary (which is crazy, by the way); consider only the fact that you stay in a venue where you are held in almost universal contempt. Even if you were sane and all the rest of us were crazy, it would be as crazy for you to hang out here as it would be for me to hang out at Stormfront or RaptureReady.

    At the very least, you might have SIWOTI syndrome.

  16. says

    I am unfairly viewed as crazy!

    You really are crazy, Isabel. I don’t know how to put it more kindly.

    Never mind the content of your commentary (which is crazy, by the way); consider only the fact that you stay in a venue where you are held in almost universal contempt. Even if you were sane and all the rest of us were crazy, it would be as crazy for you to hang out here as it would be for me to hang out at Stormfront or RaptureReady.

    At the very least, you might have SIWOTI syndrome.

  17. becca says

    “They should not necessarily be expected to “just sack up”. They should expect repeated and kindly mentoring from their enlightened PI and/or colleagues to the effect that “this is not a personal attack” in an attempt to partially make up for a lifetime of conditioning.”
    Oh, sweet DM. It’s so cute that you think kindly mentoring from enlightened PIs and/or colleagues actually counteracts the conditioning… that ‘enlightened PIs and colleagues” are usually perpetuating.
    One reason I think grad school is a pain was all the “your rules are not our rules” attitude I encountered. It doesn’t matter if you’re tough and can dish shit out- that gets you nowhere REAL fast if you’re a girl. On the other hand, the pressure to take shit is enormous, and one of the methods people try to get you to do so is to pretend they can “kindly mentor” you into a thicker skin.
    Mind you, some of the *outcomes* of learning to keep my damn mouth shut and take the criticism has been really good- I’ve actually gotten much better at getting through the emotionally-damaging distractingly vague attacks and focusing on the constructive stuff.

    However, once you’ve actually encountered a really supportive and healthy environment. Once you’re used to a bit of honey to accompany the medicine, [and perhaps more importantly, once you learn to *give* feedback that way (and enjoy the pleasure of really getting through to people and being able to help them)], it’s really REALLY hard to see the whole “let us help you get a thicker skin” ‘kindness’ as anything other than “don’t disrupt the status quo; being an asshole is working for me and you’ll get to be an asshole too if you ever get to be a PI” bullshit.

  18. Isabel says

    “a venue where you are held in almost universal contempt”

    There you go again, speaking for everyone. Who holds me in contempt?

    “I don’t know how to put it more kindly”

    Spare me your “kindness.” And what is crazy about anything I have said? Please be specific.

    I have asked this before and you can’t come up with one example! And how do you know how others feel about me?

    “Even if you were sane and all the rest of us were crazy, it would be as crazy for you to hang out here as it would be for me to hang out at Stormfront or RaptureReady”

    This makes zero sense. I don’t think you are crazy. And why would I hang out at those places? Where did you get the idea that I would enjoy such a thing?

    It sounds like you are the crazy one.

  19. Isabel says

    “It doesn’t matter if you’re tough and can dish shit out- that gets you nowhere REAL fast if you’re a girl.”

    It might even get you a “crazy” reputation. :)

  20. Isabel says

    “I’m trying to mitigate this tendency”

    Apparently it’s not possible since you are still being an asshole.

    And since we are diagnosing each other I will in turn diagnose you with “Internet Cop Syndrome.”

  21. says

    1) sometimes one really *is* an asshole and can use some seasoning in normal social restraint within context. even if a woman, even if nominally an adult. I’m not saying you are or are not an ass since I do not interact with you in a lab setting, but it is worth pointing out a general reality.

    2) “your rules are not our rules” is LIFE. every stage of life, professional or otherwise, has different consequences for a given behavior. if you don’t understand that…..whew, good luck to you.

    2) you know your last bit totally undercuts whatever point you are trying to make in the rest of it, right?

  22. Isabel says

    Sorry DM that all went right over my head? What last bit? What is my point? What rules? On this blog there are rules? I don’t understand what about rules?

    And you can assume my behavior in my lab is no more related to my on-line behavior than PP’s is.

    And it does sound like you are calling me an ass. Thanks.

  23. Isabel says

    That is if you were talking to me. Maybe that was for Becca? Does the lack of another indent mean that it was for the person above me? On second thought that seems logical. :) If so, I take it all back.

    Hey PP, what’s with the threaded comments – weren’t you just dissing them on IBTP?

  24. Isabel says

    Yeah asshole, I got it.

    But why did you bring up those places? Because they are the opposite of you hanging out here? How does that in any way compare to me being here? How are my interests and values opposed in a similar way? Learn to write. Instead of just making sarcastic comments.

    You JUST SAID you were going to stop being an asshole and then you responded like a MAJOR asshole.

  25. yep says

    I agree with Phledge. I know that I desperately need criticism of my work to reach my potential/improve/etc. And while the inner wince is natural, I’ve made the greatest strides after my work being criticized thoroughly (harshly?) by people that were willing to take the time to spell out what the problem was. But I am talking about criticism of MY WORK not, for example, some vague criticism of my personality. Tell me my paper sucks, my proof sucks, I forgot to check the other case, how does this relate to blah blah blah. If you’re feeling generous, tell me why it sucks. Do NOT waste your time and mine by making pronouncements about my personality and ascribing emotions, etc. Criticism is useful. Ridicule described as criticism is not.

  26. says

    I think that the amount of niceness that is intended is just about the same, so maybe just assuming that they mean something a lot harsher is usually a safe bet. Saying something without the fluff seems like cruelty, adding sugary crap to criticism is the baseline level of niceness needed to express an opinion and retain femininity. I think most women are used to making this mental adjustment upon hearing criticism from other women. The compliment sandwich is almost a formality instead of having any real meaning to recipients of it. This is likely the source of the ‘women take everything the wrong way’ meme, the language needed to bluntly say terrible shit is culturally off limits to women who need to retain femininity (like in many work places). In addition to making communication into some weird game instead of a genuine exchange of ideas it kinda robs the meaning of genuinely pleasant words.

  27. Anonymous says

    “Ridicule described as criticism is not.”

    I totally agree. However, as a novice mentor/reviewer I appreciate on some level how hard it is to avoid throwing in the other crap when you are really frustrated with another’s behavior.

    That’s why we hear that crap all the time from people giving “criticism” and its up to us to filter out the hurtful crap and try to use the good stuff to our benefit.

  28. Isabel says

    Yesterday a labmate made a comment/request that did not sit well with me, even though she insisted it wasn’t a criticism of me -“we were all doing it”- and she smiled in a super-friendly way throughout the conversation. It made me feel judged and resentful and yes, defensive. I brooded about it all day – is it just my ability to take criticism? I was just bragging about my ability to take it!, but when I finally told someone about it they agreed with me that the person was out of line.

    For the second time in about a year, this person has “reminded” me that when undergrads are in the lab we have a responsibility to be role models and should be careful about our speech and behavior. Last time it was because I was chatting openly about something to do with cannabis (general remarks, nothing specific) and this time I was making offhand remarks about not being prepared for my Ta’ing duties that day (apparently- I don’t even remember the conversation). Both times my remarks were brief and I wasn’t referring to specific people or trying to engage her students in conversation or anything that could be construed as weird.

    She agrees I said nothing actually inappropriate. So who is she to police my behavior when her students are around?

  29. Isabel says

    And just to be clear, the past cannabis conversation was not about use, mine or anyone’s, or promoting use; it was something about legalization or plant chemistry or something along those lines. And I have undergrad assistants also, and know how to maintain boundaries and mutual respect. But I think she is extreme, I mean these are adults we are talking about.

  30. becca says

    1) Generally, there’s a fair amount of evidence one’s biases influence outcomes in interpersonal interactions… people tend to perform toward expectations. An expectation that someone can do much better than they are, and assistance is getting them there, has significant utility. Even if you have to point out they are totally screwing up (and that applies whether it’s interpersonal skills, bench skills, scientific writing, or anything else).
    Treating them as an irredeemable asshole, however, is generally more an exercise in destructive venting.

    2) But, it’s not FAIR! He took my TEDDY BEAR!
    /labyrinth quote.

    I know the rules aren’t the same for everyone. I can deal, even if it sometimes irks my instinctively egalitarian soul.
    I adapt pretty well with explicit rules, and have not had significant troubles with implicit rules in many social contexts.
    However, it seems to me that a lot of times, when women and men are treated very differently for the exact same behavior, a woman in a male-dominated workplace can only know how she isn’t supposed to behave by getting it wrong. I am not just talking about my own personal issues here, but a more general trend.

    2 (again)) You are not an asshole. That said, I might feel like an asshole if I behaved like you in some contexts, and maybe the problem isn’t with my feelings.

    If I may simplify a little, it seems your position is that women sometimes need help adapting to the rules of the game currently in play in order to advance their careers. The underlying goal- to advance women’s careers- is admirable in it’s own way. I respect you for that.

    Furthermore, I think you are aware that it’s not that women are socialized “wrong”, or even “wrong for doing science”. They are sometimes socialized “suboptimally for advancing their careers in science”.
    What I’m saying is that what some people seem to advocate as necessary for career-advancement in science (e.g. that administering non-evidenced based opinions of each others work MUST occur in a non-candy coated and insensitive way) is not only difficult for women because of socialization, but difficult for many people (maybe women particularly? I really don’t know) to be comfortable with for reasons of scruples OR concerns about efficacy.
    I’ve seen constructive criticism work. I’ve seen good leaders. They just haven’t been in labs. Not that I haven’t seen really decent people in leadership positions in labs, either- just that something about the lab context makes a lot of people go a little wonky when it comes to actually being as nice as they are usually trying to be.

    “But I am talking about criticism of MY WORK not, for example, some vague criticism of my personality.”
    This is a very important distinction. People who are scrupulous enough to try to do the former and not the later, and effective enough communicators to get that attitude across, are worth their weight in gold. That’s my aim, though I may not be very good.

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