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Learning to not take criticism personally

Learning to not take criticism personally is one of the most liberating and productive things you can do for yourself and your career.

In grad school, I learned how to take criticism for what it is.

Photo by Anthony Ginsbrook on Unsplash
By the time I was in my third year of graduate school, I was in my fourth research group.

I had basically ended up devising my own lab rotations and thanks to my perseverance coupled with department support through teaching assistantships, I was able to find the right fit for my Ph.D.

I started in the research group where I got my Ph.D. at the beginning of my second Summer in grad school.

Ideally, you take the candidacy exam during your second Summer and once you pass that you start getting paid as a research assistant (as your tuition goes down.) 

Obviously, this did not happen in my case as I had just started in this group.

During candidacy, you could be asked any question that is pertinent to the larger field that your research group falls under.

That was particle astrophysics in my case.

I had never taken a particle physics class at that point.

Thankfully, with astrophysics, I was more familiar.

In the Fall that followed that second Summer, I ended up taking an awfully difficult class (quantum field theory), TA-ing for two pretty demanding astronomy courses, AND preparing for candidacy.

When, usually, students have six weeks to prepare for candidacy and only prepare for candidacy, I was also in a class and TA-ing.

If you didn't switch groups, you had Fall-Spring-Summer-Fall-Spring, that is, five semesters to get acquainted with your field so you could sensibly field questions during candidacy.

Since I switched into a new field, I had that Summer and the Fall to get up to speed.

Thankfully, all the stuff I had done before joining this new group was not a waste of time. It never is. 

Everything you do counts.

I was highly trained in grasping new topics and immersing myself quickly into new research projects.

I was giving my first talk at a group meeting within a few weeks of joining the group.

I would give a talk whenever I could.

During these talks, I would get bashed left, right, and center.

Not saying I always agreed with how criticism was given, but I took note of it all.

Literally, take notes. Write, write faster.

Sometimes there was so much criticism, I'd have another person (an ally) take notes for me because I'd be too busy trying to just survive the session.

It's not like I didn't get rattled by that stuff, but I didn't really have time to get hung up on it.

I had to go learn whatever I didn't know, and move right along.

Then I started to realize that the criticism had more to do with them than me.

Sure, I didn't know something. That was about me.

But, they really, really wanted to point it out, for whatever reasons.

Once I realized that people really do rather love giving feedback, it was very productive to take advantage of it.

It's like putting more people than just yourself to work!

I realized that getting a bunch of feedback from people did not mean that they thought I was stupid.

People don't even have time to think that many thoughts about you. 

They want to say what they have to say and get on with their day.

You just made them feel better, probably. 

Even if people did think I was stupid, my main goal was to learn the material which I was doing way faster with their help. 

If you don't give talks or show drafts of something, your collaborators can't give you any feedback.

They don't have a chance to go on a long rant about something that you are wrong about or missed.

A long rant from a knowledgeable person in the group could teach you lots of things! Especially, when you are new.

So, taking it as a personal attack, even if it IS a personal attack which it rarely is, does you no good.

You don't have time for that.

Lots of academics are terrible at communication, that's their problem. Not yours.

Use feedback to improve. To learn things you didn't know before.

If the next time you give a talk, they are complaining about different things than the last time, hey! You have made progress!

I passed candidacy with flying colors that Fall and became a research assistant the following Spring. 

At the end of the Spring, we were told that the mission/experiment I was working on was approved for launch at the end of that year.

That Summer and Fall, I played leading roles in mission-critical projects, traveled to and worked in Texas, Hawaii, and Antarctica!

The projects that I led that year were all things I learned how to do that year.

Of course, things I had done before, including my undergraduate education and research came in handy - only, all the specifics of the projects were totally new.

The accelerated learning came from being very excited about doing new, awesome things AND from being able to take criticism for what it is.

It's really quite simple. When you get criticized, think about what you can do better, do better, and move on.

Once you understand that that's all there is to it, life is really rather simple and productive.

just a me by the colorado river


  1. In my undergraduate course of control system I have learnt that negative feedback improvises the system performance... From then onwards I have also taken criticism as negative feedbacks to improvise my performance.

    1. Wow, that's awesome!
      Thanks for sharing that!!

  2. A great lesson to learn! Could not agree more!


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