The care and feeding of critical friends


Getting critical feedback on your work is one of the most difficult things to negotiate, whether you’re just starting out as a scholar or have published and been applying for grants for years.

We know that academia requires us to jump through hoop after hoop, so finding good ways to deal with this process of receiving feedback and constructively moving onto the next stage can make life a lot easier.

Often, the feedback you receive on your work will be from gate-keepers and assessor types or senior researchers in your area, possibly even your direct manager. These are often authority figures from whom you need ticks of approval, and they may not be of your choosing.

The value of a critical friend

To make research life and your academic career easier, I’d recommend finding – and keeping! – good critical friends. The idea of critical friends is extremely well established in education circles, and most academics have them even if they may not call them that.

As researchers, we need critical friends at all stages, and for many aspects, of our careers. Chief Executives of organisations often need them, and some universities even ‘out source’ critical friends for you.

Critical friends are colleagues whom you trust to read your work (whether that work is a grant application, journal paper, promotion document or research report) and give you rigorous, constructive feedback. They are supportive and invested in helping you develop your track-record.

Every semester, I give a couple of workshops about publishing in journals and one of the things I find myself repeating is the importance of cultivating a strong group of critical friends. Participants variously nod in understanding, look concerned about the work involved in doing so (as they don’t have one at all), or are lost about how to get started.

I thought it might be useful to talk about some aspects in a bit more detail.

How do I find them?

There is no critical friend directory. Sorry.

The key is in the term ‘critical friend’. They are the colleagues who already make up your friendly acquaintance circles. They aren’t strangers. If you look around and can’t see anyone who could be your critical friend, it might be good to think further about the collegial networks you need to grow. There are many ways to get to know more people in your discipline and organisation. I’ve written about some of these ways previously (e.g. Networking that worksNetworking and other academic hobbies).

How can I tell if someone might be a good critical friend?

These are the main ways I know whether someone would be a good critical friend:

  • I like and trust them, and I trust their intellectual perspectives.
  • I feel they are honest and kind. They will not tell me something is great if it’s not. They may have major concerns about some aspect of what I’ve written but they won’t slay me with the critique; they will find a compassionate way to do it, offering suggestions for addressing these concerns or talking it out with me. In other words, they will consider my feelings.
  • I have, or am willing to establish, a reciprocal academic relationship with them. Having someone become my critical friend automatically means I would become their critical friend. It’s a two-way street. You can’t be all take and no give.

What can I do to keep my critical friends happy?

If you want to keep on friendly terms with your critical friends, these are good things to remember:

Always give people a thoughtful timeframe around the feedback process

Do not flick something to a critical friend if you need it back in a day or a few hours. Not only will you not get good feedback (rushed feedback is not the best feedback), you may well be burning that bridge. Having said that, some of your closer critical friends understand if things go awry once in a while and can give you a very fast turn-around on work. This is especially the case if you’ve done it for them in the past.

Reciprocity, reciprocity, reciprocity

I’ve said it more than three times in this post already and that’s because it sits at the heart of critical friendships. They are a group of people who are there for each other in academic endeavours. You don’t just tap people for a favour but otherwise have no connection to them. Cultivating a group of critical friends means doing right by them if they need similar assistance. Having said that, the healthiest of critical friend relationships – as with all relationships – are not run on a transactional basis. Keeping score is not a part of being a good critical friend.

Share the load

Don’t keep score, but be aware of how much you lean on your critical friends. Don’t over-use them. If you’re on the job market, for example, you’re probably applying to a whole bunch of things and may want a critical friend to look over your documents for different types of roles. If you have a healthy and relatively wide critical friend network, this may not be a problem as you can spread the work around a bit.

For those with smaller circles, however, it is good to consider when the crucial times might be that you need to call on people versus those times where it’d be nice but not essential. I’m not talking about referees here (who may or may not be part of your critical friend circle). If someone agrees to be your referee, they should already know what they’re in for if you’re on the job market!

Different critical friends can be better for different contexts. For example, I would lean on my more seasoned grant-applying friends for their take on my funding application and choose more discipline-focused others if I had a draft of a paper or book chapter.

Building a strong critical friend network takes time, and it’s a process that doesn’t finish. Having such a network is one of the joys of being a scholar and a valuable investment of your time.