Why does feedback hurt sometimes?



A letter to…My PhD student after her upgradeWell you did it. You got your upgrade. But from the look on your face I could tell you thought it was a hollow victory. The professors did their job and put the boot in. I remember seeing that look in the mirror after my own viva. Why does a win in academia always have the sting of defeat?

Yeah, it’s a funny business, I know.

We all have a deep, interior need for approval. But in this game, no-one will ever smile and give you a gold star. Instead you get “feedback”. We’re supposed receive feedback like a gift, but it feels like a rebuke.Few things are more agonising than a thorough dressing down of your work. Bear in mind that academics are never taught properly how to give feedback, which is why it’s such a slippery, contradictory, prickly process. As a PhD student, you’re not taught to receive feedback either, just to nod in acquiescence. Part of becoming a scholar is learning to receive feedback in a way that is constructive for you, not simply to please others. To make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. That kind of thing. Idioms have never been my forte.

So how to do that? Don’t ever import feedback wholesale, or promise to either. Think about it and see what works for you. Some of it will be really useful but a lot won’t or won’t make much sense immediately. I often find that feedback misses the mark somehow. Don’t ignore it because the comment seems misguided. Think about the processes your reviewer went through to misunderstand something. What can you do to make sure your readers don’t stray from the path? Point is some feedback might be relevant, some completely irrelevant, and some feedback might be slightly off-course. The key to feedback is that you need to work to put it to service to your work. It’s usually not a natural fit.

Personally, I try to remember that when people engage with me and my work, it’s a great compliment as they are giving me their free time and intellectual energy. Critical feedback is actually the best kind of feedback because it helps you grow. It’s exciting when someone has shifted their intellectual gears to understand what you’re trying to do and point out where you’re missing the mark. When a supervisor waves her hand and says great great great, you know they’re just shuffling you along. Sometimes an empirical or comparative or ‘what about…?’ question, is just filling in the time.

On the feedback spectrum, the very worst thing is silence. It means you didn’t provoke any thoughts at all.

Whenever I receive written feedback, I cast my eyes quickly over it. Inevitably there’s something that causes pain or anger but I try not to read the comments too intently. I immediately thank the person/editor via email and tell them how I much I appreciate their time and that of the reviewers and that I’ll think about it for a little while and get back to them.

This is a lie.

Instead, I brood, and gnash my teeth. I get angry and upset. I call it the grief cycle. I focus on the grieving and I don’t talk about the feedback or allow myself to form solid opinions about it. It might take days, weeks or months, but when I’ve finally emerged out of the other side, I open up the feedback and give it a proper read. When I’m really really ready, I open up a blank document and I number each piece of feedback and formulate a response to it. Point is, you need some time off from it before you can set your mind to stringing together that mish-mash of advice and suggestions to something that works for you.

It took me years to work out that doing a PhD is not just writing clever thoughts into chapters. It’s a personal endeavour that demands you rewrite your personhood too. You have to fortify yourself and manage that voice inside that tells you you’re no good. You have to build resilience. Resilience will help you go sober, and detox from the Pavlovian need for approval. Everyone has to work out what works for them in this regard but working on the emotional dimensions of your work, the emotions you generate about your work that determine how your work, is integral to actually finishing your PhD.

Here is a short summary of what my friends and I have done at various stages of the PhD and post-doc process to cope:

  • Bury yourself in self-help books, particularly those with a cognitive behavioural therapy element. Do the exercises in the book. Yes. Really.
  • Start seeking out post grad activities/workshops/writing groups etc. Make doing the PhD a social process, not you in a room.
  • That said, surround yourself with strong, supportive people who will rejoice in your success. Actively eliminate the vipers. They’ll slow you down.
  • Find a good mentor who is separate from your panel/supervision, and that might include someone with a PhD in the workforce. They will remind you that life is swings and roundabouts and lots of successful people spend years in the roundabouts.
  • Learn to prioritise your well-being. Working until 2am because you did nothing until 5pm is not prioritising your well-being.v
  • Take up meditation.v
  • Always exercise. Yes. Really. Everyday. Just do it.v
  • Develop a routine. Writing 10-12. Lunch 1-2. Seminar 2-3. Writing 3-5. Stick to it.

One thing that has been particularly helpful for me has been to draw parallels with others in the creative process. Every time you consume something – a song, a radio program, an editorial – remember that like your thesis it has been loved and laboured into being. That there’s so much work out there is something of a miracle. It speaks to the legions of people out there, who without spiffy titles, salaries, awards or clapping hands, give their all to a creative pursuit; a painting, a piece of writing that they labour from nothing into being. Feel wonder at their courage and determination and how they have given themselves up to the simple, grinding need to create. You are one of them now.

Finally, resilience comes when you realise that you have self worth. You have worth regardless of how that last piece of writing went. You have worth whether you get this PhD or not. You have worth simply because you are here and you exist.

Doing a PhD is hard. It’s supposed to be otherwise everyone would have one. It’s nothing like the study you’ve done before, not even a Masters. It’s supposed to break you and turn you into something else. In that way, we might think of it as a four year hazing. You’ll get through it and you’ll be a stronger and richer person for it but understand that scholarly work taxes your personhood. So as part of being a scholar, you have to devote some energy on working on yourself too.

Author Bio:This letter was written by an experienced academic at ANU to her PhD student, who had just presented his research to a review panel and was still licking her wounds.