Attending events as part of your research is a great way to start getting feedback on your work, but equally opens you up to critique and perhaps some painful comments. Naturally this will happen, and this does not always mean you are doing something the ‘wrong’ way, but it can make your body feel like it is under attack. After having been through what I consider to be a brutal but very valuable feedback session at a doctoral seminar, I wanted to share a few tips and things that I have learnt to keep in mind for the future.
Receiving criticism can be painful, particularly given that it is on your project and most likely something close to your interests, or that you value. As you are the expert on the specific topic you are studying, it can feel like criticism towards you as a person. Remember, it is totally okay for you to open a discussion with the person if you are not sure where they are coming from with their remarks or if you disagree for certain reasons. If possible, it is good to do so in a calm manner, however this is not always easy and depends on the subject you are discussing.
Give yourself permission to defend your argument in the way you think you can get your message across to someone and convince them, as well as holding the integrity and passion you have. Although it can also be helpful to allow yourself some detachment in that you are unlikely to convince everyone with your argument. There is a reason why people often refer to your final thesis and viva as ‘defending your PhD’.
Maintaining an amount of detachment
Remember you are not your work. While in some cases of research your world view may shape your research, it is very helpful to separate yourself from your research knowing your work is not all of who you are and vice versa. Why is this important? It allows you to take time away from your work and return with a clearer mind, and it can help with greater response to critical feedback you receive as well as helping to being comfortable in accepting and rejecting feedback from others.
Taking anything you can see as helpful
Even if you feel the feedback and questions you receive are not ‘positive’, there is a lot you can learn from others. As a PGR, you have probably looked or are currently looking at ontology, epistemology, and the varying theories around where knowledge and viewpoints come from. For me, conferences and events make that a reality. In one room, you can have multiple people with the same perspective, or multiple people with different perspectives. It really depends on the day, subject, and event.
If you are in a situation where people just do not understand what you are trying to say, have a think about how you have communicated your work to that audience. Equally, this could reveal to you that you are doing some ground-breaking and very new research…so trust your gut for the long term as one day people will understand! To be clear, this does not mean you have to accept rudeness towards your work, but it can both show you the reality of a certain environment and also an insight into others’ perspectives, and where possible, how to win them over.
You are allowed to disagree with feedback
It is always important to remember that it is okay to also reject feedback that others may suggest, even if they are well-regarded or have been in academia for a long time. There could be multiple reasons as to why they are providing that feedback and remember, this is your research so while they may understand the area you are researching, you are the expert in your specific area within a topic. You may even get experienced academics asking you why you are not focusing on another specific area that to them is ‘more’ relevant when it is not your specific research problem and out of scope for your project.
Acknowledging the feedback that you are unlikely to use
There are also some ways you can address and acknowledge the feedback you are unlikely to take on board professionally and fairly. Phrases such as “I will take your thoughts into consideration” or just simply saying “thank you for your feedback” are great ways to express that you agree to disagree without telling the other party that they are completely wrong. This may not apply to all situations, however it shows that you can acknowledge other viewpoints without necessarily agreeing.
As a researcher, you will find that critical feedback makes you feel like you do not always fit in certain environments. It is good to be mindful and notice if this is either an opportunity for you to contribute to a highly saturated area of information or if this is just too much for you to experience right now. Either is completely fine and do make sure you allow some time to process and validate how you feel about an event you have presented at. Remember, you will find your target crowds to speak to, even if that is not apparent right away.