Responding to Your Graduate Advisor’s Negative Feedback
Sent a draft to your advisor and got it back dripping with red ink? Does it mean that you should quit? Not at all! How, then, should you handle negative feedback from your advisor?Don’t take it personally. If your advisor is highly critical of your work, you should not take the criticism as an attack on your academic aptitude, intelligence, or abilities. It’s not like your advisor is reading your paper and simultaneously thinking, “Oh boy, what were we thinking when we accepted this clown to the program?” The fact that you were accepted speaks volumes about your academic capabilities. Therefore, every scrawled correction was made with the intention that you will improve your work—nothing more, nothing less.
Be grateful for your advisor’s time. Unfortunately, long gone are the days when students lazily stroll under the trees with Socrates and soak up vast amounts of knowledge. Today’s graduate advisors are busy academics who value their time. Consider how long it actually takes professors to tear apart a paper. For every minute they spent tearing apart your paper, they could’ve spent that time on their own research. If they didn’t care about you at all, they would ignore your work and let you flounder at your own expense.
Understand your advisor’s role. Your advisor’s role is to train you to be like them but better—either an academic or the industry equivalent. They need to be highly critical of you if they want to be confident of your work after you leave the roost. Put yourselves in their shoes. Would you want someone going out into the world as your representative if their writing was less than your expectations? No one wants to look bad, and neither does your advisor. Therefore, their job to push you to your limits.
No one—absolutely no one—is a perfect writer. You may feel like you’re a terrible writer given your advisor’s feedback. However, you should realize that even the best of the best can always improve. No one has ever reached perfection in writing, and no one ever will. So humbly accept your advisor’s feedback as an opportunity to improve your writing. You do want to improve as a writer, right?
Your advisor is nicer than reviewers. My advisor often joked that he was hard on students, because he wanted to prepare students for the cruel treatment of journal editors and reviewers. I can say from experience that he was right. Although his feedback was so harsh that it was comical, his comments were much softer than some reviewers who held nothing back when blasting our work. One of my advisor’s famous quotes on a student’s paper (…not mine…) was, “Reading your paper was like walking through a dark forest without a map.” This is a lot nicer than receiving a review that says, “There is no scientific basis for this study.”
It’s not in your advisor’s best interest to see you fail. Every time your advisor pushes you to your limits, realize that it’s all with good intentions. Your advisor looks bad in their department if several students flunk out of the program. They want you to succeed. In order to see you through to your goal, you will need to be pushed (often uncomfortably) to your limits.
How is/was your graduate advisor? Got any stories that you want to swap? How did you overcome the negativity and push through?