top of page

How to deal with critical feedback as a PhD student?

5 simple and practical steps


A "ping" goes off. A new email arrives in my inbox. It is my supervisor's feedback on the recently submitted part of my doctoral thesis. An uneasy feeling spreads: "What will the feedback be like?" "How much work will I have to do this time?"


I open the email attachment and take a quick look at the document: everything is in red and there are endless comments. "Whew." My heart rate rises, my hands get sweaty and the uneasy, bubbling feeling in the pit of my stomach gets stronger and stronger. My body switches to red alert. My thoughts start to circle: "My work is a disaster." "I’m fed up." "It's not good enough." "I'm not good enough."


Receive critical feedback

Does this story sound familiar to you?

Have you experienced these or similar moments of feedback?


As PhD students, we regularly receive critical feedback on our research, whether written or verbal. Unfortunately, it is mostly the critical comments that stick with us and drag us down. It is the long list of critical comments that not only calls our research into question, but also affects us on a personal level.


And that is not so unsual: It is in our human nature that we tend to focus on negative feedback, while the positive comments are quickly forgotten. This can be explained as an evolutionary response. Your brain is constantly scanning your environment for potential sources of danger that could jeopardise your survival. Although this may sound exaggerated in today's world, where sabre-toothed tigers no longer roam our surroundings, it is a deeply ingrained response. It is your brain's goal to keep you alive and protect you from any pain. You therefore perceive negative experiences with particular intensity and retain them in your memory in order to avoid similar painful experiences in the future. At the same time, the positive reactions become secondary and lose importance. This can also be described as the brain's negative bias, which results in a heightened emotional response to negative events–in this case, critical feedback.

 

So what can we do to deal better with critical feedback and avoid falling into a negative spiral of self-doubt and panic?

 

Below I present you 5 simple and pratical steps that will help you to deal better with criticism by using feedback as an opportunity for improvement and growth.


1. Take a step back If the feedback triggers strong feelings of stress or anxiety in your body (as in my case above), it helps to take a step back first. This will allow you to regain a sense of clarity and calm so that you can deal with the feedback constructively.

Since your brain perceives the critical comments as a potential 'threat', the stress response of your body is automatically activated. You go into fight or flight mode: you get angry, scared or just want to get away. Or you may find yourself in a state of complete overwhelm, in which you no longer feel you belong and hopelessness sets in. In either case, with your nervous system being in state of alert, your prefrontal cortex–the area responsible for logical thinking and reasoning–shuts down. By detaching yourself from the current stressful situation, you can return to a state of calm that enables you to think clearly and logically. Only then will you be able to openly recognise and accept critical feedback. Mindfulness exercises such as breathing exercises or meditation, a walk in nature, sport or simply a good cup of tea can help. Do what makes you feel good. If you receive the feedback in a direct conversation, thank the other person and allow yourself not to have to react immediately to the feedback. Perhaps you can leave the room for a moment or simply take 2-3 deep breaths. Do you want to learn more about how to deal with stressful situations? Do you want to learn about different techniques and tools for better stress management? Yes?! Sign up for my free newsletter and you will receive a free copy of my e-book Your Stress First Aid Kit - 12 tools & techniques to stress less during PhD.


2. Consider the intention Once you have regained a clear mind, think about the intention behind the feedback. "What is the aim of the person criticising me?" Your supervisor may simply try to help you improve your work and prevent you from making certain mistakes. Even if feedback is generally meant to be constructive, there are people who want to hit you on purpose. In these cases, however, the feedback says more about the other person than about you! You can usually recognise destructive feedback by rude, very direct and personal comments. As a rule, however, critical feedback should always relate to your work and not to you personally. It should be as specific as possible and non-judgemental. It is therefore better to concentrate on the constructive elements and recognise them as an opportunity to improve your work.


3. Clarify questions and discrepancies If you are not sure about some parts of the feedback, do not hesitate to ask questions. A simple "What do you mean by that?" can help you to better understand the criticism so that you can respond appropriately. Please remember that you are working intensively on your research topic and are therefore sometimes more familiar with the subject than your supervisors. So do not be afraid to express your opinion.


Handle constructive feedback

4. Tap into a growth mindset Embrace critical feedback as an opportunity to develop your doctoral research and your skills. See it as a constructive contribution that can help you to advance your research. Don't just focus on the negative points, but also remember the positive feedback and the progress you have already made. You probably owe your current status in part to feedback from previous situations. Concentrate on the progress and growth you will make as a result of the received feedback: "What is the hidden gift in this feedback?", "What can I learn/improve from it?"

5. Create an action plan Set clear goals for improvement: "What are my next steps?" If you are unsure how to proceed, get support. Discuss the feedback or open questions with colleagues, mentors or other PhD students. Sharing ideas can open up new perspectives for you. And sometimes, it is just nice to talk your worries off your chest.


 

If you have had adverse experiences with being criticised as a child, at school or at university, it is often very difficult to put these experiences behind you. If you now receive negative feedback during your doctoral studies, these memories are recalled (mostly) subconsciously. If you did not learn to deal with negative feedback back then, experienced rejection and developed negative beliefs around it, it is helpful to work together with a professional to let go and free yourself from these experiences. In this way, you can learn to deal with feedback in healthier ways and even benefit from it. Join me for a free 30-minute call to see how I can support you in dealing better with criticism.


 

References:

  • Ayres, Z. J. (2022). Managing your mental health during your PhD. A survival guide. Springer.

  • Dana, D. (2021). Anchored: How to Befriend Your Nervous System Using Polyvagal Theory. Sounds True.


32 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Comments


bottom of page