The old saying goes that it’s better to give than to receive. With feedback, that is certainly true. When you give feedback, you are generously and dispassionately helping someone improve their work. When you get feedback, you are being personally attacked and repeatedly punched in the gut.
Intellectually, you know that feedback is how you grow as a scholar and how science progresses. But it still stings.
That never changes. What can change is how you respond.
Below, I use the five stages of grief as a metaphor for receiving feedback and provide some actionable steps to overcome those emotions and process criticism productively.
“The first reaction is denial. In this stage, individuals believe the diagnosis is somehow mistaken, and cling to a false, preferable reality.”1
When you first receive feedback, you may feel tempted to argue with your reviewer.1 Perhaps not in-person, but back in your office with your fellow grad students. You’ll say that they didn’t understand, or they didn’t read carefully. Resit this impulse. Instead, shut up and take the note.
Maybe that sounds a bit harsh, but remember two things. First, you are not an expert—yet. Your reviewer, on the other hand, has likely put in their 10,000 hours and has much more experience and knowledge. That means they are more likely to be right. Second, your reviewer has pointed out areas for improvement. Ignoring those points or litigating them isn’t going to make them go away. You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.
Ultimately, you do not have to do everything that is suggested, nor do you have to address every comment made. But those decisions come later. For now, accept that you might be wrong and listen with an open mind.
” When the individual recognizes that denial cannot continue, they become frustrated, especially at proximate individuals.”
Even if you’ve listened with an open mind, inside, you might still feel anger. How could they not see your brilliance! How could they do this to you! It is at this point, with emotions running hot, that you’ll want to do something, anything.
Don’t lash out, try to prove them wrong, or “show them.” Take a break. Put the comments away for a day or two and let the initial sting wear off. Work on something else. Then come back with a clearer head.
“The third stage involves the hope that the individual can avoid a cause of grief.”
Now that cooler heads have prevailed, review the feedback, piece by piece. Sort comments into categories—big vs small changes. Changes to the introduction, theory, analysis, etc. Changes that require writing vs changes that require data or analysis.
Here, you might feel tempted to bargain with your reviewer—you’ll do these five writing changes, but maybe you can find a way to dance around collecting more data. Or maybe you can send the article to a lower tier journal. Those decisions might be perfectly reasonable, but if you’re going to make them, think through their implications for the end product, not your to-do list.
“In this state, the individual may become silent, refuse visitors and spend much of the time mournful and sullen.”
Once you’ve made a list of changes, you might feel overwhelmed. You might want to give up on the project—put it into a drawer to come back to it later…or never. You might feel like you’re no good at this and that if you were better, you’d have gotten fewer comments.
Remember, it’s not about you; it’s about the work. The feedback is not an indictment of you as a scholar or an indication that the project is pointless. In fact, the feedback reveals the opposite. A deluge of comments means that your reviewer sees potential. They took the time to identify areas of improvement and provided suggestions for making the work the best it can be.
“In this last stage, individuals embrace mortality or inevitable future…”
There’s nothing left to do but get to work. To create the next, better version of the project. To accept that it was not perfect this time—and won’t be next time either. And to go through the process again.
Ultimately, feedback is a gift. Someone is taking time out of their day, away from their own work, to give you attention and advice. This is no small thing. As with any gift, accept it graciously and thank them.