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How to thrive on academic criticism

Finding success in rejection.


Who among us has not internally screamed after receiving peer reviews that you thought were unduly harsh? We think these screams are part and parcel of learning how to publish. In fact, for those of us new to the process of academic publishing, responding to critical peer reviews from academic journals is arguably the most important skill for securing an academic job – and while many graduate students try to hide it, most of us in doctoral programs at least flirt with idea of becoming a professor.

Circumstances of the market now dictate that newly minted PhDs must have multiple publications before applying for academic jobs. While we personally have found success in academic peer review, it has come with a cost. We are often told having a thick skin is a necessary attribute in academic life, but we often forget that callouses don’t come without a lot of initial pain, screaming and healing (in periods of remission).

To develop these callouses, both graduate students and seasoned academics must learn to take, and respond collegially to, intellectual beatings. This skill is intrinsic to publishing our work and demonstrating our cerebral prowess to hiring committees and scholarly audiences. The problem is that graduate students are generally left to their own devices to learn how to shape their internal screams into something productive. Managing negative feelings, responding strategically to faceless peer reviewers, and tactfully negotiating supervisory and committee relationships are necessary skills in the academic game.

And so, after some careful planning, we developed and ran a workshop entitled “Using Rejection for Success,” endorsed by the department of sociology and anthropology and the educational development centre at Carleton University. The workshop was designed to get students thinking about the ways in which academic critique and rejection can be used as motivation for success, and how to productively tackle feedback from peer reviewers and faculty supervisors. There are two core learning objectives to the workshop. The first objective is affective: recognizing that rejection, and its associated negative affect, are necessary components of finding success in academia. The second is psychomotor: how to break down superficially intimidating criticism into smaller, manageable chunks.

To achieve these objectives, we organized the workshop into two parts. The first section involved circulating our own harsh reviews that elicited strong negative emotions. Participants were then asked: if this was a review about your own work, how would you feel? How would you go about responding to this convoluted, potentially offensive text in a clear and professional way? In the second half, participants broke into pairs and were encouraged to apply some of the strategies from the first half to their own work.

We intend to run this workshop again, having gained two key takeaways. The first is learning how effective shared vulnerability can be when it is enacted in a safe space. As graduate students are often professionally socialized in hypercompetitive environments, we advertised
Wand implemented this workshop as a place where students can lower the walls of constant and implicit social comparison.

We built this space, however temporary, through leading by example. We shared and distributed our own harsh reviews as case studies. The comments and support from our peers in this environment were very reassuring and showed others that it is OK to open up to their trusted peers about the criticism they receive. Creating these spaces of support is something that needs to be spearheaded not only by graduate students, but by faculty as well. They can help us by talking more openly about their experiences with finding success through rejection, and mentoring us through the valleys of criticism we receive.

The second, broader takeaway is that discourse around graduate student mentorship must expand to include how to prepare them to respond to critical commentary on their work. This is especially important for new graduate students, who have likely primarily experienced feedback as fleeting, written commentary in the margins of their papers. The hardest part about taking blunt criticism for the first time is that we are usually unprepared for it. Our workshop showed many students who are just thinking about the publishing process for the first time what to expect, and how to prepare emotionally and professionally for it. The readier we are for this marathon of pain, the sooner we will discover polite, professional and productive ways to respond to it.

Matthew Sanscartier and Matthew Johnston are both third-year PhD candidates in the department of sociology and anthropology at Carleton University.

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  1. Edward Crenshaw / June 9, 2018 at 10:32

    I agree with this, but I have noticed (at least in my own discipline) a serious erosion of peer-review quality. In the past I could generally count on one or two thoughtful and constructive critiques when I submitted to a journal, but these days I feel lucky if I get one. Increasingly, reviews are shorter, nastier, and sometimes inappropriate (e.g., where they simply disbelieve my results or assume they can read my motivations in presenting things in a certain manner).

    So, before we teach students “how to take it,” I suggest we teach them “how to give it.” Professionalism and scholarship too often take a back seat to partisanship, laziness and sloppy thinking.

  2. Loraleigh Keashly / June 13, 2018 at 13:16

    I agree with Edward. What is silent here is about how to deliver constructive critique. Some journals provide guidance on what makes critiques useful and how best to present that information. Journal editors can play a key role here in terms of educating reviewers about what is most effective. My broader concern is that by teaching people how to take it without also teaching them how to deliver critique constructively, we implicitly support a peer critique culture that is hostile and demeaning.

  3. Matthew Sanscartier / June 14, 2018 at 08:52

    I think these are great points. Certainly, the peer review system writ large is rife with declines in quality of critique and reviews. I think a companion workshop to the one we’ve described here would be the best venue for talking about delivering critique as opposed to taking it. And there is definitely something to be said about creating change from the bottom-up–i.e., new generations of scholars.

    We can’t forget, though, that to be a graduate student today (esp. doctoral student) is constant living in a hypercompetitive environment. Before we’re even in a TT job, we’re thrust into a publish-or-perish culture possibly without even knowing how to write a high-quality academic article. In terms of responding to reviewers, we’re largely on our own to learn this skill. So while delivering critique as an anonymous reviewer will be extremely helpful once we’re in TT positions (and occasionally beforehand), we have to think about even getting our foot in the door before we can take on this kind of luxurious mindset. Our workshop is a good first step for this–not where we should stop thinking about critique.

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