The Sceptical Chymist | Speaking Frankly: Critically acclaimed

Published in Chemistry

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Frank Leibfarth is a graduate student trying to make his way through the academic maze. Find him contributing to the Sceptical Chymist or continue the conversation on Twitter @Frank_Leibfarth.

“If we charged a dollar per mistake, I’d be a lot richer after this presentation.” This was my advisor’s comment after my first group meeting presentation in graduate school. This did not instill confidence, but I didn’t feel too bad — mostly because of prior experience being the subject of criticism. I was a kicker on my college football team (the American kind), the one position where the game stops and everyone watches you succeed or fail. In a weird sort of way, this was somewhat of a relief. I always knew where I stood and I got used to taking criticism, sometimes with a not–so-constructive delivery.

After this, transitioning into the scientific arena was easy; everyone seemed so encouraging and uplifting when giving me suggestions. As I have progressed, however, I have not been satisfied. I want to be a better scientist (sometimes I must admit that too much of my self-worth is tied up in the discipline) and I want others to help me get there. Unfortunately, I have been intermittently frustrated with the congeniality of my elders. At times, I have specifically asked for criticism and still do not receive it.

Criticism is a necessary and inherent part of the growth and development of scientists. In fact, we have a number of built-in mechanisms for such criticisms, including the graduate qualifying exam, thesis defense, paper reviews, and grant proposals. Academia takes this mechanism to an extreme, with tenure being the constructive and/or destructive criticism that culminates in either ultimate job security or unemployment. From my point of view, the system seems set up to work well, with chances to evaluate and improve at many stages along the way.

In my experience, however, the process routinely breaks down when people don’t know how to properly give or take criticism. Further complicating matters, the simultaneous competitive and creative nature of our discipline makes criticism inherently subjective, leading to a sometimes under- or over indulgence in these decisive remarks. Lastly, in our international field, we always need to consider the approaches of different cultures toward criticism.

So how do we balance the difficulty in giving criticism with its necessity to our discipline? First, we must always remember that providing good constructive criticism takes effort. Whether reviewing a paper or sitting on a thesis committee, active engagement and significant time are required. More important, however, is an understanding of the intimate link between empathy and criticism. The scientific system is designed to improve our collective experience by improving the quality of our individual members. So be critical! Make my generation into great, thick-skinned scientists! But remember we all have our own insecurities and doubts, so show us the human side of science every once in a while.

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