When you’ve made something yourself, whether it’s drawing a giraffe, baking a cake or writing a first-year-PhD report, it’s often hard to show it to someone and hear what they think about it. When you’ve spent time on something you want people to like it… unless it’s 100% just for you I suppose, but hiding your drawing forever, eating the entire cake alone or never submitting your report are maybe not the best ideas.
I’ve heard it said that advice is freely given but rarely taken, but in science we are constantly sharing our data with our colleagues and looking for ways to improve it, so taking feedback on board is really part and parcel of a scientific career. If you lived in a bubble of your own thoughts you would miss out on making your work a lot better, and I think that applying the scientists attitude of readily accepting feedback helps me to be better at other things too.
Recently I have been working on my report, trying to write up my seemingly haphazard experiments into a coherent narrative. I mean, everything I’ve done has been for a purpose but after just a year I don’t exactly have ‘findings’ so putting together something that feels meaningful was a little challenging. It’s also been a while since I wrote in a scientific way rather than for a general audience so I did feel a bit out of practice. I had a go though and put together a draft to show my supervisor to get some advice on improvements.
Recently I’ve also had a number of presentations and lab meetings, showing this data and explaining my work. People can point out flaws, ask for more details and make suggestions on what you could be doing different. It’s an environment where people can and often should be blunt with their advice, there’s not a lot of time and people often know more than you.
What’s terrible about feedback is realising what you’ve done wasn’t quite good enough, and thus showing off your creation feels foolish. Especially when the feedback seems obvious – perhaps you forgot to add the neck on the giraffe, used salt instead of sugar in your cake or forgot that the results section isn’t just a list of chronological experiment but a story of your work. It can feel a bit embarrassing to say the least, though of course it depends on how the advice is delivered. If you’re made to feel stupid it’s pretty gut-wrenching, though I have to say that all the feedback I’ve received about my report and about my data has been delivered pleasantly and helpfully – it’s my own mind that says ‘what were you thinking?!’.
What’s wonderful about feedback is that it means you have the chance to be better. Learning to accept criticism as a useful tool will make you better at whatever it is that you’re doing. Hearing advice makes some people resistant and close their ears, perhaps saying that they know better or that the advice is no good anyway. But this defensive reaction could mean that they’re missing out on improving their artistic flair, their baking skills or their report-writing ability (or whatever it is they’re getting advised on!). Taking the funny feeling of not being good enough and turning it into a feeling that you will be soon makes it hopeful, not humiliating. Listening to enough advice could make you the best! (Then you can give the advice yourself). A quote from the wonderful Eugenia Cheng, mathematician, science communicator and baker extraordinaire, said that if you feel stupid for not knowing something before, it just means you are smarter now for knowing it! I try to keep this in mind.
So, I say, always listen to feedback and act on it… but that’s just my advice…