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The criticism that you’ll get

One of the things that I’ve been working on this term is to prepare my doctoral thesis/dissertation proposal. It’s a somewhat complicated document that must meet the requirements of the school, be in a grant application format (or close to it), and clearly explain what I plan to do. It’s a fine line between being too detailed, losing the audience in the process, and being too vague, leaving the audience with more questions than answers on what I’m going to do. To make it just a little bit more complicated, my project is not like that of the PhD students around me. The degree I’m seeking is a DrPH. It’s practice-oriented. It’s about taken knowledge that is already sitting somewhere and applying it to a public health problem. Other projects are about etiological research, which is finding the cause of things and putting that knowledge out there.

The first in a long line of things that will happen once I have made up my mind on what I want to do is that different people at the school are going to criticize my proposal. Then they’re going to criticize what I know and how much I know about epidemiology. And then they’re going to criticize my actual thesis work. It will be a long and arduous process, and it will involve a lot of criticism along the way. Some will be good, constructive, helping me become a better person and epidemiologist. Other will be petty criticism derived from insecurities or confusion. Still other will be meaningful criticism, but one that is not personal at all and may seem somewhat detached from any sort of emotion. Through it all, you will need to deal with the criticism that you’ll get.

Growing up, I had a very hard time taking criticism from my peers and the adults overlooking my work. This was in part from my own belief that I was really, really good at whatever it was that I was doing. Other times, I was frustrated by the pace of things. Because I get bored easily when things slow down or don’t move forward at all, I often lost my interest in whatever I was working on. By the time the criticism came, I had moved on to other things in my mind. So my not caring (as much) was interpreted as taking the criticism poorly.

The older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve learned that criticism is just one of those things in life that we have to live with for a variety of reasons. There are people who plain just won’t like you, and that’s okay. They will criticize every single little detail of whatever you put in front of them. They may do so because of personal reasons against you or because of personal reasons within them. They may be the perfectionists, the ones wanting to prove to themselves that they are better than you. Thus, their criticism will — in their minds or in reality — bring you down a few notches, so to speak.

Then there are the people who do like you and care about your success. Their criticism will be aimed at making whatever you proposed be the best that it can be. It may be harsh at times, or harsh to take, but it’s all in your own best interest. They see your success as their own, and theirs as yours. Sometimes they’ll be good at articulating their concerns with your work and their criticism will be very much palatable. Other times, however, they might be bad at giving you feedback and end up sounding (or reading) like jerks. This may sometimes make it hard to distinguish between the people who like you and the people who don’t.

In some instances, you might come upon a third kind of person who will criticize your work. This person is someone who is doing it as a job and really has no time to make things any clearer when they tell you if your work is good or bad, or in between. I’ve come across such people in the few editors that I’ve dealt with. They have to look at what you’ve written and decide if it’s good or bad. Some will give your work a glance and deem it to be of poor quality. Others will analyze your work in its entirety and then still give you only superficial feedback. It is this last kind of people whose criticism you should take the least personally. They’re doing it as a job. It’s nothing personal; it’s just business.

In the end, you’re going to have to grow up and learn to live with criticism because that is the only way that you will grow in whatever you’re doing. Contrary to what you may think, you’re not a natural-born anything. Even the most talented people need coaching, and criticism of your work is a form of coaching. You can be a really good epidemiologist and know how to design and implement all sorts of studies and accurately analyze the results, but it can all be worthless if you can’t write worth a damn. On the other hand, you can be an excellent (some say prolific) writer, but you’ll fall flat on your face if you can’t put epidemiological things together in a coherent manner.

Yes, there will be those who get some sort of pleasure out of being mean in their criticisms of your work. Or, if they don’t get pleasure from it, something in their lives has taught them that being mean and over-critical works. Either way, that criticism should be the last in your list of things to address. (Make sure the list is in Arabic and not Roman numerals, by the way.) Address the criticisms of those who are not invested in your project, like editors and others who criticize for a living. Then address the criticisms of those who care about you and have shown you respect in your thoughts and ideas. Then address the criticisms of those who, although they seem to be mean about it, want you to succeed. And then, in the end, if anything is left, address the criticisms of those who nit pick… Spending as little time as possible with those.

Trust me, you’ll be better for it. And you’ll be a better person that the one I used to be, the one who’d take criticism badly and just walk away from a project because others disapproved of it. Stick with it. What others offer in the way of criticism may be the best advice you ever got.

And I’m serious about the numerals. 😉

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René F. Najera, DrPH

I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
About History of Vaccines: I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, a project of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Please read the About page on the site for more information.
About Epidemiological: I am the sole contributor to Epidemiological, my personal blog to discuss all sorts of issues. It also has an About page you should check out.

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