Receiving negative feedback for something you’ve poured endless hours into can be absolutely soul crushing. Some people handle this better than others – are you the kind of person who can take it on the chin, accept the response and move on with your day? Or are you the kind of person who spends days or weeks agonising over every word of the feedback, questioning your own abilities as an academic? Read Annabelle Workman’s experience with nasty reviewers…
My heart skipped a beat when I saw the email in my inbox. Subject title: Major Revisions. I didn’t even bother with the pep talk, as intense anticipation to read the reviewer comments overcame me.
In retrospect, I wish I had taken a moment for that pep talk, not that it would have spared me much anguish. My heart was beating fast as I began to read the first reviewer’s comments. “If I understand this poorly written paper correctly…”
Any wind left in my sails quickly dissipated. I continued to read the tirade that criticised every aspect of my research, until a short laugh actually burst from my mouth. “I suggest an English language readability edit would be useful…” Could a native English speaker receive any greater affront?!
This was not my first paper, nor the first request for major revisions, but it was certainly my first experience with what I can only describe as unhelpfully critical feedback. My supervisors, all of whom were co-authors, were empathetic and reassured me that we had just chosen the wrong journal.
I tried to convince myself that I was managing to keep the comments in perspective – it was just one reviewer’s thoughts after all. I shared the experience with my PhD peers, in an effort to demonstrate that I was comfortable with the notion of being vulnerable and flawed. My peers all generously provided listening ears, gave sympathetic smiles, laughed and shared their own horror stories, and allowed me to rant for a seemingly endless period of time.
But the truth is, I was far from comfortable with being either vulnerable or flawed. It sounds so melodramatic, but I seemed to enter a period of emotional turbulence that resembled the seven stages of grief. I ran through the emotional gamut: shock, shame, anger, sadness, hopelessness. And in my heart of hearts, I knew why. The comments left an indelible mark because they reaffirmed my greatest fear and further entrenched a deeply held belief: that I wasn’t intelligent enough to be doing a PhD.
I eventually came to realise that the PhD journey is not just one of professional growth and development, but one of personal growth as well. While the reviewer’s behaviour was less than collegial, I understood that most people would be able to pick themselves up, dust themselves off and move on. My intense reaction to those comments indicated that this was actually about me. I had been avoiding the demons of inadequacy for as long as I could remember. Now it was time to dig deep and make a concerted effort to challenge them.
I notified the journal that we wouldn’t be revising and resubmitting the paper. After that, it took me a number of weeks before I could find the tenacity to pick up the paper again and think about revising it. It was as though it had become this filthy, embarrassing piece of rubbish – something that I was eager to personally distance myself from. But the PhD timeline doesn’t afford the luxury of ignoring a paper for an inordinate amount of time. To help me find the mental fortitude to progress the paper, I sent it to a trusted colleague – along with those nasty reviewer comments – and asked them to provide honest but sensitive feedback.
Next, I found myself a great psychologist. These feelings of inadequacy weren’t going anywhere without an intervention. I explored the work of Brené Brown, the renowned shame researcher, and concepts such as distress intolerance.
I’m still a work in progress, but as I get closer to submitting my thesis, I feel more confident that I am enough, and that I will successfully complete my PhD. Ultimately, I believe there are two major distinctions between me and the eminent academics I aspire to be: age and experience. The only way I can achieve those two things is to put one foot in front of the other and to continue to grow – professionally and personally – every day.
Annabelle Workman is in her final six months (she hopes!) of a PhD on climate change and health at the University of Melbourne. She is married with two young daughters, loves running, bike riding, going to the park and watching Play School. She is based at the Australian-German Climate and Energy College, and can be contacted at email@example.com.