Thursday, January 31, 2008

Prickly People and your Project

Today I had a client all excited about her recent epiphany about the shape of her dissertation "Suddenly I know where everything is supposed to go," she told me.
"But," she worried, "what is my advisor going to say?"

We all have to worry about the responses we get from our readers. And, after all, we are writing to please our readers--whoever they may be.

It's worse, however, to worry about a professor who holds power over whether you get your degree. It's one thing if some random reader has an irrational response to your dissertation--if, for example, they blow it off because it doesn't completely agree with everything that you have said. But if your advisor rejects it for some irrational reason, that's quite another problem altogether.

We need to learn to divorce ourselves from the irrational criticism we get. If our professor reads our paper and tells us we're not good enough, we need to be able to separate ourselves from that critique--because accepting it doesn't get us anywhere, except maybe out of the program and out of academia.

If we want to persevere, we need to learn to play the personal and political angles of the people we're working with. What is it that the advisor wants? What is it that s/he is complaining about? Are they upset that you're not making enough progress? Are they upset because you don't agree with them, or are not adopting their new pet theory? Are they upset because their spouse left them or because their dog ate their computer (dogs no longer have such a good opportunity to eat homework, now that it's on the computer)?

What can you do to manage the people you're working with as people? Can you get farther by listening to and showing understanding of their critique without accepting it? Can you engage them in an academic discussion about the reason they want you to make certain changes?

Ultimately, you want to remove the personal element from the interaction as much as possible, at least when the personal interaction is strained. (For reasons that should be obvious, you don't necessarily want to remove the personal element, if the relationship is positive.) When faced with personal criticism, what can you do to help get the discussion back on to an academic plane?

I have no easy answer, sadly. Each person is different. But, for one, if you can control your emotions and think dispassionately about the situation, you can make a better plan.
It always helps, I think, to frame any response to difficult criticism in terms of the academic merits of the situation.
It also helps to try to open yourself to their reasoning: "I can't quite understand your objection here, could you clarify? " or "OK, so let's say I change that part, as you suggest, I'm not sure how that will work with this other part. Can you help me work this out?" People like to have their opinion solicited; and they like even better to have their ideas approved of. And if you can't accept, can you at least approve? "That's a great idea you have, and it might help with this concern that I had, but I also am concerned about meshing your idea with this part of my discussion here--what would you suggest?"

In worst-case scenarios, it might be best to try to find a different person to work with, but if you can work things out with the person who is causing problems that is often a simpler road than starting again with someone new.

Above all, when you get negative criticism about your work, don't take it as a personal attack (even if it is). Instead try to reframe your response (your emotional response) in terms of how the critique bears on your work, and on what might be causing that other person to be acting in a difficult way.

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