Developing Thick Research Skin?


I am very sensitive to perceived criticism and I think I need to develop a thick research skin. I'll be presenting at a couple of conferences / research groups this summer and I'm a bit nervous. I already freeze / get angry and defensive / fall apart when my work is under attack. Especially as I know there ARE problems with my work that I need to fix. Deep down I know this is just a natural part of academia and I need to get over it. Does anyone have any tools / techniques / tips for dealing with criticism without feeling like you're under attack?


I understand that completely - I feel the same way.
I've had some horrendous experiences in my university recently which have given me a WHOLE different insight into how academics operate. Here's my tuppence worth:
1 - Academics have massive egos and like to hear the sound of their own voice
2 - There are all sorts of crappy politics going on behind the scene and sometimes one academic can be point-scoring against another academic (who is your supervisor) through you.
3 - Anything an academic says is designed to boost their own profile etc
4 - An academic always has to say something. If they're on a panel etc then they're going to say something. Even if it's the best work in the world they're going to find something to say which will usually be critical or incorporate some research of their own so as to impress all the other academics!!!!!!!!
My suggestion - if you know what the problems are try to figure out how to fix them. Don't worry too much about these idiots.
Don't take it personally - we are all nervous in these situations. Just stay positive and keep on going!!!!!!!!!!! 8-)


Hey Cornflower! I've found it difficult to deal the influx of feedback at times throughout my PhD, whether it's from my sup, journal reviewers' comments, whatever. With my papers submitted for publication I've had 4 revise and resubmit verdicts, so I've had an awful lot of 'constructive criticism' to get through! Although all four papers were accepted in the end, it is a bit soul-destroying to read through all the comments. I think you have to remember that most of the time, it will make your work stronger. I have also learnt that if you don't agree with the comments and you can put together a good argument as to why not, then it's okay to not agree. For all of these 4 papers, whilst I was able to incorporate most suggestions, there were changes that I refused to make because I did not agree with them, and that did not prevent my papers from being accepted. I've been quite lucky at conferences, because I've only even had 'nice' questions. If there are problems that you know need fixing then I would just present them in a 'limitations' slide before anyone else has the chance to point them out, but don't dwell on them too much. And I think it does get easier with time. Reviewers' comments don't really bother me that much any more, unless they say anything really ridiculous- I am actually more sensitive to my supervisor's feedback, because that feels more personal! Also remember- feedback happens to the best of the best in the research world. Even professors have to deal with negative feedback and suggestions, and have people tear their work apart at conferences or in the peer review system. So you are not alone! Good luck with the conferences! KB


Hi Cornflower. This is something we all have to measure ourselves with. I do not share the completely negative outlook proposed by Sharkbait
though. Aside from politics and personal games, there are a lot of people who are doing their job well and who genuinely believe in what they do.

I have been lucky on this respect, because I had the chance to present at PG seminars in my department at the very beginning of my research, and as I was the only "expert" in my area, comments were only generic. Later, I presented at international conferences, with real experts in my field, and that was more frightening. But I have to say, that I never had bad experiences. It did happen once, that a member of the audience asked me a question that undermined my paper. This obliged me to do more research, and I developed an aspect of my thesis that I would have not thought of otherwise.

You occasionally meet people who want to sound "clever" and argue against your points just for the sake of it, but you can easily close these type of discussions with: "Thank you for this very interesting point of view. It is something I intend to look at in the future...". You are at the beginning of your PhD if I remember well, and you are not expected to have all the answers and all the solutions already in place.

Even established academics are subject to criticism, and I think that it is something that we should learn to perceive as enriching and not limiting. 


You need to develop a thicker skin, and it's not easy, but it can develop naturally over time. You're going to get tougher and tougher feedback the further you get through your PhD. And if you go on to an academic career it only gets harder. For example peer review on academic journals, as Keenbean says, can be really really tough to take.

Personally I think speaking to a university counsellor would help. But there are also some techniques you could try yourself. For example stop viewing the criticism as a personal attack against you. You've used the word "attack" yourself, but it isn't really like that. It's usually an attempt to make your work better. Academics are also interested in discussing and exploring questions in general, and often take what you've said as a prompt to explore a wider issue.

And when you get written feedback, for example from your supervisor, leave it to one side for several days if you can. Then when you look at it it's likely to be less upsetting, seem less like a personal attack on you (there's that word again!), and more constructive criticism to help.

But you really need to get on top of this issue. It is likely to become a bugbear over time if not.


Like presenting itself, it only gets easier the more you do it. Striking a balance between being humble and defensive is also important in my opinion. Though no-one likes a loudmouth, I've seen PhD students in discussions where they were technically correct back down in deference to a senior academic who knows less about their research than they do. This is completely understandable, but something I would be less likely to do now that I am near the end of my PhD. Obviously some comments are fair even if they sting a bit, or you may not be sure whether they are really correct or not. Employ some diplomacy and say that you will note and consider it in the future or something similar.

Finally, breathe. Don't freak out. No-one's going to eat you, or throw you out into the street. I know this is generic advice, but try and see the positive side. Be thankful that you have the opportunity to discuss your work with people who have an interest and are informed enough to make sensible comments.


I also tend to panic or become defensive when my work is being criticised but often can think of a much clearer, calmer justification of my approach when the moment of stress is passed. If that's the case with you and you feel that you really haven't done yourself justice in answering a particular question you could try approaching the person who spoke to you in one of the breaks and saying that you've been thinking more about what they said and.... Then at least you could feel that you had done your best by your work and you might get an interesting and useful conversation from it - even if they still disagree they are likely to expand on their reasons more in a one-to-one situation.
Good luck with the conferences, its a success even to have a paper accepted.


Hi Cornflower,

I think you raise an important point and my experience echoes some of those below. Occasionally comments appear to be made in questions folowing presentation that do not appear to have much point beyond someone being seen to have their voice heard.

It can be difficult to hear comment or feedback that appears to be critical of our work - however this is part of the academic process. We both have to be able to defend what we are doing and the way we are doing it from a scientific stand point and we have to be seen to be aware of the limitations of our work.

Finaly rather than seeing critical questioning / feedback as negative it may help to be welcoming of it, especially in the earlier stages of a project. Addressing or acknowledging potential issues at this stage can help us produce a more robust output (results, conclusions and publications).

I am not sure about thick skin but developing the ability to assess the utility of any feedback and having a sence of perspective when taking it onboard would appear helpful.

Hope this helps a little.



All good advice on here! Remember--you are not your work. So when a comment is aimed at your work, remember it is not about YOU. Try to get some mental distance between yourself and your work. As people have posted on here, this just takes a lot of practice and experience to do.

Take what other people say with a pinch ( or an entire shaker) of salt. Their comments may be rubbish, so do not take them to heart. They may be trying to shine a light on themselves ( limelighters--a conference nightmare--those whose "question" becomes a presentation unto itself!) or badly informed, or threatened ( academic self confidence can be shaky and the feeling of being threatened by someone new might motivate mean comments) by your knowledge and confidence.

There are thankfully some good and constructive academics who can offer helpful insight. Remember opinions are just that, and you should carefully think over any feedback to see if it is relevant and helpful or better off discarded.

If someone is being terribly rude in a conference or other setting, just give a polite smile, and say, "Those are very interesting points, but I think we should just agree to disagree for now, and perhaps move onto another question."


======= Date Modified 27 May 2011 11:01:12 =======
Like the others have said think of it as constructive criticism and suggestions on how to improve.  Your confidence will improve as you progress through it so it will feel less like an "attack" unless you get an academic who is out to score points! It's about being able to answer questions about your work and getting feedback - so it's ok to say "That's a good point which I'll look into" or something along those lines.  It's very scary especially if you cannot think on the spot but that comes with knowing your area and greater confidence.

Start off with presenting at smaller events (e.g. dept seminars, workshops) and work your way up to national and international conferences.  I presented at a national conference this year for the first time and it wasn't as bad as I thought it'd be as I dread the questions at the end incase I can't answer them but I turned out to be one of the few people who did my particular topic so the questions weren't too bad and I could answer them easily!


Hi, thanks everyone. There's some really good advice. At the moment my supervisor doesn't think I'd be able to handle a large international conference because I'm that sensitive. I just crumble under the slightest criticism -- I'm very much one of those PhD students who backs down instead of clarifying what she means. I'm very confident in some situations and fall apart in others. I've been in tears in supervision meetings because I feel really insecure about my reasoning skills. I actually take direct criticism quite well ("Your work isn't good enough." "Oh. Okay. In what way? What did you expect to see? What can I do to improve?"), but am very hypersensitive to perceived attacks (there's that word again!), and struggle to justify anything I've done or even to explain my methods sometimes. I just get really nervous and feel so tiny next to these big scary academics! I'm actually almost a year into my PhD though and whilst my work has improved I don't think my confidence has. I don't think it's so easy for me to just sit and calmly explain why I do the things I'm doing, whether in a conference or meeting or at a research group. Which is silly, really, because I do a lot.


Have you considered going to see a counsellor at your uni to work on your confidence? I really think it's something they would be able to help you with. I am currently undertaking counselling with my uni to enhance my confidence in my work and my ability, and even after one session i find the voice in my head telling me off when i think negatively about my work.

To explain a bit more... I am the sort of person that puts out a facade that i am confident, outgoing and enthusiastic and most people have this impression of me - including my supervisors. In fact, i have spent many years using the "fake it til you make it" method of confidence... and i am still at the faking it stage. What this means, is that i second guess everything i say or do internally, while putting on a strong outlook to people. The outward me is a facade while the inward me is a quivering wreck about most things, especially when it comes to talking about my research.

So, while this approach to life has generally worked for me in the past (i spend hour angsting over everything but i usually get through things ok eventually), it has resulted in my supervisors sending me to a workshop conference alone to present my work and discuss it with academics i've never met. Alone. All by myself. Me. In a room with lots of VERY clever people talking about my work. Criticising my thoughts. Criticising me. To me, this is the scariest prospect in the world.. but no one thinks it will bother me at all and i'll breeze through it. Maybe i will, but i'll angst about it to ridiculous proportions until it's over. And then i'll overanalyse it and find fault in everything i did.

Anyways, i came to realise that this is actually fairly unhealthy and i need to fix it. It's not getting any better and the things that i am being asked to do now as a result of my outgoing bubbly personality are getting increasingly harder. So I have recently been to see a counsellor at my uni. Now, we're only 1 session in, but she agrees that i have deep self confidence issues and a massive complex about justifying my existence, my funded place at this uni and my research topic (if people ask me about it i usually start by saying "well, it's a bit silly but i'm looking at XXXX", i'm very apologetic when it comes to discussing my work.). Anyways, my counsellor and I are planning on working to enhance my confidence so that i can go to this workshop and present my work without second guessing my ability to talk about it or overananlysing the event afterwards. The other big problem is that i can't move on from things easily if i do them wrong - i had to give a tour to some important people of our new department building 3 months ago and I am still critical of some of the minor things i did wrong there (these are only things that are wrong in my head, not in reality).

ANYWAYS... enough about me. What i am saying is that the uni counselling service is there to give you support and should defo be able to help you work through your confidence issues.


======= Date Modified 27 May 2011 11:20:15 =======
One thing to remember about comments from academics and others--they may not have the slightest idea of what they are talking about!!! They can be wrong too--but sometimes if they have a large ego I think they lose the sense of fallibility that makes a person a careful and thoughtful researcher instead of thinking they know it all without mistake. We are human, we all make mistakes from time to time.

I think I have told the story of the bathroom attack conference--where a panel member attacked me verbally in the loo during the conference, picking me up for some point of law--I was sure I had not got it wrong but without anything in my hands in the bathroom, there was no way to shut down the onslaught. I felt sick at my stomach and on the edge of tears the rest of the conference. My first exciting conference was ruined due to a woman with an out of control ego. And come to find out--she was WRONG! Very wrong! Very wrong indeed! It is not the first time I have seen academics get it wrong. But it was the first time someone got in my face in such an aggressive manner ( right or wrong) at a conference. Needless to say, any respect I had for this person as an academic went down the loo...( an appropriate setting then for her attack!) not because she was wrong, but because she was so unprofessional. And wrong to boot.

So just because someone offers a criticism ( constructive or not) does not make them right and you wrong. At best, give them a polite benefit of the doubt, with something like, "I do see your point and that is a very interesting one, although I am not sure how that would be compatible with my epistimology" works well to shut up people who are being out of line. They a: probably do not know what your epistomology is and b: probably aren't entirely comfortable with the word and its meaning and so it tends to shut them down....

PS--Someone suggested to me using the line, delivered with a friendly smile, "I always find the feedback process fascinating!" when dealing with an out of line commentator.

The commentator will be left wondering if you mean what you said... or if your comment is delivering some below the surface message....



I totally get what you mean! Confidence isn't my thing either so I don't usually say anything in front of big scary academics either.  I find presenting scary too which is why I usually just do it at smaller meetings! I am usually not very good either when put on the spot so always worry about not being able to answer questions afterwards but this comes with knowing your subject which you will do by the end of your PhD.  The talk I gave at the national conference was at the end of my PhD so I was able to answer the questions easily which I wouldn't have done before. I always find if you tell people that it's your PhD research they will know that you are in training so will not be that hard on you. 

I can also think of lots of things I should have said at my viva but didn't so worry that my external examiner who is a nice person doesn't think very much of me despite passing me! They are very on the ball and brought up stuff that I didn't even think/know about so I had to admit that as it wasn't what I would have considered a major point but it was useful to the interpretation of my results.  All I can think about is how to avoid this person in future as I think they think I'm not very clever! It was pointed out to me that they must have thought I was fine as I passed but I can't help feeling this way!  I also over analyse things too much and it does eat you up afterwards as I can always think of things to say afterwards! It just plays on your mind!  Incidentally I'm also awful at networking and I've given up as the few times I've tried it I have messed it up so have given up on trying to find a job that way!

But we just need to believe in ourselves as Olivia points out and the academics are not always right! My friends think I need to go on an assertiveness course which they may be right as I need to develop more self-confidence!  I was told by an academic that confidence comes with knowing your area so I think there is hope for us! Presenting does get easier the more you do it so I think the other stuff should as well.


This is at least making me feel slightly better... Olivia what an awful story! How completely unprofessional. Unfortunately I've heard of a few leading academics in my field who have reduced students to tears. I'm not sure if it's because they feed off the power or because they're just messed up in the head (I'm always afraid of ending up that way myself). Annabd I'm sorry you feel like that, it's very similar to how I feel. I obsess over 'mistakes' which aren't really mistakes, but the worst thing is that whilst I'm obsessing over minutiae I'm actually creating much larger problems for myself. I have an impossible benchmark in my brain and always know exactly what I wish I could have achieved, but when reality gets in the way I get incredibly defensive and really mad at myself for not being good enough which keeps coming across in the wrong way. Unfortunately for me I have no 'front' to rely on -- everyone can see exactly how I feel about myself. At times it has really eroded the confidence that my research group has in me. I can 'make up' for this in some ways but overall it doesn't rebuild anyone's trust in me. I can have crushly low self-confidence and doubt my ability to do basic things. Even though there are times I've spotted issues with other peoples' work I still have absolutely no faith in my own. I expect someone to jump up and say, "my paper doesn't say that!" or "XXXX et al have already done this work two years ago, with completely different conclusions and a more robust methodology. Your work is pointless and you're a terrible scientist -- what are you doing here?!"

In fact, any criticism at all I tend to take as meaning something along those lines. If someone asks me to explain my results I might think that they're asking because they think it's rubbish or because I clearly haven't thought it through. Of course they might just be asking me to explain my results. I think some form of counselling is a good idea. Even my department has suggested it.

Olivia I really like those retorts but I don't think I'd have the confidence to pull them off. I'd probably just blush and mispronounce epistimology... I like the idea of asking someone for the reference of their rant, though. "Thats a very interesting point, professor X. Do you have a reference for that? I don't remember coming across it in your 2009 paper..."