The other day a student came to see me after his mid point presentation. He was upset because the panel chair had questioned the scope of the work and his ability get the rest of it done. The student felt the questioning was out of line. Who was this academic who hadn’t worked in a ‘proper job’ with real deadline for years and years to judge him and his capacities? He was no newbie – he’d had 25 years of professional experience for heaven’s sake! Wasn’t he best placed to judge his ability to complete the work?

The student was so angry he wanted this person could be kept off his review panel. He was somewhat taken aback when I suggested that such a person was actually ideal in that role. While I agreed that it was uncool for the person to be nasty in the way he gave the criticism, I saw no lasting harm if criticism was all it was. Yes, it would be difficult to have such a prickly, critical person as your primary supervisor, but having such people around does keep you on your toes and can be good for you.

The problem was that this student was used to collaborative, supportive workplaces where people worked towards common goals. He failed to understand that just about all of academia is in a state of endless, polite warfare. Arguing is the academic’s raison d’etre and spending time fighting this tendency is wasted energy. I suggested that the student adjust his attitude and start to treat this particular academic like an expert goal keeper in a football match. The idea of playing football is to work at landing the ball in the net, to take offense at the goal keeper’s existence.

Now of course many academics are moderate and helpful in the way they approach criticism. I’m pleased to say that a great many that I meet on review panels seek to have a dialogue with the student, rather than an argument, but there are plenty of exceptions. There’s a reason why a wise person once said that academia is like a group of warring principalities united by a common parking problem. Some of the arguing is the result of genuine differences of opinion; in other instances it is mere jockeying for power – either way, sooner or later, you’re bound to find yourself on the sharp end of it.

Although I am handing out this advice, believe me when I say I’m conflicted about comparing academia to a football game. I’m well aware there’s a downside to this culture of criticism.

I spent my first 8 years in academia in an architecture department where it was a perverse mark of pride to be ripped to shreds by a guest review panel. The guest reviewers were professional architects who had suffered through this system themselves and knew all the tricks. Some of them would become so angered by poor student work they would rip drawings from the wall and throw models on the ground. This kind of behaviour seemed, for the most part, to be viewed as theatre rather than abuse – which is a sad commentary on the state of teaching in the profession at the time.

The first time I stood up to defend my design work, some 20 years ago now, I had no idea what was coming and ended up crying in the bathroom, wondering, a mere 4 days in, whether was too early to quit my degree. A kindly third year student followed me in, handed me a tissue and gave me a pep talk. She told me that criticism can be helpful, but it is always hard to hear. She suggested that I learn to take it – or choose a new career, because what she had just witnessed me go through was mild compared to what I would face later.

I took her advice to heart, I learned to take it, but I never did get used to it. Something worse happened – I started to avoid it. I slowly learned what critics wanted to see and started giving it to them. In fact I became expert at  internalising the culture of the school I became a chameleon. I managed to graduate that degree with honours, but somewhere along the way I lost sight of me. It is hardly surprising that I didn’t last long as a practising architect: I was working from a place of fear, not love.

Other students reacted differently to this deluge of criticism – becoming increasingly combative, argumentative and reactionary. These students took up what I like to call the Stegosaurus strategy. When faced with a T-rex determined to eat you, grow armour and  learn to swing your huge spikey tail. During the review sessions the students would argue back, sometimes stalking off in righteous indignation. In my opinion being a stegosaurus is almost as bad as being a chameleon. One of two things seemed to happen to these people: either they become an outcast or they became one of the bullies. The problem is, if you get really good at arguing back, you are not spending time listening. Eventually no one dares criticise you at all and you miss out on the valuable correctives you need to make your work better.

Many new PhD students are not used to this aspect of academic culture and I have little of comfort to provide. Learning to exist and thrive in this culture can take some time and it pays to remember Machiavelli’s aphorism: “Keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer”. Learn from these people, but try not to become a chameleon – or a stegosaurus.

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