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URMC / Education / Graduate Education / URBest Blog / July 2019 / Balancing Criticism and Confidence

Balancing Criticism and Confidence

By Brandon Berry, Ph.D. Candidate in Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology and Physiology

In graduate school, a main goal should be to understand the balance and interdependence between criticism and confidence. Pursuing a graduate degree develops the ability to think critically about a problem that has never been solved. This level of problem solving requires rigorous criticism, but also confidence. Confidence allows us to use our best skills to creatively answer questions and make progress where no other has. Dealing poorly with either criticism or confidence, however, will cause counterproductive self-doubt. Understanding that criticism and confidence should exist in equal balance will decrease self-doubt. These two concepts may seem opposed, but criticism and confidence can exist together to support each other and to drive progress.

Early graduate school breeds self-doubt, with experiments that do not yet work, difficult method development, and unending troubleshooting. These trials naturally lead to self-doubt, especially when many scientists and mentors responsible for training are technical experts. Comparison to others is a counterproductive trap, but one that is almost impossible to avoid early on, and one that results in unrealistic self-criticism that taints the benefit of constructive criticism. Reframing criticism as questioning is the antidote to self-doubt.

Scientists think critically and question things they don’t understand. Criticism can be viewed negatively, however, as an attack, and therefore taken personally. This reputation of criticism is detrimental to scientists and to anyone attempting to solve a difficult problem. In lab meetings, journal clubs, or manuscript reviewers’ comments, asking and answering questions is a search for truth together. Framing criticisms like this relieves the burden of self-doubt by bringing the focus to an abstract ideal rather than onto an individual. Good mentors will question a student’s work over and over again. They will not question the student’s ability to do that work, and in the same way, a student questioning his or her own ability in the face of criticism is unhelpful. Questioning ideas, not individual qualities, leads to the truth. Identifying useful criticism through questioning builds progress and resilience. In other words, becoming comfortable answering critical questions leads to healthy confidence.  

Like criticism, confidence also has something of a false reputation. It seems confidence fuels success, and is always desirable. Gaining confidence to be independent and to ask our own research questions is the purpose of graduate training, after all. Another trap springs, though, when we have confidence in the absence of critical thought, or questioning, as I’ve rebranded it. Confidence, unchecked by the refining process of questioning, becomes overconfidence, which devalues careful planning. In science or elsewhere, poor planning results in extra work, which means time, effort, and resources are wasted. This takes us away from the main goal of science, to find the truth through rigorous questioning. After all of our hard work, we can often become attached to our results which obscures any flaws they may have. Objective questioning can reveal those flaws and bring us closer to the truth, making us more confident in our conclusions. Therefore, confidence in pursuing the truth requires criticism.

Early in training, being unconfident and overly critical is easy. Later, it is easy to become too confident and to ignore valid criticism. Finding and engaging with good mentors helps to learn the correct balance. Good mentors teach productive criticism and self-questioning, and how overconfidence can result in questionable conclusions that delay finding the truth. Mentors are traditionally academic advisors, but they can also be more experienced members of a lab, or anyone with experience achieving the goals that students wish to achieve. Working with an expert mentor should begin to replace self-doubt with the confidence to think critically about a difficult problem, and the ability to solve it. If we are caught up in self-doubt, or delayed by overconfidence, it’s difficult to answer those questions to find the truth. Achieving the correct balance between criticism and confidence continually evolves as we progress in our training. Being aware and proactive can help us to confidently embrace criticism, and have a better, more productive time in graduate school.  

Tracey Baas | 7/19/2019

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