Dealing with Criticism: Processing Peer Reviews

As an undergraduate, you've certainly received feedback and criticism - and it doesn't end with graduation. Receiving feedback, criticism of your work, goes hand-in-hand with graduate study and academic careers.

Feedback might take the form of scrawl on the margins of your manuscript or strikeouts, additions, and comments in a tracked document. If it’s a peer-reviewed manuscript, you’ll probably receive a lengthy single-spaced letter and accompanying 2 or 3 single-spaced reports. No matter the form, you’ll likely feel at least a little apprehensive and nervous about what lies within. Criticism often (usually?) stings but it ultimately leads to a better product. If you plan on an academic career (or any career), you’ll have to learn how to deal with criticism. Learning how to read and act on feedback is a skill and essential to your productivity and, ultimately, your success.

So, what do you do when you receive feedback?

Read the reviews and comments, then put the paper aside.
Take a deep breath and open the document. Skim over the comments. Then, if you’re brave, read it all in depth. Then put it aside to give yourself space to wrestle with your mangled pride. Time makes it easier to step back from critical comments and analyze your work objectively. Put the paper aside for at least a day, but ideally much longer. A week, even two or more, can help you gain perspective and realize that you’re not an impostor.

Don’t fret over reviewers’ tone.
Try not to let the tone and wording of reviews and comments sting. Frequently written comments may seem harsh and blunt, but terse comments often reflect the reviewer’s haste and desire to use time effectively by communicating clearly and concisely. Concise communication can often come across as terse. Try to look at the message itself.

Organize comments and suggestions.
Once you have read the review once or twice, read again while taking notes. List comments and organize them into meaningful categories. One list might consist of easy suggestions to address. Another will likely include suggestions that you need to think about. A third might be suggestions that you are inclined to ignore. You might later break the list down by content, for example, listing items regarding data analyses and interpretation, or the literature review.

Don’t ignore comments.
As you plan your revisions, be sure to address all comments. Remember that your mentor, dissertation committee, or reviewers have spent time reading, evaluating, and attempting to improve your work. They will expect to see that their advice is considered and their comments addressed. The more comments you receive, the more time your reader has spent considering your work. Ignoring a reviewer’s comments sends the message that you don’t value his or her work. While you don’t have to act on each suggestion, you should acknowledge and comment on each. If you don’t take a piece of advice, be prepared to explain why, which brings us to the next item.

Prepare a revision memo.
When you receive a recommendation to revise-and-resubmit a manuscript to a journal, it is customary and expected that a revision letter or memo will accompany your resubmission. An effective revision memo lists the substantive comments and suggestions made by reviewers and then notes how each is addressed in the revision. A revision memo is a useful preparation tool as it encourages you to consider and address all comments. Such a memo can be an important communication tool in your conversations with your advisor and dissertation committee. Even if not required, writing a revision memo can help you frame your work and ensure that you use feedback constructively. Consider writing revision memos in response to comments on your dissertation, even if you don’t share them with your committee. The process of writing a memo can help clarify your thinking – and it provides a record of your revisions that can help you document the evolution of your dissertation.

I’m not going to lie, receiving criticism is always challenging, but it gets easier. Devise a system that works for you so that you can take advantage of feedback and use it to improve your work

Time Management Tips for Students

Learn how to effectively manage your time and you'll be one step closer to being a successful academic and professional. New graduate students are often surprised at how much is on their plate -- even students who worked and juggled classes in college. As a graduate student, you'll spend time in class, conducting your own research, working on faculty research, in study groups, in meetings with professors, reading, writing, and attempting a social life.  Many students believe that it will get better after they graduate, but, unfortunately, most people report being even busier as new professors, researchers, and professionals. Start developing good time management habits now to avoid feeling rushed and every day.

The first and most important time management habit to develop is to keep track of your time: how you plan to spend and how you actually spend it. Record your goals, plan how to spend your day, and record the daily progress you make toward your goals.

Maintain a Calendar System
By now, you probably use a calendar to keep track of weekly appointments and meetings. Grad school and a career in academia require taking a long-term perspective on time. Use a yearly, monthly, and weekly calendar.

Year Scale. It's difficult to keep track of today and remember what needs to be done in 6 months. Long term deadlines for financial aid, conference submission, and grant proposals creep up quickly. Don't find yourself surprised to realize that your comprehensive exams are in a few weeks. Plan at least 2 years ahead with a yearly calendar, divided into months. Add all long term deadlines on this calendar.

Month Scale. Your monthly calendar should include all paper deadlines, test dates, and appointments so that you can plan ahead. Add self-imposed deadlines for completing long-term projects like papers. At the beginning of the semester, lay out the semester-long deadlines for the coming months.

Week Scale.  Your weekly calendar includes your day-to-day appointments and deadlines. Have a study group on Thursday afternoon? Record it here. Carry your weekly calendar everywhere.

Create and use a to-do list
Create a long-term to-do list of stuff that needs to happen over the semester. Then organize it by month and week - and topic. The most important trick to keeping a to-do list is to actually use it --update it, add to it, and work from it. Take 10 minutes every night and make a to-do list for the next day. Look at your calendar for the next couple of weeks to remember tasks that need to be planned in advance: searching for literature for that term paper,  buying and sending birthday cards, and preparing submissions to conferences and grants. Your to-do list is your friend; never leave home without it. Your to-do list will keep you moving towards your goals daily.

Prioritize your to-do list. Rank each item by importance and attack your list accordingly so that you don't waste time on non-essential tasks.

Schedule time to work on classes and research each day, even if it is just a few 20-minute blocks. Think you can't get much done in 20 minutes? You'd be surprised. What's more important is when you work in frequent short blocks is that the material will stay fresh in your mind, enabling you to reflect on it at unexpected times (like on your ride to school or walk to the library) and have eureka moments of insight.

Be flexible. Allow time for interruptions and distractions. Aim to plan just 50 percent or less of your time so that you'll have the flexibility to handle unexpected events.

Stick with it.  Contrary to my "be flexible" advice above, try not to be easily distracted. When you're distracted by a new task or something that you need to remember, write it down and get back to work. Don't let a flight of ideas keep you from completing the task at hand. When you're interrupted by others or seemingly urgent tasks, ask yourself, "What is the most important thing I can do right now? What's most urgent?" Use your answer to plan your time and get back on track.

These habits are simple but effective. That said, they're not always easy to implement. It takes practice and patience. Moreover, you may find yourself revisiting and relearning these over the years.

Read the SQ3R Way

The most efficient students read with purpose and set goals. The SQ3R method can help you read faster and retain more information than reading cover-to-cover or start-to-end.

SQ3R stands for the steps in reading: survey, question, read, recite, review. It might seem like it takes more time to use the SQ3R method, but you'll find that you remember more and have to reread less often. Let's take a look at the steps:

Survey
Before reading, survey the material. Glance through the topic headings and try to get an overview of the reading. Skim the sections and read the final summary paragraph to get an idea of where the chapter is going. Survey - don't read. Survey with purpose, to get a background knowledge, an initial orientation that will help you to organize the material as you read it. The surveying step eases you into the reading assignment

Queston
Next, look at the first heading in the chapter. Turn it into a question. Create a series of questions to be answered in your reading. This step requires conscious effort but is worth it as it leads to active reading, the best way to retain written material.

Asking questions focuses your concentration on what you need to learn or get out of your reading - it provides a sense of purpose.

Read
Read with purpose. Use the questions as a guide. Read the first section of your reading assignment to answer your question. Actively search for the answers. If you finish the section and have not found an answer to the question, reread it.

Read reflectively. Consider what the author is trying to say, and think about how you can use that information.

Recite
Once you have read a section, look away and try to recite the answer to your question, using your own words and examples. If you can do this, it means that you understand the material. If you cannot, glance over the section again. Once you have the answers to your questions, write them down.

Review
After reading the entire assignment, test your memory by reviewing your list of questions. Ask each one and review your notes. You've created a set of notes that provide an overview the chapter.  You likely will not have to reread the chapter again. If you've taken good notes, you can use them to study for exams.

As you review your notes, consider how the material fits with what you know from the course, experience, and other classes. What is the information's significance? What are the implications or applications of this material? What questions are you left with? Thinking about these bigger questions help to place what you've read within the context of the course and your education—and is likely to lead to better retention.

The extra steps of the SQ3R method may seem time-consuming, but they lead to a better understanding of the material so you'll get more out of the reading with fewer passes.  How many of the steps you follow is up to you. As you become more efficient you may find that you can read more - and retain more - with less effort. Regardless, if an assignment is important,