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I am a PhD student. I am feeling something unusual in my PhD: to me it appears that my supervisor ignores my correct answers and always gives me a feedback when my answer is wrong. I know this is a good thing, but the problem is that due to this kind of his behaviour I always feel demotivated and my confidence has gone very low. These days I try not to give many answers because I fear being wrong, which gives the (incorrect) impression that I am not curious about research. To me it looks as though in academia people will not highlight positive things about you, but they will highlight negative things about you.

Question : How to deal with this constant negative feedback in academia as a PhD student?

One obvious solution is not to pay attention to these things; but that is not working for me.

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    I don't have an answer, but will confirm that this is common. This can be a good thing to a point (promotes rigor, deflates egos) but can also be very bad, for exactly the reasons you state (reduced engagement). – cag51 Mar 24 '18 at 7:10
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    Have you considered telling your supervisor how you feel? There seems to be a perception in academia that everyone should be able to cope with constant negativity (or get out), but I think that's really unhealthy. – Jessica B Mar 24 '18 at 10:38
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    There seems to be a perception in academia that everyone should be able to cope with constant negativity - I disagree with this part of your comment. I would guess that many professors just don't realize how negative their feedback may come across as. – Kimball Mar 24 '18 at 12:42
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    I don't know how exactly you communicate with your supervisor, but an academic discussion often looks like what you described. People don't pat each other's heads for every true statement, but they point out and (try to) disprove statements that are (likely) false. Eventually you realize that you've accumulated enough true statements to make a paper out of them, which is supposed to be your reward. – Alexey B. Mar 24 '18 at 14:51
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    I think he knows about this. — What makes you think so? Have you actually told him directly? Has he actually told you, with words, that he's noticed the effect of his feedback on you? Unless you've exchanged actual words about his negative feedback and its effect on you, you know nothing of the sort. Advisors are not mind-readers, and they sometimes need to be reminded with words that their students are neither mind-readers nor brains on sticks. – JeffE Mar 25 '18 at 20:21
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Different people have different needs when it comes to motivation, for some, this means positive reinforcement and encouragement when things are going well, for others, this means receiving negative feedback and constructive criticism when things aren't going so well. The issue is often that supervisors aren't aware of your needs, and manage their students with whatever approach they've used in the past / has worked with previous students.

I had a similar experience with my PhD supervisor, and it took us the best part of a year to come to a mutual understanding over how we could both accept things being done. Ultimately though, he's never going to be a positive person, so whilst tempering his approach, he's still far more likely to criticise than praise. A few things that helped me during my PhD:

  • Make use of your co-supervisor / advisor / members of your thesis committee. Personally, I had a far better relationship with my co-advisor, so would speak to her when things weren't going well / I felt my supervisor was being unreasonably critical. She'd also been in the department with my supervisor for a long time, so could often bring things up in conversation with him that I couldn't.
  • Make use of your supervisors other PhD students who you know have a good relationship with him. Rather than "I think this _____", go with "I was discussing this with XX and we came to the conclusion that ______"- even if you're still wrong, you avoid some of the initial criticism / hostility.
  • Own your PhD. One of the hardest bits of advice I got given when I was unhappy with my supervisor was that I was somewhat responsible for owning my research. From your supervisors point of view this is your project and you should be driving it, more often than not you should know the answer, or at least be aware of the issues regarding your knowledge.
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    This is really helpful, coming from someone who's worked with this type of supervisor. The first two bullet points are wonderful suggestions. // Could you clarify your last bullet point? I'm having trouble understanding where you're going with this, for example "somewhat responsible." Do you mean that advice was hard for you to hear? Hard to apply? Do you mean that you were advised to take more ownership of your project, i.e. take more responsibility for knowing answers to ... – aparente001 Mar 25 '18 at 18:28
  • ... potential questions? To satisfy yourself more fully with your own answers, so that you would be able to respond with greater confidence in what you were saying? – aparente001 Mar 25 '18 at 18:29
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I've been thinking about this a bit, will hazard an answer. To me, the other answers seem in the right direction, but seem a bit too emotional/unprofessional. I would try to be a bit more concise and fact based.

I would start by sending an e-mail like this:

Dear Professor,

Based on some comments you've made, I am a little concerned about my performance in your group. Do you have a few minutes this week for a brief, private meeting where we could discuss? Thanks,

-Name

He may try to say "everything's fine" and avoid the meeting, but I would politely say that a performance review would be helpful for both of you.

In the meeting, I would let him do as much talking as possible. I would start with something like:

I asked for this meeting because it seems to me like most of the feedback I get from you is negative, and I'm wondering if this is just a communication issue, or if you are actually unsatisfied with my performance.

I would have a couple examples ready in case he says he is totally unaware of the issue and asks for examples. Another good follow-up would be:

I'm hoping to graduate in X years and would like to get a good recommendation from you for a job or post-doc. Are there any changes I will need to make if I am to earn a good letter from you?

I would suggest that you don't try to change the professor's behavior.

  • If he says everything's fine, then there is no issue, and you need to relax (this is difficult for everyone, but counseling can help in severe cases). As others have said, there is no need to discuss things that are obviously good, so it is natural to feel like most of the discussion is based on the less good parts of your work.
  • If he says that he is in fact unsatisfied and gives you a list of things to fix, I would try to build (with his input) some concrete, actionable steps, and request another meeting in 6 months to check on your progress. Make sure you distinguish whether he is just giving you room for improvement (no one is perfect) or whether he is actually unsatisfied with you (e.g., wishing he hadn't hired you).
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First of all, please be aware of the following:

  • There are some advisors who just never, or hardly ever, give positive feedback – no matter the quality of your work. For some, this is just a bad habit they often are not aware of. Others are convinced that this is the right approach for various reasons. (If you ask me, this approach only works for a few students and applying it in general is flawed.)

  • For much academic work, there is little positive feedback you can give. For example, a talk you give mostly becomes good by you avoiding a ton of possible mistakes (of which almost everybody makes some), but that’s not something on which you can build a large speech of praise – often all you can say is that everything was easily understandable, well organised, and the slides were visually pleasing. This makes it very easy for feedback to feel overly negative, even though this was not the intention. (Of course, this does not excuse the critic for not giving any positive feedback or emphasising the good aspects.)

With this in mind, I suggest the following course of action (some of which you may already have done):

  • Talk to fellow supervisees to find out what kind of critic your supervisor is. This does not only give you information but may also confirm that you are not alone with your problem.

  • If your supervisor is responsive to constructive criticism about their advising style, talk to them (ideally together with the entire group) to inform them of the problem. This may do wonders.

  • If you are sufficiently certain about your supervisor’s style of criticism, renormalise the feedback, i.e., try to interpret the criticism more positively, in particular interpret the absence of criticism as praise. When leaving a meeting with your supervisor, try to first think about how much or little criticism you received and all the things that could have gone wrong and didn’t. I know this is very difficult to trick your mind into doing, but once you get there, it may help a lot.

  • Fish for compliments, in particular if your supervisor is the kind who just forgets to give praise when it’s due, e.g., as follows:

    Thanks for the detailed feedback, but what is your overall impression?

    I found part X particularly challenging and time-consuming. Do you think the way I did it is okay?

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This is a partial answer intended to supplement existing answers.

When one is planning to assert oneself with someone, and explain what one needs, there is often a fear that one is going to sound too emotional and the other person will have trouble getting past the emotionality, and hearing the message itself. But I've noticed that the more one practices delivering the message, the more it becomes like stale cardboard, that one be rattled off like a shopping list. The feelings are still there, but they don't upstage the content any more.

Writing down a sample script and reciting it to oneself multiple times, however, isn't the kind of practicing I'm talking about. That can just fuel the anxiety. The kind of helpful practicing I'm referring to is when you practice by describing the situation and go through your proposed script with a supportive third party.

It can help to practice with several types of supportive listeners:

  • The easiest person to do this with is often someone completely unconnected with the situation.

  • More challenging is someone in your department.

  • A department administrator could be the equivalent of a dress rehearsal.

You'll know you've practiced enough when you can get through it unemotionally, without your pulse getting faster.

Here is a sample script, showing a sample message that you might want to try giving to give your advisor. If you want to do this, I would recommend doing this in a special, short appointment made just for this purpose:

I'm experiencing a crisis of confidence. I find myself always feeling afraid of saying something wrong, of making a mistake. This is affecting my ability to express my ideas. I find myself censoring myself because of self-doubt. This problem is interfering with my ability to function.

(Short pause to give your advisor the opportunity to ask how s/he can help. If s/he doesn't, though, that's okay, just keep going with the next part.)

As I'm getting over this hurdle, I'd like to ask for your help. If you could make sure to tell me three positive pieces of feedback each time we meet, that would enable me to take more creative risks.

I have to warn you, even if your advisor agrees to this, and tries to do it -- some people have a way of poisoning compliments and making them sound worse than obvious corrections. If this happens with your advisor, then you're probably better off focusing purely on finding other sources of validation.


Separate from the above: when one is going through an anxious time, it's often a good idea to check in with one's primary medical provider, and let them know that one is experiencing more anxiety than usual. Doctors can track how impairing anxiety is for a person, over time. Also, they may have suggestions for managing the anxiety. (Such suggestions might include specific types of therapy or counseling, and/or medication.)

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I believe this question will be challenging to answer by anyone that is not a psychologist (perhaps them as well). For the most part, I think this parallels a lot of the societal overtones witnessed today.

There is the cause-effect that occurs. A thing is said, a person said it, a person heard/received it. The sayer speaks with an intent. The hearer interprets what is said, decides on its meaning, and determines how they take/respond-to it. Signals sent, signals received, and signals translated. This is the core of what occurs when someone becomes "offended" where the interpretation of signals by the receiver has applied offensive intent, whether any was there from the start.

A topical example would be the modern election. Words that carry a connotation, such as “snowflake” or “macho” were used to describe a class of people, but they sparked emotion and people took offense. Words/messages by themselves cannot be offensive, it is only how we receive them that triggers an emotional response.

Of course there are many elements that determine how that communication signal (message, words, etc) is translated by an individual. Other factors such as intensity, repetition, etc influence how the signals are translated. Interpretations seem to be relative based on an individual's conditioning and how much the signals deviate from standard (societal norm). This is nothing new, it's like what defines morality.

In your case, it appears you are not conditioned to hear the constant negative feedback and thus are more responsive to it. Society today has been preaching empathy, handholding, and "babying" unlike any society before it. Whether that's good or bad is yet to be determined, but one thing is certain, little will change in your case without intervention.

Thus you have a few options:

  1. You can change your philosophy and how you translate those signals so that your reactions work for you
  2. You can hope the professor will come across something that will change their philosophy and behaviors
  3. You can address your experience head-on

Exploring Option 3

I think option 3 would do leaps and bounds for your psychological sanity and professional development. The goal, if it were me, would be to first establish a line of communication. Just stating the issue may be enough, not only for your professor to address the issue, but also in generating respect for you. Stating what does and doesn't work for you helps to establish your voice. Conducting the process of expressing your concern can also be therapeutic and relieve stress.

Next, I think a focus point would be not to concentrate on the critiquing/criticizing of your work, but to be thankful that they are giving warranted feedback and that the focus is to help you improve and meet your goals (succeed) with the professor's help. This will help sidestep any defense mechanisms and instead concentrate on the best way for you to succeed (part of that may be better feedback).

Finally, it is important not to come with just problems, but also solutions. "Your feedback doesn't help me" or "I feel demoralized with so much negative feedback" doesn't do as much as "I feel the repetitive feedback is negatively effecting my psyche and engagement on this topic. I think I could be more successful if…"

Of course you won't be able to control another person. Ultimately, your ability to persuade and work with them will help change their opinion or actions, but it is their decision to do so. They could even come back and change your philosophy: "The real world will give you more negative feedback than I ever could, if you don't have the moral fiber or mental vigor to surpass the challenges you will face, then you may want to consider a different career path."

Of course the innocent, blunt truth is if you don't want to receive negative feedback, don't do negative things that warrant it ;) This is very blanketed and argumentative, but should suffice to incite re-evaluation of a perspective and thus, even if it may be considered a "dumb" response, could have benefits in going through the process.

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    Focusing on the communication part, a grad student told me: "Some people have filters on their ears, and some have filters on their mouths." That is, some people just don't hear a negative tone and say things very bluntly. Other people hear negative tones and, in their own speech, tend to be careful about moderating and counterbalancing negativity. Sometimes just remembering that that's how a person does things can help. – cactus_pardner Mar 24 '18 at 17:47
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    Completely agree and some things are a matter of habit. I think identifying and recognizing the differences would eventually lead to either general improvements or at least understanding (side benefits of patience and leniency) – vol7ron Mar 24 '18 at 18:23
  • It has spurt? Could you do me a favor and copy-edit your answer more carefully, to make it easier for people to grasp your ideas? – aparente001 Mar 25 '18 at 18:25
  • @aparente001 I’m on a mobile device, which we all know the auto-correction isn’t so great. Could you please refer to the numbered paragraph and sentence of where the offending error occurred? (find is also limited in the mobile app) – vol7ron Mar 25 '18 at 18:28
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    @aparente001 oh I see where your confusion is. I’ll try and make it clearer. Thank you – vol7ron Mar 25 '18 at 18:32

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