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I commenced a Postdoc 1-2 months ago and recently presented my proposed experiments at a group meeting that was broader than my immediate team. After the short presentation I was met with a barrage of criticism from senior people in the group in front of my new team along the lines of whether the experiments would be relevant and that they were too experimentally risky.

However, I was never the architect of the research question, which ultimately came with the job. Sure I have scope to tweak the experiment design (and I presented a range of options during the talk), but ultimately the criticism they gave were for factors out of my control. What surprised me though was that I thought the academics attacking the project already knew about these sets of experiments, as they were proposed in a general sense as part of the broader project even before I commenced.

I did my best to defend the project during the question time without being defensive, but had a few junior academic approach me afterwards indicating the criticism was as severe as I had interpreted on stage. I felt quite humiliated, to be honest, in front of my new group. So my question is now how do I approach this matter? Should I approach these academics individually asking them if they were aware of this research question in the planning documents that pre-dated my position? Should I tell them I was a bit upset and felt punched down-on? Should I remain collegial and let my science do the talking instead? I should note that I was the only one of the 15 or so people presenting that was met with this level of criticism.

I’m open to a range of feedback in your responses. I’ve also contemplated whether it was my communication style/persona on stage that attracted criticism, rather than the content.

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5 Answers 5

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Don't take it personally, because the criticisms were "along the lines of whether the experiments would be relevant and that they were too experimentally risky" - i.e. they were criticizing the experiment design, not you. If they were criticizing you, they might have said something like "you should have done X instead of Y, why didn't you think of it?" or "an experiment as difficult as this one should have been assigned to [more experienced researcher] and not Tom".

Another thing is, if they don't think the experiment is well-designed, do you think they should tell you? They could keep silent, let you go ahead and possibly fail, but that would be a waste of resources and time.

Given that, the thing to do is sit down with the person(s) who developed the experiment design and discuss the criticisms. Are they valid? If not, why not? If yes, should anything in the design be changed? Is it still worth going ahead?

Again, don't take it personally. You are not being criticized, and the senior academics are not saying you are incompetent.

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  • Thanks for your reply. I'll try not to take it personally. Hopefully they were not aware of these experiments, or not at a sufficient level, and so their response was more of immediate concern rather than finding an easier target to unleach at. I guess personally I would have prefered they came up to me after the talk to express their concerns.
    – Tom
    Aug 16, 2021 at 2:44
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    I agree with everything in this answer, except for the last line: there comes a point where this kind of thing is personal, or at the very least not productive. It is hard to gauge from the description of the discussion, but if you feel like the senior staff were being unfair, it is worth talking to your supervisor about this. You are still a human being with feelings, and no "group culture" should be an excuse for mindless attacks.
    – pgunnink
    Aug 16, 2021 at 10:19
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    Don't take it personally, but do take it seriously. Ever heard someone say 5 years after starting research that they failed because the task was set up for failure from the beginning? Well, here we are, possibly at that beginning. And a bunch of experienced people is telling you that they think you accepted a task that's set up for failure. (Might not be true, but you should investigate!)
    – DonQuiKong
    Aug 16, 2021 at 14:59
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    Yes, the key question is: do they have a point? I always recommend to prepare a talk with the view that, if you, who knows the work best, wanted to shoot the talk down, what would you ask? What would your most devastating criticism be? It's rare for someone to find a more potent line of attack than yourself, but if they did - check whether it's real. Aug 18, 2021 at 0:01
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    very easy to launch personal attacks while toeing the line of what is being attacked. OP said they were the only person out of many subjected to this treatment. I wonder if that will be a pattern, this one person's work will never be good enough. I wonder if OP has any protected characteristics, or if her PI / lab has a history of ostracisation by the rest. This minimisation and apologising for unprofessionally harsh treatment the likes of which would not be tolerated in other work environments in these answers troubles me. It is possible to give criticism constructively
    – benxyzzy
    Aug 18, 2021 at 10:44
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Let us start with the meat of it: do you think these senior academics are correct that the experiments are irrelevant and risky?

  • If so, then you need to take ownership of this. Do not make the excuse that "I was never the architect of the research question." If your advisor is truly forcing you to run irrelevant and risky experiments, then you should not have accepted this position. Otherwise, you are in a position where you can and must make improvements.

  • If not, then it is irrelevant that you were not the original architect of the research questions; you agree with them and should be able to defend them publicly.

Now I have been in groups with this sort of brutal culture, and I know that defending ideas publicly can be very difficult. A few notes:

  • As you learned the hard way, it is not safe to assume that everyone in the group is on the same page. It is easy for people to "agree" on something vague that everyone interprets differently. Then when we dive into the details, the different views become apparent.
  • The sort of hard-hitting style you describe can take some getting used to. Some people become very good at parrying these blows; it is a wonderful skill to have. Others find that they never become very good at it, and they learn to seek out groups with a more diplomatic culture.
  • It is a good idea to get in the habit of meeting with all the different stakeholders regularly to discuss your projects. Showing them a completed proposal for the first time in public will naturally attract questions and concerns that, in some groups, will be expressed as criticism. But if they understand your project and feel like they contributed to it, they will be less likely to throw stones in public. And of course, some of their contributions may be truly valuable, and developing a network is doubtless one of your goals.
  • You are unlikely to be able to change the group culture, so I would not suggest complaining about the tone of the conversation. On the other hand, your advisor may have some practical tips in dealing with certain people and/or in preparing slides. For example, one thing I learned is that certain unimportant issues will start a huge argument that sidetracks everything, so, it is often wise to avoid mentioning these issues entirely.
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  • Thanks. Some hard but potentially useful advice. I do wonder if openly discussing the risk (and how to manage it) of the project during the talk drew further attention to it rather them being relieved I was thinking about it. I agree with your 4 lower bullet points, especially the first. "...then you should not have accepted this position" is a bitter pill to swallow but potentially the only real thing I feel I could have changed other than presentation style. Tricky though during funding-cut COVID environment in Australia.
    – Tom
    Aug 16, 2021 at 3:24
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    This all seems right to me, except maybe a bit hasty to drop entirely a quiet and professionally worded investigation (e.g. with the PI) into the question of tone. Validity doesn't obviate a need for decency. Aug 16, 2021 at 3:27
  • @tom - I suspect (or at least, hope) that you have more latitude than you think you do in terms of improving or pivoting the experimental plan. And I would highlight the penultimate bullet (maybe I should have placed it more prominently); building relationships and cementing buy-in requires lots of individual chats prior to the formal, public meeting. Without having done this, even a skilled presenter may have trouble keeping the train on the tracks once the punching starts.
    – cag51
    Aug 16, 2021 at 4:38
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    @Tom: “I wonder…” That’s hard to say when we weren’t there. However, in general it can be a bad idea to dig into points that you thought through carefully, and which are probably only obvious after very careful thought - along the lines of telling your scuba students before their first dive “the one time one of my old students almost died, we had not yet implemented (rule A). So don’t worry, we have (A).” The result will be the opposite of what the instructor meant to achieve. It’s good to have more in stock than you initially share in a talk, and be ready to address questions as they come up. Aug 16, 2021 at 11:20
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    @AnonymousM - quiet and professionally-worded notes rarely get one in trouble, so I agree that should be fine. But, I would focus it on how OP can adjust to the culture, not on how the culture can adjust to OP (barring actual abuse, which is never acceptable). Working in this kind of hard-hitting, sharky culture is really difficult for some people, but it's not inherently bad, it has its pros and cons like other management styles.
    – cag51
    Aug 16, 2021 at 19:22
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What surprised me though was that I thought the academics attacking the project already knew about these sets of experiments, as they were proposed in a general sense as part of the broader project even before I commenced.

Don't underestimate the degree to which academics focus on their own research projects and ignore/forget the details of projects done by other groups. You will probably find that the other academics in this matter had absolutely no idea about the history of your project, either because they had never been briefed on it, or because it was not important to them and so they forgot all about it. Hopefully you were able to make some of this clear in answering their criticisms, but if you weren't, you can consider that a failing in your own explanation that you can remedy in future. For this kind of thing, you should treat it just like erroneous referee feedback on a paper --- i.e., misguided feedback should often be treated as an indication that you have not explained yourself clearly enough.

A corollary to this forgetfulness of acadeimcs is that you also don't need to be too worried about any long-term problem from this criticism. Most of those academics will forget all about your project, and their criticisms of it, unless it is something that is presented on a recurring basis in the department. If you do need to present on that topic again, you now know that you may need to start with some information about the history of the project and the constraints you were under when you took it over.

In regard to the idea that this criticism is "punching down", I find that to be an unhelpful concept in this context. If you are a postdoc and they are professors then yes, you are "down" from them --- is that supposed to give you some kind of immunity? Academic criticism, directed "downwards" is necessary and ubiquitous in academic work, and any critique of work by a new staff member by senior staff is going to fall into this category. Consequently, my advice would be to mark this down as an instance where your audience did not properly understand the history of the project, assess their criticisms in light of your constraints, and proceed accordingly. I do not recommend following up with those academics in the way you have proposed.

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  • Thanks for your reply. I am hoping your first point is correct (and will be giving them the benefit of the doubt in this case). They are quite senior in the project and it had been developed over a number of years which is why I made the assumption, but no doubt they are very busy and probably hadn't thought through the details and were now speaking their concerns aloud for the first time. In terms of critisism, I am very open to ideas on ways to improve, but I didn't find any of the critisism useful, rather it was mostly negative.
    – Tom
    Aug 16, 2021 at 23:08
  • In that case I would just ignore it; sometimes reviewers/academics make erroneous criticisms.
    – Ben
    Aug 16, 2021 at 23:52
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Think carefully about what was said if it is/could be true or not. You should try to work on non-risky highly important stuff; since this is difficult to come by you can also work on non-risky not so important stuff. If you like gambling (in a positive sense, but your career is at stake) you can work on high-risk highly important stuff.

Never work on high-risk non-important stuff, your career in science is over before it started.

Mandatory read is 'You and your research' by Hamming.

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    +1 for "Never work on high-risk non-important stuff" - it should be obvious, but unfortunately, this is can happen, especially if your supervisor sent you on a commando mission that turns out irrelevant. Aug 18, 2021 at 4:35
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    @CaptainEmacs speaking from experience this seem to happen more often than it should.
    – lalala
    Aug 18, 2021 at 7:15
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I have been in similar situations to yours a few times in my work, and I know how difficult it is. It always helps me to ask myself exactly what my colleagues are disagreeing with. Do they disagree with my ideas, my work, or me as a person (i.e., do they hate me)? The answer is almost never the third, or the second; usually, and especially for newer folks, they're disagreeing merely with your ideas. It took me a while to get used to this fact, and in the beginning it certainly felt like personal attacks - but you have to remember that you're in a field where ideas are valued more than anything. Your colleagues are interested in your ideas, and if they're experienced professors then they're likely able to separate the person from the idea because they've been in your situation too.

Take it from me, as someone who is now on the other side of this kind of situation, that your colleagues do not think any less of you and they were not looking to criticize you or punch down on you.

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