Re: Ask a Science Blogger – Harsh Criticism, Did It Help or Hinder? Warning. My response contains offensive material. Oh, you’re not surprised? Well, OK, this is the Chimp Refuge. You already know that there are piles of bonobo scat everywhere. So let’s get to steppin’ and squishin’…
During my first “real” job out of my post-doc, one of my colleagues told me this joke, repeated here with my embellishments:
Two explorers stumble into a wild unknown land, and are captured in the bush by the fearsome indigenous inhabitants. They are brought before the tribal chief, who conveniently speaks the Queen’s English with a plummy Eton accent. The chief informs them that the penalty for trespassing into the tribe’s territory is death or roo-roo, and that the captives must choose between the two fates. The first explorer blurts out, “By Jove, I do not wish to die. I will take roo-roo!” With that, a dozen burly tribesmen push aside their loincloths and rattle their tumescent “spears.” They proceed to bugger the hapless explorer in all orifices available. The second explorer looks on in horror as his comrade is systematically reamed to a whimpering mass of protoplasm. Then, the chief asks, “So. What shall it be? Death or roo-roo?” The wide-eyed explorer bleats, “Death! I choose death!” “Death it is,” says the chief, “But first, roo-roo!”
Martin Mull in “The Aristocrats” tells this joke with far more skill, but hey, that why he gets paid to do comedy: he can deliver. Plus he’s a man.
I have repeated the joke many times since then, and my cynical scientist colleagues latched onto the punch line immediately. They applied it to project reviews and the like in the workplace:
Picture a large conference room or a small auditorium with a number of senior level scientists, vice-presidents of various research functions and the like in the audience. A lone scientist stands before them ready to present his or her work. The chief scientific officer says, “We are here today to review progress in the area of [insert your project here] which will be presented by Dr. So and So. But first, roo-roo!”
It’s difficult for me to pinpoint the harshest criticism I have received in my career. There have been many times when, after a graduate seminar in my youth or a major project review as a “grown-up,” that I have been roo-roo’ed through and through. And this was when my results and the interpretation of my data were sound. Walking out of these grilling sessions with gelled brain matter and wobbly legs was routine.
As a second year grad student, my advisor lit into me when I presented an admittedly poorly prepared seminar on isotope effects in a particular enzyme catalyzed reaction. It didn’t help that my advisor was an expert in the field and the author of the paper was another expert with whom my advisor often disagreed. These guys “anonymously” reviewed each other’s manuscripts, and their correcting pens alternately caught fire and dripped bile. So my advisor was worked up not only because he disagreed with the authors’ interpretation of the data, but also because I had not critically evaluated the paper. His harsh criticism was fair. He didn’t humiliate me by calling me a f*cking idiot or any similar pejorative. His tone and body language told me how incredibly frustrated he was, and at the same time, that he expected much more of me. Lesson learned. I never gave a seminar again without knowing the material cold, and not until I sliced and diced potential problems with the research, including my own. Later, the author of that disagreeable isotope effects paper visited my advisor during one of his frequent pilgrimages from his lofty ivory tower in Cambridge MA to our biochemical cow college. My advisor joked about giving me a hard time over the paper. Lofty Ivory Tower Professor and I became acquainted on a first name basis as the result of our mutual empathy.
The graduate student seminars as a whole were gruesome but very useful experiences. The faculty in attendance made up a formidable group, and left bodies in their wake. Alas for the unprepared or somewhat dim student. No name calling or yelling ever occurred. The subject would be peeled layer by layer like an onion by our razor sharp professors. These seminars were tough, but they prepared me beautifully for presentation and subsequent criticism of my own research. I learned how to look for the potential holes in my work, to anticipate critique, and how to hold up under pressure.
Vigorous criticism has continued well into my professional career as it should. The head of research for my first gig was an old NIH hand, and he could be brutal during our monthly PhD seminars in which our research projects were reviewed. Again, if you were prepared and had done your job, i.e., produced good science, the problems were minimal. I could spar with him, and we respected each other in the morning.
Some of the fiercest altercations occurred at the second company of my employment. This company was small, and had a reputation for being voracious and arrogant. We partnered with a large, conservative pharma company on an especially difficult enzyme target which required “thinking outside the box.” This was the kind of stuff the small company thrived on, but well out of the large company’s comfort zone. All in all, our company cultures clashed in a major way, and at some of our meetings, we all stopped short of calling one another blithering idiots. My counterpart at the larger company was flat out wrong on a number of issues, and even with the data on my side, I had to browbeat the individual. Here I was on the other side of “harsh criticism.”
Within the confines of the aforementioned small voracious company, I had to engage in internecine warfare with a haughty dude in another department when an issue of assay connectivity arose. We spat and snarled, then retreated. I came back with the results, which explained the whole shebang and proved him wrong, presented my work, and got a “Wow. That’s really nice!” in return from my nemesis. So these confrontations can bear fruit.
I still get roo-roo’ed, but now I have calluses.