Surviving Praise and Criticism: Doctoral Student Encouragement

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

By Jessica Harrington, Director

The long road to the PhD is filled with constant feedback. At times it may be wonderful and inspiring, and other times, it may be harsh or critical. Below are some tips to navigate the feedback loop in a balanced way.

  1. Remember this: Praise and criticism are only two ends of a long spectrum of feedback. In the middle is room for growth and change.
  2. Communication style matters. Talk with your advisor about your communication style and theirs. Regarding performance, do you prefer feedback in person or emailed? When it comes to your research, how would you prefer to receive encouragement or correction?
  3. Get curious and ask questions! Ask for clarification (you may need to take a deep breath first if the moment is intense.). Repeat back what you hear the other person saying in a non-defensive way. If the response strikes your emotions in a negative way, ask for a break or if you could have time to process the issue.
  4. You are you; you are not your feedback. It can be difficult to separate ourselves from our work. Author Tara Mohr has some excellent advice about ways to unhook from praise and criticism.
  5. Talk with your peers. Identify community support and learn ways other doctoral students navigate feedback. In addition to support from JHSPH peers, consider visiting
  6. You always possess the gift of response. Options for responding to feedback include gratitude, openness, engagement, as well as bitterness, resentment, and disengagement. Sometimes, you may need to disengage before re-engaging. It’s also great to vent and let out resentment and bitterness. Just remember, you always have a choice. Remember
  7. You can handle this. Enough said.

Resilience Tips for Doctoral Students

By Jessica Harrington, Director of Student Life

Doctoral students face unique challenges while navigating the journey from first year student to doctoral scholar. My experience is that students often carry high expectations, both for themselves and their programs. Students are sometimes met with unexpected challenges which may threaten to derail their initial goals. My role is to remind them of their ability to meet challenges with resilience.

Resilience is the ability to bounce back from stressful events. One comprehensive resource on this fascinating (and encouraging) subject suggests a model with three stages:

  1. Acknowledge the stressor. Examples of doctoral student stress may include strained relationships with faculty, research interest conflicts, pressure around publishing, and time management. Take a moment and ask, what is it that is actually stressing me out? It’s ok to admit everything isn’t fine.
  2. Orient toward a positive outcome. Consider the outcome you’re hoping for. Is it realistic? Despite this current stressor, is success still possible? What can be learned from this experience? Linda Graham, a therapist who focuses on resilience, offers an in-depth exercise on envisioning outcomes.
  3. Actively cope with the stressor through means of support. Disengagement and avoidance (cute kittens anyone?) may feel like the most comfortable responses. Sometimes, for the sake of one’s mental health, disengagement is necessary. Active coping includes taking a temporary break from focusing on the issue and then making a plan to respond. Engage with your support system as needed. In addition to family, peers, and mentors, please know that JHSAP and the Office of Student Life are here to help you actively cope.

 As a doctoral students, challenges are inevitable. However, remember you are resilient, and you have support!