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Constructive Feedback

Now that I’ve received notice that I wasn’t selected in the Nature Careers 2013 Columnist contest, I can share the audition post on constructive feedback that I wrote for it. Just like a grant, I look at this now, and see ways I could have made it better. Telling, really.


In an environment of continually shrinking funding and fewer jobs for more candidates, receiving an individual fellowship is a critical way for young scientists to set themselves apart from the pack. While I knew this from the start of my graduate career, as a postdoc I am still learning how to receive fellowship grant feedback in a way that improves my application for next time, rather than discourages my science.

Like many PhD students, my academic applications nearly always met with success, until I began pursing funding for my work. Suddenly finding one’s self in an area of intense competition – say, for the US National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships – can be a new experience. I applied for the GRFP as a first year student and felt pretty good about myself for achieving Honorable Mention on the first try. The next year, on the second attempt, Honorable Mention again didn’t feel as nice. The feedback was only somewhat helpful, or so I thought at the time – the proposal was excellent but could be better, and my science outreach activities as an undergraduate were outstanding.

Bolstered by this feedback, I persisted and applied for a Department of Defense Breast Cancer Predoctoral Fellowship. This was my first experience with a long gestation period for grant feedback, waiting almost six months. At the time, I simply saw that I did not get the grant and could not bear to look more closely for a few weeks. I sense that I am not alone in this desire to withdraw into my shell like a turtle at negative feedback – the American educational system, in particular, does not do much to prepare people for this requisite part of a scientific career, and the long hours put into the grant make it feel like a much more personal rejection than it is.

After a few weeks, I read the feedback and received it almost too eagerly, concluding that the project proposed was not worth doing. Later, when I wrote up the preliminary results for my dissertation, my committee members remarked that it was a shame the project didn’t develop into a publication. While the grant reviewer feedback was not the sole reason for abandoning the project – I encountered technical difficulties and another group published an alternate explanation for my results – but I do wonder if the doubt sowed by the reviewers made me less willing to push through on that project.

Near the end of my graduate career, I encountered the reviews while cleaning out my bench, and only then realized just how close I had been to funding at that time. With some strategic revisions, the application could have made it. Had I been more open and willing to discuss the reviews with my advisor – and had she pushed harder to look at them – perhaps I would have continued to pursue that project.

I entered my postdoc knowing that I would need to apply for fellowship funding, and the first one I received feedback from, the American Cancer Society, scheduled phone meetings with the program officer. Having that first conversation has bolstered my courage to call program officers to inquire about review discussions in the future; knowing you will ask questions about the reviews gives one a reason to really study them. Seven sets of feedback remain.

Clearly, receiving critical feedback is a key skill for scientists and one I admit I am still honing my skills on. The transition from trainee to independent research scientist requires one to learn to both listen to feedback openly and discern what to do with the feedback. The appropriate response is not to accept all feedback without questioning, nor is it to ignore the feedback claiming that reviewers don’t understand your brilliance. Learning to walk this line is a task best taken with trusted colleagues and mentors, and requires the courage to expose one’s work to even broader critique.