How to Handle a Withering Critique

“If you’ve never cried before, during, or after a meeting with your advisor, something is amiss.”

– Dr Karen Kelsky of The Professor Is In


When I signed up as a postgrad student, I didn’t expect crying to be part of the process. It’s just not in my nature. The opening sequence of Up didn’t do it for me. By the end of The Notebook, I was just bored. A bee stung my lip once. It made me look like a post-bender Lindsay Lohan, but there was nary a tear – even when I realised that I looked like Lindsay Lohan.

Yet I once received a piece of feedback so devastating, so caustic, so utterly acerbic, that I burst into tears on the spot. (The spot was a park bench. Lesson learned: don’t read uni emails in public.)

I have a term for the type of feedback that has such power over one’s eye ducts: the withering critique.

The withering critique is a criticism that makes you question what you’re doing with your life. It cuts to the heart of your work, your intelligence, your worth as a scholar. Perhaps the withering critique finds a fundamental hole in your reasoning that invalidates months or years of work. Perhaps it reveals that your “original” contribution has already been made by someone else. Perhaps it questions your ability to write a cogent sentence. In any case, it hurts. Hard.

The thing is, most people who review your work – be they supervisors, journal editors, conference organisers, or peers – are not out to be mean.

reviewer 2Unless they are Reviewer #2

There is quite possibly a good intention behind the withering critique, and there is almost certainly something to learn from it. Sure, it might be harsh; but the withering critique can help you to become stronger, build up your defences, and produce work that is more robust.

So here is my personal 6-step process for turning a withering critique into a productive experience.

Step 1: Cry. It’s inevitable, so you might as well give in to the tears. Find a quiet space, have a good long cry, and cuddle the nearest friendly cat / pillow / spouse / flatmate.

Step 2: Vent. At this stage, you will probably feel some frustration towards your critic. Vent that frustration privately by writing an equally withering slam poem about him/her, punching a pillow, raving to death metal, screaming into the void, or whatever (legal) method works for you.

Step 3: Initiate physical recovery. Sleep, water, paracetamol, and mashed potatoes are good for this.

Step 4: Contextualise the critique. Recognise that it’s a critique of your work, not of you. This is a crucial distinction. It may also be a critique of only a part of your work. Revisit any feedback around the withering critique. Probably some of it is good. Think of positive feedback you’ve had in the past. Realise that the withering critique doesn’t invalidate you. Even if it’s the worst piece of feedback you’ve ever gotten, it’s still just one piece of feedback. Albert Einstein’s headmaster reportedly told his father that he would never amount to anything, and he still did OK.

Step 5: Learn from the critique. Does the critic have a point? Can you make your work better by following any constructive suggestions within the critique? Even if it was a totally non-constructive critique, does it reveal parts of your work that may be frustrating for others? Ask questions of the critic (diplomatically) to understand their feedback properly. If you don’t agree with them, get a second opinion.

Step 6: Make an action plan. Physically get out a pen and paper and write down what you’re going to do to turn the withering critique into a positive outcome. If the withering critique was a comment on your written work, break down your plan for redrafting. Take back a sense of control, and clear a path towards a stronger next draft.


Have you ever received a withering critique? Tell us about it in the comments.

About Anaise Irvine

Dr Anaise Irvine is the Editor of Thesislink and leads the Researcher Education and Development team at Auckland University of Technology. Her PhD research analysed how contemporary films and novels represent genetic engineering as a social justice issue. These days she works with researchers at all levels to improve their research skills, and the most obscure of her own research skills is being able to turn novels into phylogenetic trees!

2 thoughts on “How to Handle a Withering Critique

  1. I have never received withering critique so far – but then I’m not far into my scholarly journey yet, working on my Masters thesis. What I do find challenging is the writing/rewriting, which I know is all part of the process, but it does feel endless. When I work for hours/days/weeks on something, to have it critiqued (albeit nicely!), I do wonder if it’s ever going to be ‘right’ or good enough. it’s hard to see it will ever be good enough to get to the end!

    1. Hi Barbara, I know what you mean! The sense of never being good enough seems to be a big part of the postgrad experience (and, similarly, the “imposter syndrome” that leads so many of us to feel like we’re not real researchers). Maybe this is our own minds administering an unfair withering critique!

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