Magnifying glass on woman looking into a microscope with Antonie van Leeuwenhoek observing.

Activate your inner researcher, embrace critique, and get a belt

I recently defended my PhD thesis and got grilled… or did I?

Why pretend? I was shaky at first. My thoughts were all over the place, and my 10-min presentation contained way too many “eeeeh’s” than I’m proud to admit, and my hand was all but sturdy when guiding the glass of water to my mouth. Although ceremonial, a happy event, I wanted to leave the PhD defense with a somewhat intact ego (you know, that person we sometimes imagine others see in us). Of course, I was nervous. Who wouldn’t be?

However, my nerves started to cool down after my 10-min presentation for the laypeople and the 5 additional minutes waiting for my opponents to enter the Gothic, 15th-century chapel room. First question, I’m feeling the vibe, but I’m still nervous; second question, I glimpse the Zone; and by the third question, I was in that Zone, feeling like Muhammad Ali, Rumble in the Jungle (see the title belt I won at the end of this post).

I was suddenly enjoying the discussion! My opponents praised my book and asked thought-provoking questions about my experiments and results. I was having fun!

PhD defense ceremony at University of Amsterdam (UvA). Thesis, defender, and paranymphs.
In the Zone with my paranymphs Anais and Petrit.

However, one thing didn’t add up. Parts of my family and friends were shocked by the opponents’ toughness. Friends following the ceremony live or online were commenting on a group chat, cursing my opponents for trying to slam me. Comments after the ceremony depicted a blood bath (not really, but you know what I mean).

Had I misjudged a hostile situation, thinking it was friendlier than it actually was?

Well, that’s a reasonable possibility; denial. But I’ve been burying the lead for too long now, so let’s reveal the point I came here to make: researchers are used to other researchers dissecting and criticizing their work. Most people are not.

As a researcher, you’re often the first to observe certain events, discover previously unknown mechanisms, and propose unheard-of pathways. Your peers will be skeptical and curious, sometimes assuming you may have missed a detail or cherry-picked information. And they should question everything because that’s how we learn and advance science – it’s a quid pro quo where you learn from each other.

My previous research institute would have formal and informal meetings several times weekly. You’d have to present your research results to your boss, PhD committee, collaborators, lab, department, parts of the institute, and the whole institute. Sometimes the meetings were calm and agreeable. But other times, especially when certain professors were in that mood, they would try to find holes in your work and grill you like midsummer at the park. That was the atmosphere there.

Sure, the approach has its downsides, such as teaching people to be overly negative toward other ideas, causing excessive stress, or missing out on constructive thoughts. But, ultimately, you get out of academia with the thickest skin in the hood. That someone doesn’t agree with your opinion doesn’t mean they’re hostile or rude; it simply means that they base their realities on different data.

These exchanges make you realize your weakest arguments or results and where you can start strengthening them. Since your peers may work in different research fields, these exchanges may also give you new ideas you’d never considered.

Continue disagreeing – but keep it civilized

I absolutely loved hearing my family and friends complaining about how unnecessarily tough my opponents could be at times. Their complaints reassured me that my crew stood in my corner, supporting me during the several tough rounds of back and forth. But as much as I love them for suffering with me, I suspect they experienced the event through different lenses. Researchers (and other academics) lose these friendlier and more diplomatic lenses with time; we become annoying a**holes in other people’s eyes.  

I’m not suggesting that one approach is better than the other. We might need to compromise a bit, for example, becoming the friendly a**hole. The friendly a**hole will often question and disagree with people but will do so constructively, without judging. The friendly a**hole is unafraid of confrontations but will not seek disagreements for their sake. The friendly a**hole is curious, craves information, and will find the right time and place to get the answers.

On the flip side, you should allow people to critique your ideas and arguments. If you start allowing criticism today, you’ll achieve a robust foundation of knowledge sooner than later that will help you in the long run. You’ll be able to distance yourself from becoming emotional toward disagreements, making your conversations more interesting.

As I highlighted in a previous post, taking criticism is challenging and requires training. I still struggle to accept criticism or different points of view at times. Still, I constantly try to improve and challenge myself to take them. Most of the time, I enjoy differences in opinions; they push me forward. Heck, disagreements push the world forward!

So, while some of my friends saw hostility in my opponents, I found the discussions constructive and completely normal. I want to think that my exposure to critique helped me reach that state. Either that or I’m in total denial…  


Let me know in the comment section below or on our social media pages (Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter) if you agree or disagree. Also, feel free to like and share if you reached this paragraph and think you enjoyed the information.

By the way, most people get a diploma after successfully defending their PhD. My family and friends (especially my lovely paranymphs) rewarded me with a Title belt! Who gets that after a successful PhD defense? It’s one of the most fantastic things I’ve received! It symbolizes my struggles and the UFC-like support from the people around me; the spirit among my closest was terrific! Check it out:

PhD title belt 2022.

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This Post Has One Comment

  1. A Man

    As you said, although ceremonial, and the diploma might not be on the line, the ego is. On the defendant eyes, he’s always the underdog, the underdog that dreams with his own rumble in the jungle. But the PhD defense is special even among academic events. It is also a great deal for young academics to be an opponent. Again, they are not there for the world title, but they expect to be able to land some good ones, and those with hungry ego come to rumble in the jungle expecting to be the next Frazier: they want to floor Ali, or his team. So, although I agree with the adaptation of the academics to a tougher environment, I don’t think that had great impact on the mismatched perceived friendliness: the laypeople in the room experienced it tougher not because they are softer or more sensitive, but because they didn’t see the bout preview.

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