Here’s my reply to the reader’s question about the effects of being harshly criticised by a colleague you respect.
I was a highly independent grad student. Some might say obstinate and unruly. This was due to a combination of my personality, my tender age and the science wars of the 1990s. I came to the university of Stockholm as a science major right about the time that Northern European archaeology fell into its belated infatuation with post-modernism and went badly anti-scientific for a while. At age eighteen, after fifty pages of Ian Hodder’s turgid Reading the Past, I decided I would have none of it. Science is based in empirical observation and expressed in clear, succinct language, or it is not science. And non-scientific approaches to the past is the province of historical novelists, who manage quite well without critical theory, thank you.
Of course, I fought constantly with the post-mods at my department, some of whom were quite senior people. This often made me miserable, and did nothing for my thesis funding. But still, I could grimly savour the knowledge that I was hitting them where it hurt, questioning loudly whether things they held dear really had any value whatsoever. And those fights aren’t relevant here: the question was about people I respect.
In my grad student years I went through four thesis supervisors, all of whom I still like and respect both professionally and socially. None of them ever had the opportunity to exert any strong influence on my work, which was clearly a source of some frustration to one or two of them. On the other hand I never made many demands on their time. But one of them hurt me real bad, mama.
This old guy has, shall we say, black days now and then. They seem to occur spontaneously and are not related to any substance abuse. But I wasn’t clearly aware of this tendency in the man at the time. My final thesis tutorial with him must have fallen on a day when his outlook happened to be particularly bleak. Sitting in his office, a stack of manuscript printout in his hand, he heaved a morose sigh and told me, “Martin, nobody in the world thinks that this is any good. I can’t supervise you any more.” No extenuating circumstances. No constructive suggestions about how my purportedly crappy work might be improved. I left the place in a daze.
Did it help me? Harsh and non-constructive criticism from a respected senior colleague on my own side of the science wars, someone who was in fact paid to coach and support me on my way to my doctorate? No, it was unequivocally damaging to me.
Did it set my career back? Well, I guess someone less robust and stubborn than myself would have packed it in right then and there. But no, it didn’t set me back. I just soldiered on. And apart from the odd outburst of disproportionate grumpiness, that I can now recognise, my then supervisor has been very kind to me since that day and supported me in many ways. Maybe one day, when I’m sitting with a stack of crappy thesis manuscript printout in my hand, I’ll be better equipped to deal with it for having gone through that ordeal.
And the thesis — did it suck? Well, Dear Reader, you be the judge, it’s on-line. It made me a PhD all right, it’s been favourably reviewed in respected international journals, and people seem to use it quite a lot judging from the citations I’ve come across.
On the other hand, I’ve later come to realise that a PhD in Scandinavian archaeology is pretty much a worthless commodity these days. So one might say that what set me back in my career wasn’t harsh criticism from a respected colleague, but the fact that he didn’t actually manage to scare me off the road to academic nowhere.