1. Oh, my my. Can I staple this to the front of my syllabus every semester from now until forever? I will be forever grateful to my mom for never telling me I was smart. We are visiting my in-laws this week, and this is exactly why I cringe every time my MIL says how “smart” my 2-year-old is (which is about once every five minutes). I mean, seriously, the kid is on track for his milestones, and I find him charming as two-year-olds go, but that’s about it. I try to turn the conversation in a different direction (like by talking about how well he’s learning his manners, or about how I love to see him keep trying when something is hard). Thankfully they live a plane flight away, so probably won’t be around often enough to give him a complex on their own.

  2. Woah so recognizable! It was so eye opening to me that I could also choose to do things that I actually enjoy instead of working to finish something to get praise.

  3. I wish everyone could absorb all those lessons before grad school. My soul-searching to wean myself off of external praise started in high school, when I read Alfie Kohn’s “Punished by Rewards”. I realized (cue vivid adolescent contempt) that my parents and school administrators cared about my achievement for mostly selfish reasons. I more or less finished weaning myself off in grad school, when my moral goals stabilized, but I remember explicitly discussing with a therapist how I still occasionally craved praise from my advisor to fill in the emotional gaps with my mom. It definitely helped that my PhD advisor was uninterested in assessing performance and just wanted to focus on science. It is good to have the focus off oneself!

    As a PI, dealing with some of my trainees’ unresolved emotional development can be a drag. I actually had the sig other of a trainee ask to meet secretly with me to warn me how much trainee cared about my opinion, but shouldn’t be told we knew how much he cared… (talk about a red flag!). What’s awkward is that some of my colleagues seem to imply that I should be encouraging psychological transference by providing seemingly holistic boundary-crushing coaching services and heaps of praise. I don’t want to be a stand-in for a parent. In my limited experience, it’s these people– who act as surrogate parents– who get the mentoring awards. I’ve wondered if some of the students who benefit from their mentoring are not delaying their development.

    There’s a balance somewhere. I do want to encourage people to feel like they’re doing meaningful work as part of a team, and I don’t want my lab members ever to feel intrinsically bad on account of their work, but so much of scientific research is just saying to hell with it, I’m going to try this because I believe it’s important. And I’ll keep trying. It is sad how fast some people wilt when things go wrong the first time, and the kinds of psychological displacement (in the form of altered professional goals) that arise in people who so abhor feeling bad at something.

    *Caveat: I do understand performance anxiety related to employability. It’s different.

  4. Assistant professor
    I liked your honest comment, but personally I think the mentor-mentee relationship is one where seeking and receiving praise for good work is quite natural. I mean, we are trying to teach them to be great scientists and they don’t necessarily know yet when they are doing elements of great science unless we tell them. They, after all, typically have only one mentor.

    TBH, I don’t think I ever weaned myself off of desire for external praise. For me, that’s one of those things that sounds nice but is possibly impossible and/or not clear it is worth a tremendous amount of effort.

  5. “…personally I think the mentor-mentee relationship is one where seeking and receiving praise for good work is quite natural”

    I agree. We all want to do good, meaningful work, and often our immediate supervisor is the only one who can reassure us we’re on the right track. That should involve praise of the work.

    It seems to me this can get out of hand. I have a trainee whose feelings about his project seem to track whatever comment he most recently receives on the project. It breaks my heart. It is good, important work. He has had to describe its significance for multiple fellowship applications and talks, but somehow none of this matters if he receives criticism, even low-quality criticism. I can see it in the way he handles questions about the work–it’s almost as though the data and his excellent statistical analyses don’t matter, and he’ll rapidly agree with any nonsensical claim. He has also decided to leave the field. This might have little to do with needing praise per se, but it definitely stems from how hard he feels the work is and how disengaged (I’ve discovered) he is from the research. I learned late he was pressured into this field by his parents, and remains pressured by them.

  6. “I don’t think I ever weaned myself off of desire for external praise.”

    Sorry for double post, but I wanted to soften my claims here too. External praise is often an indicator of valuable contributions, and in most circumstances, it’s thus normal/good to desire it. Craving praise to fill other gaps isn’t ideal.

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