Dealing with Negative Feedback: A How-To Guide from a Professional Reject

Dear reader, it is that time of year. While we all hope for ‘accept, minor revision’ the reality is this time of year brings with it a lot of disappointment: Conference rejections, journal revises and resubmits, grant application abject failures, and, what I have most recently been coping with, scathing student evaluation feedback. Yes, the January blues for academics are a bitter, frustrating, and utterly depressing time of year… if you don’t know how to take feedback.

Some time ago I wrote a blog post about how bad reviews exist because no one teaches academics how to review. I’d like to think of this post as a companion piece about how no one really teaches academics how to read reviews of their work either. Most of the advice I was given in grad school amounted to “Well, if the journal says to revise your article, revise it. Or don’t, and fight them on why the suggested change is nonsense.” While well intentioned, this advice doesn’t work. It doesn’t work not only because it takes a combative- rather-than-collaborative stance and assumes your reviewers are your opponents and not your assistants, but also because not all feedback you get as an academic is revise-and-resubmit. Grants, for example, give you a huge REJECTION and very little feedback about what you could’ve done better. And deal with it, they say. In a similar vein, student end of semester evaluations have left me scratching my head on more than one occasion. I’ve gotten feedback so out of left field it made me question whether or not the student and I were ever in the same room! (We were, I take attendance.) 

Feedback on research and teaching is often perplexing, frustrating, and hard to not take personally. So what can we do about it? I’ve developed some sanity-preserving strategies to process even the most beastly feedback and listed them here. Now obviously I am no psychologist, so these strategies should not be taken as therapy, medical advice, or anything of the sort. Think of the advice listed here as if you and I were out for coffee and you asked about how I take bad reviews and I happened to have a list prepared of the following 5 easy steps:

1. Check your perspective

2. Take the good with the bad

3. Remember that all criticism is valid- to varying degrees

4. Summarise the takeaways- leave the rest

5. Drink a beer, pet a dog, commiserate with a trusted friend

1. Check your perspective 

I tend to focus on the negative. Not just in feedback, but also in life. (Goth4eva!!) But I think that’s relatable, no? We all know that we can have 10 people compliment our new jeans and one person say it makes our booty look flat and that’s a day ruiner. Not only a day ruiner, but we also might think about putting those trousers in the bin when we get home. 

Since I know I tend to focus on the negative, I know that I need to pull back and look at the big picture of the review as a whole. Rather than think, “It only takes one apple to spoil a whole bunch,” I focus less on the spoilage and more on the whole barrel of fruit. In the above example, the new jeans were a smash hit! If a product had 10 five star reviews on Amazon and only 1 one star review, would I still buy the product? Probably. I would probably disregard that one star review as a salty outlier- and rightly so.

But how do you gain perspective with journal article reviews, teaching evals, peer evals, comments from well-meaning-but-pushy relatives over Christmas? Well, my own personal answer is a spreadsheet because, ya know, data… No, seriously, I really do put all comments into a spreadsheet with the total positive, neutral, and negative comments at the top (I’ve included an example screenshot below). Why talk about the positives first? Well, I am glad you asked because that’s pro-tip #2! But we will get to that in a minute.

What do I do if the feedback isn’t written down? Like, what if I am in a verbal meeting and being given feedback? Well, I take notes. Taking notes in feedback meetings is vitally important- especially if it is a performance review- and generally considered to be good professional practice. You can type up the notes, any goals/guidelines and expectations and send them to whomever was giving you feedback to check for clarity and ensure no miscommunication has transpired. Plus, if you get feedback which you feel is unfair, unkind, or unprofessional, having a record of what was said and why it made you feel that way is very important if you go to file a formal complaint (but hopefully that will never happen).

2. Take the good with the bad.

I’m sure my very bright psychology colleagues and games user researcher friends (pinging Rachel Kowert, Ben Taels, Elizabeth Zelle) would have a fancy way of saying this, but I’ll be blunt: It is easier to hear a Nice Thing™ first and then a Bad Thing™. If I hear a Bad Thing™ first, then I focus on the bad thing while the Good Things™ are (hopefully) being said. If I hear a Good Thing™ first, then it colours the Bad Things™ as less Bad™. Make sense? No? Oooookay. Here’s a chart:

Actual feedback has been blurred to protect the innocent, but yes, this is an actual snippet of a course review.

Put another way, putting the positive feedback first in my chart (example above) not only helps me keep a balanced perspective (like we talked about in #1 above), but also helps me get through the stuff that’s less pleasant to hear. 

It is also just good practice. If you want to revise or revamp a course you are teaching, it is as important to keep the parts that are working as it is to change the parts that are broken. If you only listen to what’s bad, you may be at risk of messing up, changing, or removing the parts of the class that were very effective for learning.

3. Remember that all criticism is valid- to varying degrees.

This is the point I personally struggle with the most. Getting criticism on your work that comes out of nowhere, from a different paradigm, or feels completely irrelevant is frustrating and irritating. But we all know that you should never outright disagree with a review or be anything less than grateful for the feedback. Publicly. (We will get to what to do with bad feedback privately in #5).

Just last year I received a negative review of a paper I had submitted to an Unnamed-but-Well-Known conference. This Strongly Reject review claimed my paper should be, well, strongly rejected for a litany of sins. And although I do enjoy a good sin, I did not feel that the feedback in this specific case was warranted. In particular, the review claimed the paper lacked clear methodology. This review comes despite the fact I had a subheading entitled “Methods” where I detailed the methodology I used to collect the data for the study. If you cannot tell, dear reader, I am still salty about this review. 

Going back to my own points #1 and #2, I had to read through the other two ‘Accept’ reviews of the paper to gain adequate perspective. Yes, someone probably did piss in Strongly Reject’s cereal the morning they decided to tell me my paper is bad and I am a bad academic, but they had a point buried under all their unprofessional rhetoric. My paper did have a methods section that was very clearly written for anyone coming from a background in qualitative methods or pedagogical studies, but maybe it wasn’t clear to folks coming from a comp sci or a quantitative background. 

Now I can sit here and make the argument that Strongly Reject should have identified themselves as lacking expertise in the research method and asked for a paper reassignment. Or I can sit here and make the argument that Strongly Reject should have just Googled the #!@*$ing method. Or I can sit here and say Strongly Reject could have given me the benefit of the doubt that the method was appropriate considering it was well cited within top tier education journals. But I won’t. Nope, I won’t sit here and say any of that because the point still stands: if Strongly Reject was confused by how I described my methods then surely some of the conference audience would be too. I took this into consideration when I revised my paper and presentation for the conference and, honestly? My paper was much stronger thanks to Strongly Reject.

As an aside, I did complain about the review to the conference committee because it was worded in a genuinely negative way that bordered on abusive. The committee assured me they would speak to the reviewer. Hopefully they directed them to my blog post, but who knows. If you’re out there reading this Strongly Reject, it is okay. I forgive you. 😛

4. Summarise the takeaways- leave the rest.

Sometimes a review contains a phrase or sentence that’s a real dagger to the heart. Like, it is so inflammatory either because it is a straight-up personal attack or because it is the antithesis of what you tried to achieve with your work and it gets stuck playing in your head on repeat. For me, a particular phrase will join the chorus of other voices in my head telling me that I am trash, a fraud, and that I don’t belong in academia OR videogames. Oh, that’s right grad students and juniors, the self-doubt and imposter syndrome never goes away. It gets less frequent, sure, but it will never go away. You gotta learn how to manage it.

One of the ways in which I manage my imposter syndrome is by not giving it fuel. I summarise down my feedback to just a few short points (actually, not unlike how I teach my games user research students to summarise feedback for a videogame after a playtest). I use my own words to highlight the key takeaways and then prioritise them according the frequency in the feedback so that when I go to make changes I know how to prioritise. The image below is actual, genuine, bonafide key takeaways which came from a post mortem I did after Fall 2019 student course evals.

Putting the feedback in my own words might seem like an interesting choice. Grounded theory purists would say that using my own words instead of the students’, in the above example, runs the risk of polluting the data set by abstracting the takeaways too far from their original meaning. I counter this critique by saying “yeah, probably, but for my own sanity I can’t stare too long at the blackhole sun of disparaging comments so it is either this or I wont change my classes.” At the end of the day, data is meaningless unless it is actionable so ya gotta do whatcha gotta do.

5. Drink a beer, pet a dog, commiserate with a trusted friend.

On the note of putting feedback into an easier to swallow pill, let’s not forget the social/psychological effects of getting harsh critique. It sucks. It powerful sucks. If you don’t acknowledge that it sucks, you probably aren’t taking the feedback adequately on board. It is important to first emotionally deal with all the bad feels that come from having your work critiqued before you can gain the perspective necessary to make actionable changes. 

In fact, in terms of order of operations, I should probably put this pro-tip first in this blog post. I have chosen to put it last because I didn’t want students or colleagues reading this post to skim it and go, “Oh, Ashley is encouraging alcoholism as a way to deal with feedback. Cool.” 

I know much has been made about alcohol addiction amongst academics so I cautiously claim a pint as part of my coping strategy. From my years in The Shire (England) I learned that after a rough day there is really nothing better to lift the spirits than an ale, a packet of crisps, and a shoulder to whinge on. Sometimes that shoulder is a dog (or a cat for all you cat people out there) and sometimes it is a trusted friend or colleague. 

I highlight the word trusted here because I want to make a clear distinction. If you have a hard day kvetching to a partner, family member, or friend might make you feel better. I’ve found that if I complain about a conference rejection or unfair teaching evaluation to compadres not in academia or games I am met with total bewilderment or well-meaning but ultimately unhelpful advice. 

“Who does that journal think they are to tell you your paper was anything less than amazing?” -My Nan.

Great. Thanks Nana. The sentiment is appreciated, but helpful you are not.

In these cases having a wonderful work buddy to QQ at is one of the most beautiful things in the world. In my case this is the amazingly supportive Dr. Kelly Boudreau, former co-lecturer and current bestie. Kelly and I worked together for a couple years back in 2014. She is a games academic with industry experience so she’s seen both sides of the coin and has also seen me at my best and worst. She is the perfect person to talk to about a shitty review because she understands, can relate, and (MOST IMPORTANT) is discrete. 

Here’s the part of this blog post that makes me hesitate pushing that post button. Look, let’s be real. We all complain from time-to-time about all sorts of stuff. Even if you have your absolute dream job and are happy 99.9% of the time, there is still going to be that .01% of yuck that you have to deal with and having friends you can talk to about it makes life more bearable. Especially if you are an extrovert like me that needs to process things with other people. 

So it seems like everyone complains about their job from time-to-time but everyone also agrees that complaining about work is unprofessional. Here’s my argument: there is a professional way to complain about your profession. To be professional about your unprofessional behavior consider the following components to a successful whinge session: time, place and people. Make sure you are complaining at the right time (AFTER you have had time to process the good and bad parts of the feedback); at the right place (NOT at a venue where concerned parties might overhear); and with the right people (NOT those that might fuel the gossip engine or look down on you/your work/school/journal/conference as a result).

Here’s a handy list (because I love lists!) of dos and don’ts to make your complaining profesh:

Don’t make yourself (or your company, family, friends, teachers, etc) look bad by complaining about something in public. If you are at a restaurant, assume the table next to you knows the editor of the journal you want to complain about. If you are on public transit, assume the person next to you is on the institutional review board for your university and will take offense if they overhear you calling their colleagues fools for rejecting your study. This includes the internet! Please, for all of us, think twice before tweeting.

Don’t complain to the first person you see immediately after getting feedback. I’m very guilty of walking into a co-worker’s office and blowing up about some turd of a review that’s just plopped into my inbox. Learn from my fails and just don’t. Please? Give yourself time to gain perspective and take the good with the bad before you start complaining. 

Don’t exaggerate the situation for extra sympathy. “The reviewer actually said you are worse at writing than an untrained monkey?! What journal was this again? I never want to submit there!” Bad reviews are bad enough. Exaggerations and embellishments often drift into accusations about wrong-doings and abusive behaviour. Abusive or unprofessional behaviour should be taken extremely seriously. If the feedback was abusive- which while rare does unfortunately happen from time-to-time- then the appropriate authorities need to be made aware. 

Do call a trusted friend on the phone from the privacy of your own home/room/office. You should trust this friend to not be a gossip or explicitly ask them not to share the information contained in your rant.

Do pat a doggo or a kitty. You can also rant to them all ya want. They are great listeners. 

Do report reviews/reviewers who are abusive. As a counter to the above point about not exaggerating feedback, it is very important to accurately report abusive reviews to the appropriate authorities. If it is a journal, look up the editor’s contact information and send them an email with the offending review attached. If it is a conference, contact the content chair and inform them. If it is a supervisor/manager giving inappropriate feedback in a verbal performance review take your notes (hooray for writing stuff down!) to their direct supervisor or human resources manager and file a formal complaint.

There. That’s how I cope with bad reviews of my work. If you have anything to add to the list or if you’d like to give me a bad review on my review of bad reviews, then please do! I love getting conversations started and talking about the stuff in academia which is oh so rarely written down. 

Until next time (I have a soap box to stand on),


5 Tips for a Good (Games) Conference Experience

Phew, I just got back from Finland and Germany and two amazing conferences. Whilst my body is thoroughly exhausted (thanks, sports!) my mind is more energised than ever. So, you have my apologies for the click-bait-y title, but this experience has truly been unique in that it is the first time I wasn’t physically ill from anxiety at a conference.

The entire process of conferencing is extraordinarily stressful. There’s the expense, travel, immigration, presentation-nerves, big social groups, fears of audience reaction, paper writing, possible rejection, misunderstanding, language barriers, unfamiliar cityscapes, tech failures, dead batteries, expensive mobile service, and more. Whilst there’s no way to lessen the natural anxieties which arise from travel and conferencing, I’ve found some ways of refocusing or perhaps distracting myself to be effective.

(I’m very much inspired by Nicolle Lamerich’s style of blog post here- and hopefully she takes that as a compliment 🙂 . Although probably unique to games-y type conferences, there might be wider relevance. The tips here appear in no particular order and come only from my personal experience.)

1. Play!

You are a games scholar. Remember why you became one? Oh yeah, because playing games is totally rad!


It seems funny that play is ingrained in our everyday lives to some degree, but when we go to conferences, we stop.

Conference schedules are jam-packed with events from morning to night and I’ve often felt an immense amount of pressure to attend every talk, read every paper, do all the things, and to do so I’ve had to sacrifice play-time. I realised that for me, play-time is me-time. A quick 5 minutes on the 3DS or a drop in play session in the arcade is like a stress-reset switch for me. It gives me a chance to switch focus from an otherwise highly stressful situation and just catch some bugs with a net in my AC:NL village. It is also a great conversation starter, I might add, and the StreetPasses are nice too.

No, I have no idea why I am making that face. Yes, this was a selfie. Yes, I could have easily taken another.


For the last DiGRA, I never bothered to go to the Blank Arcade because I was too wrapped up in attending every talk and tweeting every session. It took me until this year, sadly, to realise I had fallen into the particular type of productivity-driven thinking which I loathe. Especially since, in this case, it can be productive for game scholars to play games! (This actually clashes against my own reading of Huizinga, but hey ho, this is a blog post, deal with it.) Conferences are not a competition- they are a venue for exploring individual interests. If you’re interested in games, you’re doing yourself a disservice by not playing.

2. Talk to Everyone

This is something I really struggle with. I am not a social person by any means- I can spend blood points to boost social stats for a fixed duration, but then I’m torpor’d (VtM players will get this reference). I find social interactions tense, tedious and exhausting. Playing my 3DS between talks or interactions helps, but doesn’t fully alleviate the stress I feel during strained, worky, networking type conference conversations.

I suppose my point here is that if you’re going to be socially awkward and struggle, then do so with everyone. Don’t try to make a powerplay by brushing past a student to talk to a professor- or if you have to- then excuse yourself and try to be polite about it. Or just be generally awkward and horrible to everyone equally. 🙂

And as an aside, if someone is awkward and horrible to you (like I probably was), it usually isn’t personal. They, like me, might just feel stressed because of myriad other factors.

3. Embarrass Yourself

Embarrassment is a fun topic, right Sebastian? I suppose embarrassment is a sliding scale and different for each person, but I feel like the more you can intentionally embarrass yourself in socially allowed ways, the better.

Most conference days end with a chance to experience embarrassment first-hand. Whether it be karaoke, danceoke (see below), a football match in which you injure your knees so bad you can’t walk properly for three days (also see below), or a group night out, these events not only help blow off steam, but also help the social lubrication of the conference.

Danceoke led by Jaakko Stenros at University of Tampere. I didn’t actually participate in this event for the health and safety of others. My dancing is a little bit… erm… dangerous.


I maybe got a wee bit competitive during three-team football… Photo credit to Xavier Ho.


Compared to the stress of letting your team down, embarrassing yourself with an injury or by being over-competitive, conference presentations seem like a walk in the park. I think this is for two reasons. First, it brings down risks to self-identity. A whole group of people are re-assuring you that it is okay to not be the rigid-professional at this given moment in time- it is in fact socially unacceptable to do so. Secondly, being silly or embarrassing or playful together is a bonding experience. Hard to be nervous in front of an audience that you’ve played with.

4. Eat Whatever



Seriously. Just enjoy not having to cook for once.



No rules apply. You want a breakfast beer? Do it. You want dinner at 15:00? Go for it. Most people will be so jetlagged that they won’t notice or care and will probably assume you are also jetlagged.

5. Humour

I recommend a humorous approach to life in general, but particularly at conferences. If you can get your audience to chuckle at least once during a conference presentation, you’re probably doing something right… or you have a funny topic. Obviously humour isn’t always appropriate, but I am sure you can figure that one out on your own.

The Goatse of Grief Play by Jaakko Stenros.


A good sense of humour travels well. Take time to look around and notice your surroundings. Also take time to laugh at the little things. Like this toilet roll holder:

Heh heh heh. Best bog-roll holder ever.

I’m unsure how many DiGRA attendees bothered to take a look during their walk in to uni, but in someone’s front yard was a big red box (see below).



Covered in graffiti, I assumed this was a disused cigarette dispenser, but a closer look told me no.

For the discerning business traveler, this machine dispenses condoms, vibrators, cockrings, and, of course, the famous TravelPussy.



Yep. Just out in someone’s front garden. Although, it was close to the university and could have been a part of student halls, or maybe even a student prank as I believe these are normally found in toilets. I didn’t actually check to see if I could buy a TravelPussy, a mistake I gravely regret now. Anyway, I got a pretty good chuckle out of it.

5.1 Explore

Piggybacking onto humour is my advice to explore the local area. If you can, try to squeeze in a day before or after the conference to go walking around. If your schedule is too tight, take a midday break, grab a sandwich, and have a picnic.

The conference police won’t arrest you for missing a panel… unless you’re a presenter.


I honestly don’t think brains (well, at least my brain) is equipped to deal with 8 straight days of (net)working from 7:30-23:00. Sometimes you just gotta chill in the woods for a bit… with something you bought from a vending machine in someone’s front garden… ;D

Until next time,