A New Reaction to Being “Wrong”


When you’re told that you’re wrong, reactions can range from very mild discomfort to earth-shattering unhappiness, with a whole range of emotions in-between. Yet, in the crazy world of academia, putting up with being “wrong” is almost daily… so how do you deal with it?

If you’ve been reading my Ph.D posts or if you know me personally, you’ll know that I’m still extremely new to academia: an academi-n00b. No matter how much I go on about linguistics, there’s also an awful lot that I really don’t know. I suppose the same applies to any area when you think about it hard enough…

So earlier today, I was told I was wrong, about my theories and research that I’ve been looking at constantly for many months, by someone who I’ve never even met BUT who is extremely well-versed in the area in which I’m researching. My immediate reaction:



My natural reaction to being told that I’m wrong on something that I both thought I understood and have work so hard on was feeling upset, as I’d expect many others to be. You don’t just consecrate a large part of your life to trying to better an (albeit small) area of humanity without feeling knocked back with harsh criticism!

This also led onto thoughts of the ever-abundant Imposter Syndrome: it’s common to feel like an imposter or a fraud when getting into research, and then, when someone who is much more versed in the area you’re looking at refutes your ideas, it’s like you’ve been “found out” as an early-career researcher who doesn’t really understand what’s going on.

Put all this together and whaddya get?!


…at least, this is what I thought before I shared this news with some friends and other researchers. A few picked me up from being kicked down, and many made me realise a different dimension to this situation.

One of the (many) things to concentrate on in a Ph.D is the ability to defend a theory or point of view. The final exam, in fact, is dedicated to scaring the hell out of Ph.D students by getting people at the top of their game to interrogate you for 3 hours, with the aim of getting you to orally defend your standpoint. So why should I see this insistence on my ‘wrongness’ as a nail in the research coffin?

Why don’t I respond with my theoretical standpoint, explaining “no, I’m not ‘wrong,’ but I may be thinking in a different fashion. And here’s why…”?

Well that’s what I did, but the only difference between my response and the initial comment was the fact that I took a different approach. Rather than getting into an infinite loop of “No, you’re wrong!” I decided to open up a dialogue. I explained my theory, my reasoning, and what I intend to do, alongside asking for their input: if I’m wrong, why am I wrong? You’re the one who knows way more about this stuff than I do, so guide me.

Here’s hoping it works. For the record, I still feel a bit hurt, but I guess that comes with the Ph.D package!


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