Recently, I have seen a number of senior scholars asking for advice on Twitter about how best to give a constructive peer review to a graduate student whose work they find fundamentally flawed. It’s a good question and a particularly important one. (And, as a graduate student, one I feel particularly qualified to answer.) For many graduate students, peer review is the way we get our first exposure to the discipline beyond our own departments. Our experiences with peer review shape the way we see our broader field and our willingness to pursue careers within it.
Those first (and often, repeated) rejections also take a big toll on graduate students’ mental health. I have yet to meet a graduate student who didn’t ask themselves if they belonged in academia after receiving that first rejection letter. No matter how much academics try to normalize rejection as part of the process, graduate students’ impostor syndrome flares up and it can become really difficult to sit down and start writing again. If you’ve never had validation that your work is good, it can be hard to believe that you can produce something great.
It’s easy to recognize that senior scholars sending out long, tough reviews want to improve the scholarship before them, but you can’t improve the scholarship if you scare the scholar out of pursuing the project they submitted for your review—or out of academia altogether.
Facing my own particularly harsh rejection this week, I spent some time thinking about the reviews I have found the most helpful at this stage in my career—and those that were such a gut punch that I disregarded them altogether. I came up with a list of recommendations for reviewing articles you imagine have a graduate student as an author.
Share what excites you about the manuscript. Before you dig into the critique, make space to enthuse about the graduate student’s potential as an academic. A big part of learning how to be an academic is learning what you’re doing well. Comment on the parts of the manuscript that make you excited for the next draft. Help the graduate student see their strengths and what parts of the paper are worth keeping. Give them a prod to get excited about working on this paper again!
Think to the future. It might be a small thing, but I always feel more supported by reviews that use phrases like “in future drafts” or “for the next stage of revisions.” It’s a reminder in the review that rejection—and the feedback you get in the process—is part of writing a great article. It’s also a reminder that a rejection isn’t a reason to give up on a project altogether.
Pick your battles. Graduate students don’t often know what to prioritize in revisions. Long lists of nitpicky concerns almost guarantee that the graduate student you reviewed will miss the most important points you made. Choose the most important critiques you have to give and hone in on those. Try to keep your review to two pages or less. Trust the peer review process (and the graduate student’s advisor!) to address some of the less pressing concerns that arose during your review of the paper.
Ask questions. It can be difficult for a young scholar to get out of their own head enough to understand some of the critiques they’re facing. Push them in the right direction by asking provocative questions you think will advance the way they see their work. For example, “Your view of masculinities is limited,” is less useful than, “Have you considered the impact of structural inequality on how different men perform masculinity?”
Recommend literature. I often get reviews that indicate I’m not citing the literature the reviewer thinks I should consider, but very rarely do those reviewers offer any advice on the literature they think I should have included. That kind of a review can lead graduate students thinking, “But I thought I did have a grasp of that literature. What am I missing?” If there is a citation or two that you think would point a junior scholar in the right direction, reference it explicitly.
Let the typos go. When a paper has huge flaws, nothing is more distracting from that fact than a list of small typographical errors. Plus, it makes the reviewer look petty (especially when there are typos in the review itself). Trust that the junior scholar will catch these mistakes when they’re editing the paper—or leave these comments off until the R&R stage. Don’t leave a graduate student with the impression that the biggest problem with their paper was poor proofreading.
Be kind. While some scholars cling to the traditional belief that harsh reviews are the only helpful reviews, the reality is that most junior scholars take more out of reviews that were kind and optimistic about the value of their work. Comments like, “I see no future for this paper” or, “The author is incompetent in the basics of academic writing” are hurtful and they are not at all helpful. (Those are also all real sentences from reviews I have received.) We aren’t supposed to know everything or get our papers right on the first draft—that’s why we’re in graduate school. Mistakes shouldn’t make us feel like lost causes.
Reviews can be critical and constructive. For example, consider replacing something like, “This paper reads like a litany of the researcher’s field notes, tossed together at random with minimal analysis,” with something more like, “It would be useful in future drafts to include more analytical scaffolding around the quotes presented. It was hard to follow the author’s train of thought through the findings section.”
My personal take is that mean reviews are lazy reviews. It’s easier to insult an author than it is to offer constructive feedback. If you aren’t up to the task of helping improve a paper, then don’t agree to review it. That reviewer spot could have gone to someone who is supportive of the graduate student’s scholarly project and could have helped them hone their ideas and become a better academic.
Recognize your own limits. Sociology is a broad discipline. We often review manuscripts that are a little bit outside of our own wheelhouses, especially when new topics are emerging in sociological study (e.g., transgender studies, sexual violence). When reviewing someone you believe is a graduate student, be sure to recognize the limits of your own knowledge—just as you would with an author who is clearly a more senior scholar. It is very possible that something you find confusing or inappropriate in the article is normative among the most recent scholarship in the area you aren’t completely familiar with. Respect the knowledge that the graduate student does have.
Ultimately, graduate students are junior scholars, trying to publish for the first time. These are people we want to keep in the discipline and inspire to love their work. Write reviews that reflect the vulnerability and importance of putting your scholarly work out there. Write reviews that will make graduate students eager to start the publication process all over again.