Making Sense of the Avalanche of Advice Given to Students, Postdocs, and ECRs: How Not to Suck in Grad School
Advice is everywhere for academics. The paths, roles, and functions for new academics are so inscrutable that there is an entire library of books, academic Twitter, and hundreds of blog posts with advice on how to make the path knowable. For example, an article entitled, “23 books that fix 99% of PhD problems” (http://www.nextscientist.com/books-phd-problems/) is typical. There is the risk that little progress will be made on the research that needs to be accomplished because so much time and energy are spent reading books, developing increasingly efficient calendars and to do lists, and learning the latest planning and organizing software. The irony is not lost on me in that this blog post is yet another piece of advice on the topic of advice. A little meta-advice might be helpful for organizing the volumes of information that are available.
Advice has traditionally been the purview of old men who are too tired and decrepit to serve as a bad example. But given the wildly variable criteria for success as a graduate student, postdoc, or early career researcher; advice giving is a cottage industry that is mostly populated by well-meaning and talented professors. To some degree, the widely varied advice is a sure sign that no one knows what they are doing. Contrary to the common belief, academics are often kind and helpful to peers and students. Because we are all in this together, sharing information is most often a kind act.
There are still a few families of advice that are not particularly helpful. One is the meaningless advice that includes words such as should, must, ought, needs to, and similar judgment words. This is not honest advice. This is someone’s opinion of the way the world should be if they oversaw everything. This form of advice is rarely useful. Old man status quo advice is also not useful. This is the type of advice that reports on the way things used to be and assumes that there is a universal and one-track approach to success. This form of advice ignores the heterogeneous paths to success, diversity, changes in culture, and consideration that there might be a better way. A related type of useless advice is “this is what I do, so unless you want to fail, you should do it, too.” When advice glorifies the advisor without providing ideas that can be implemented, and there may be a different agenda than being helpful.
Beware of Cynicism
The response to much academic advice is cynicism. I recently heard an experienced academic give the advice that he has no advice to give because the job market is so different than it was 20 years ago. This was lauded as excellent and accurate advice. This is not useful advice, but it is accurate. That this comment was given such plaudits is a good measure of the degree of cynicism concerning academic advice.
Much advice from senior academics is dismissed as survivorship bias. This is certainly an issue if the assumption is that the advice is essential to discriminate successful from unsuccessful people. I doubt there is any advice that can withstand scrutiny of a serious program evaluation. This claim takes the validity and importance of advice a little too seriously.
Another popular cynical line of thought is that luck plays such a large role in academic success that any advice on behaviour is not useful. This way of thinking is not only cynical, but absurd. Just about everything in life is a stochastic process. It is true that luck plays a large role in the job I have, whether grants are funded, or papers accepted. But luck also played a role in my parents meeting, surviving an auto accident when I was two years old, being assigned an inspirational teacher in grade 6, not getting meningitis during a local outbreak, and countless events that did or did not happen and which I had no control over. Academia, like life, is a noisy system. I believe that any information that can change the probability, even a little bit, can be helpful.
Criticizing the source of information is also cynical and not particularly useful. If advice comes from people of a different age, discipline, gender, ethnic group, linguistic group, or sexual orientation; information can still prove helpful. The assumption of such criticisms is that there is that advice is necessarily universal. Only the truly arrogant and addled make the case that their advice is perfect, universal, and should be implemented by everyone. As in nearly all cases when information is intended to change behaviours to result in a better outcome, context is everything. There is likely a slightly higher probability that advice will be effective if it comes from individuals with similar life experiences and applied in similar contexts, yet valuable information can come from any source.
Communicating specific information to be implemented in a public platform is always difficult. Broad information is universally appealing, but not useful. Specific information may be useful, but has appealed to only a limited number of users. Information such as “be kind” is appealing to a large number of people, but is so vague as to be functionally useless. Specific information such as “the time spent disinfecting materials when working with preschoolers is a sound investment” is helpful, but only applies to a few people. Knowing exactly what you are looking for helps to locate narrow and useful advice that may not receive a lot of retweets and likes, but is extraordinarily useful. Broad information is like other aphorisms: may be true and are nice inspiration, but not practical advice to change your behavior.
The true value of advice found in books, blogs, and on the Internet is what purpose that you have for these nuggets of potential wisdom. Knowing your purpose is a critical component of accepting and implementing any advice or wisdom. What you hope to gain from the advice? Where are your systemic limitations? What skills do you already possess? What goals would you like to achieve with new advice? What are the values that you wish to communicate and implement following advice? Unless you know where you want to go, there can be no filter to determine which advice is valuable and which is useless.
Change. If you are trying to change from an unsuccessful process or behaviour, then searching about the Internet and books for life-changing bits of information is inefficient and barely more useful than random. If you have inefficient work habits or ideas and wish to change, the most efficient and best approach is to have a consultant, mentor, instructor, coach, or therapist listen carefully to your needs, resources and previous efforts to address the issue, the needs of your context and environment; and then develop a detailed strategy with you. That strategy can then be modified, implemented, evaluated, adjusted, re-implemented, and reevaluated with guidance.
Confirmation. Many times, we read bits of advice from experienced scholars to confirm that what were already doing is the right thing. Given the diversity of work habits, procedures, and processes; it is easy to be insecure about such things. If your approaches and processes result in efficient and quality outcomes, then do not worry about it. Second-guessing is not an efficient way to go through your career. There are no magic bullets for academic work. You are doing fine. If there is a need to change, then see the above paragraph.
Exploring ideas. The best reason to seek out advice books is to browse. Academic advice is very much like aphorisms for life, easy to read, witty, insightful, but rarely useful. Browse advice because it is fun and possible to find minor bits of information and tweaking of your current process. I find this to be the most useful approach to advice books, blogs, and tweets.
Most advice is probably useful for someone in some conditions. The utility of the advice tends to depend on context. And no one knows your context better than you. Because something does not work for you, does not mean the advice is bad. Most typically, the most effective advice requires an educated consumer who knows the purpose of the advice they are seeking and finds advice givers who tend to understand your values and context. Seeking professional advice on Twitter, blogs, or other Internet sites is a bit of a scavenger hunt. The best advice is to search for a mentor who can assist you in creating custom made process wisdom rather than off-the-rack advice from the Internet.