Academic advice: where to find it, and how to get the most out of it

We all need good advice – the problem is making sure you know where to find it, and how to accept it, says John Tregoning

October 10, 2016
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Academia is a complex, challenging, highly competitive career and it is easy to feel lost. In the absence of a simple route from PhD to professor, we are forced to hunt for advice.

The problem is how does one get good advice? There is certainly no shortage of it; advice can be found everywhere, from your mate in a pub beer garden; to colleagues, coaches, mentors and heads of department; through training courses, conferences and lectures; to books and the infinite echo chamber of the internet. Some of it is excellent (may I, ahem, recommend this excellent blog), some of it is excrement.

The problem is not really finding advice, but in acting upon the right advice. It can be because the advice is poor, but more often it is because the recipient is not receptive because of hubris, egocentric bias, emotional investment, mistiming, lack of head space, failure to understand or advice saturation.

Here are five scenarios in which advice, however good, may not be acted upon:

  • Unique and beautiful snowflakes: all of us face different challenges at different times. These challenges are different to those faced by the generation before us (the people we often turn to for advice). The circumstances and career path for me as a lecturer are different to the professors in front of me and the postdocs behind me, leading to a misalignment of advice and problem.
  • Change sucks: sometimes to act on advice requires change. Change is hard at the best of times; change when it implies you have been doing something wrong, impossible.
  • You just don’t understand me: incorporation of feedback is inversely proportional to emotional investment. Often the advice sought concerns a piece of work into which you have invested considerable effort, sweat and tears. It is easy to confuse feedback with criticism.
  • Ostrich approach: additionally, if the advice received about a paper or grant identifies a problem that is difficult to solve, it can be easier not to address it and hope that the reviewers don’t spot the same problem (trust me, they always do).
  • I just want to be loved: however, sometimes when we say we are looking for feedback, we are actually looking for validation. Honest feedback may be useful in the long run, but when you have hit a wall, there are times when encouragement and support are more valuable.

So how to get more out of advice received?

Respect your elders
The first place most of us look for advice is senior faculty, and there are two good reasons to listen to them. First, academia hasn’t changed that much since monks set up the first universities, so their experience is still relevant. Second, senior faculty sit on the grant panels and promotion boards that you are targeting.

They know what works and more importantly what doesn’t work. If they raise red flags about your work, it is likely that their peers, who are evaluating you for real, will raise the same red flags. Don’t ignore feedback identifying problems in your work, however difficult they are to fix.

Role model(s)
We all need a role model – someone who has got to where you want to be, in whose footsteps we can tread. Of these people, there will be some people with whom you resonate more, whose advice is phrased in a way that is easier for you to take. Identify them and turn to them more often.

But don’t stop at one – have many role models. The routes to the end are many and varied. Different people have different skills and experience that you can draw upon. Jim Collins, who teaches and writes about leadership, advises establishing your own personal board of directors. I use Peter for politics, Robin for Research, Alan for all matters recruitment, Charlie for choice words of support and Sarah for sense and sensibility (admittedly, I am lucky to have friends whose names conveniently align with their expertise).

They don’t all have to be university-based: people outside academia have useful opinions too.

Negative role model
While there are people with whom you resonate, there are inevitably others with whom you don’t, be it a bad ex-boss, an uncollaborative collaborator or a conniving colleague. Identify patterns of behaviour in these people whom you find loathsome and make an effort to do the opposite.

Be clear what you need
Advice can be great and there is no shortage of advice or people willing to give it. Don’t be shy about approaching people; everyone likes to give advice. But be clear in your mind when you need overly honest feedback and when you need a hug.

Compartmentalise advisers into those who will give you the unpalatable truth and those who rose-tint your world. And when you do approach someone, be very specific with the questions you ask; if you say “what should I do with my life?” a professor doesn’t know where to begin. If you say “I am considering x or y but not sure how to think about it. I’d love you thoughts”, then it’s easier to engage and be practical.

Stress-test it
Finally, we are scientists, we test hypotheses. Take this approach to advice. The best way to decide whether to follow someone’s advice, is to see if it actually works. However, don’t let the adviser know or they may not be so forthcoming.

John Tregoning is senior lecturer in the mucosal infection and immunity section of virology at Imperial College London. He runs a blog on academic life.


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