Why I Don’t Give Advice

Full ward and beav pointilized

Image: Leave It to Beaver (1957-1963)

I have some advice: Don’t offer advice. That might seem odd coming from someone writing for Vitae, a career-advice section of The Chronicle, but there it is.

Generalized prescriptive advice is rarely helpful. For example, undergraduates in the sciences often ask, “Should I get a master’s degree before I get a Ph.D.?” A student asking one professor that question might get a well-reasoned “yes,” but the same student might get an equally well-reasoned “no” from a different professor. Advice often says more about the person offering it than about the intended recipient. The best, and only reasonable, answer to the masters-before-doctorate question is: “It depends.” The decision should be made based on personal circumstances — finances, career goals, academic preparation, geography, subdiscipline, and the options available. The person telling you to get a master’s (or not) will never be the one facing the consequences of the decision.

Because the advice pages don’t know you personally, you’re unlikely to get good advice from a website. What you can find on these pages are context, information, and a set of norms that people tend to follow. That can help you make your own decisions.

Last summer, some egregious advice appeared in the careers section of the prestigious journal Science, in the Ask Alice column written by Alice Huang, former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She is now well known for advising a postdoc to tolerate sexual harassment from her mentor, a suggestion that proved so controversial the journal retracted the piece.

Huang got into hot water because she made a mistake — one that purveyors and consumers of advice can learn from — when she wrote: “As long as your adviser does not move on to other advances, I suggest you put up with it, with good humor if you can.” Others have deconstructed how her column went off the rails, but if we look specifically at what she said, where did she start to stray?

I propose that the phrase that set Huang on the path toward bad advice was: “I suggest.” She made the mistake of thinking that an advice column is supposed to tell someone what to do. The anonymous postdoc wrote with a question in search of context, information, some wisdom, and a consideration of the range of potential outcomes based on her decisions. Instead, she got a recommendation for a specific course of action, which could not have been custom-designed for her situation.

Huang was in a position to provide all kinds of information and personal anecdotes. She could have discussed the legal aspects. She even could have said what she might have done in that scenario. Instead she straight up told the questioner precisely what to do. Even if Huang’s recommended course of action were not obviously the wrong thing to do, telling her to do any specific thing is not what a good advice-giver should be doing. Browsing the archives of Ask Alice reveals more of the same: a lot of very specific “do this” and “don't do that.”

Doesn’t it seem silly that a prestigious senior scientist, who went to grad school several decades ago, should be advising junior scientists? So much has changed — the funding mechanisms, the way labs are run, the expectations of job applicants, the roles of women and men at work and at home, and the level of investment in U.S. scientific research. Whatever social environment existed in her lab when Huang was a postdoc can only bear a superficial resemblance to the one facing today’s postdocs. Experience gives wisdom, but cannot transplant one person into the shoes of another.

I only got my Ph.D. 15 years ago, but I still recognize that my career experiences are already outdated for understanding what current grad students and postdocs are going through. So, despite the temptations, I resist the presumption that it is my role to tell others what to do. (I do give specific advice when absolutely necessary — such as pointing out the wrong way to remove a parasitic bot fly — but that doesn’t mean it will be followed.)

Many of us regularly advise students about their career options.The more you listen to those interactions, the more you notice highly prescriptive advice:

  • “You shouldn’t study abroad.”
  • “You should eat lunch outside.”
  • “You should drop this class.”
  • “You should cut your work hours.
  • “You should find a study partner.”
  • “You should get a master’s first.”

Most advice seekers don’t want instructions, they want my stories and context, so they can then make up their own minds. Sure, we can call this an “advice” section, but you won’t catch me telling you what to do. Unless it’s to not give advice.

This article relates to…

Join the Conversation


Log In or Sign Up to leave a comment.