Caveat lector… or let the reader beware: tentative advice about advice
Having come to the end of my PhD journey (I study self-help books, so I feel entitled to label things a ‘journey’ now), I have digested rather a lot of advice over the last four years. If you’re anything like me (neuroticcurious and concerned with doing things ‘the right way’), you may even have arrived at this very site searching for advice about anything and everything from how to formulate a thesis statement or write faster to managing difficult advisory relationships.
The thing is, however, that there’s an awful lot of advice out there. And then there’s just awful advice. So, how do you separate the wood from the trees, so to speak? And how do you ensure that the advice you seek or receive serves its function as helpful guidance without misdirecting, undermining, overwhelming, or otherwise un-helping you?
I cannot give you any definitive advice, but here are some lessons I’ve learnt along the way that might help you, too.
One size does not fit all.
PhD projects differ markedly from one another depending on the student’s geographical location, institution, discipline, object of study, theoretical framework, and methodological approach, among a stack of other variables. Perfectly sound advice that applies to one student may not necessarily apply to you. Collecting and processing quantitative data, for example, is different from collecting and processing qualitative data. Running experiments in a biomedical lab is different from sifting through archival materials. Working in a team is different from working at your 6th-floor desk with only a shrivelling succulent for company. Publishing in the hard sciences is different from publishing in the humanities—and so on.
Before you either blindly apply advice or freak out that you haven’t been or should be doing a particular thing, check both the source and intended recipient of the information or guidance and weigh up whether it is, in fact, relevant to you. (Remember that one time, for example, when a market researcher scolded you for collecting so little psychometric data about your survey and interview participants and you got really, really worried, but then your primary advisor reminded you that you’re not actually doing market research? Yeah. That.)
Projects naturally change in shape, texture, and momentum as you go. What you do in the beginning is often quite different from the middle or the end. Even a single task—let’s say writing—might change from day to day, week to week, or month to month. Writing an introductory chapter is quite different from writing a body chapter or conclusion; writing a methodology section is different from writing an analysis. Appreciate that you can grow out of (or into) certain advice. What works well in one phase of your research or for one task might not work in the next, and vice versa. Be flexible. And be willing to take or leave advice on an ongoing, cyclical basis.
Advice-givers usually, but not always, mean well.
People give advice for a variety of reasons. They have accumulated significant expertise and want to share it with others. They might have made a mistake that they hope others can avoid. They care about their readers or audience. They care about you specifically. Giving advice provides a way for them to connect and share with others in their discipline or immediate environment. Or they may have had a particular piece of advice hammered into them (‘Never begin a sentence with a conjunction!’) and then feel compelled to robotically reproduce it.
Whatever the reason, listen graciously. Even unsolicited or gratuitous advice can have useful takeaways. But it also pays to take advice with a grain of salt. Unfortunately, academia is a place in which rigidity, egoism, nichey-ness (that’s a word now), and myopia thrive. (Remember the market researcher you just mentioned who was, funnily enough, prone to seeing the world exclusively through market-research lenses? Yeah. That.) Listen graciously, but also be careful and selective. Consider whether the advice-giver can offer relevant expertise. Have they conducted analogous research or navigated the demands of a similar process? On the other hand, can they provide a useful alternative perspective? Do their vision and values align with your own? And (last, but not least) is their advice about you? Or is it about them?
Advice can drown out your own voice.
The PhD process has an uncanny knack of undermining your confidence. Sometimes you may find yourself feeling as though you don’t know much at all, and you can easily tumble down the rabbit hole of seeking and internalising advice, leaving your own knowledge, skills, and intuition at the door.
Trust yourself. Back yourself. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. If a piece of advice contradicts what you know to be true or effective for you, you can probably safely ignore it. Of course, knowing when to dip your toe into something new and when to put your foot down isn’t always easy, but try not to completely sideline your own experiences, passions, and gut feelings in favour of the so-called ‘experts’’. You will eventually reach a point at which you have genuine expertise to offer, too.
Sometimes you need to let go.
Like other readers who habitually consume advice literature, as PhD students, we often find ourselves at a crossroads where we need to put down the how-to guide and start doing. As one of my participants said about self-help books: ‘You’re always reading and reading and analysing, and you don’t know when to put them down and just start to live out your life.’
One of the most terrifying, but eventually liberating, realities of doing a PhD is that there’s often no singular ‘right’ way to do it, and doing something, anything, will propel you much faster and farther towards real progress than waiting to feel ready. At some point, we simply have to take a deep breath, put aside the advice, and ‘live out’ our PhDs. It’s only by doing your PhD that you’ll realise how you should have done it. And that’s OK.