No matter who you are, when you start your PhD advice falls around you like fine rain. Despite the fact that I worked in research education already, lots of people felt free to give me advice when I started. I noticed that the advice ranged from the banal and obvious:
“Don’t leave all your writing to the last minute”
“Make sure you have regular meetings with your supervisor”
To the confusing:
“Try to write papers during your PhD to improve your chance of getting a job”
“Don’t get distracted writing papers while doing your PhD, finish your thesis”
… the disheartening:
“There aren’t many jobs in academia anymore”
“You’ll end up being over qualified and underemployed”
And the outright bizarre (and borderline offensive):
“Make sure your husband knows you are actually studying on weekends” (wtf?)
Of course, if it wasn’t for all the uncertainty around the PhD, and the ever present hunger for advice, I wouldn’t have a career at all. But I think it’s fair to say, not all advice is good. Or, rather, that some the advice might be good, but it’s possible it either:
a) Won’t work for you.
b) You don’t need to hear it right now, thank you.
The other week I asked people on Twitter to send me the best examples of bad PhD advice for a workshop I was putting together and it triggered a huge flood of tweets. The advice ranged from laughable to the seriously offensive and you can read most of them under the #unhelpfulphdadvice tag I started. So much of the advice was questionable, but there was just enough of a kernel of truth in some of them that people found the hashtag
Pat Thomson has pointed out that advice floating around on the internet can be suspect. Rachael Cayley over on the excellent explorations in style blog points out that advice is often offered without any context. Actioning advice on examination designed for the US system, which is so different from the Australian system, can be, frankly, dangerous. Books are better, but they can be limited. Books are often full of good advice, but there’s a difference between telling someone what should be done and helping them do it. I agree with Pat that all PhD students need to develop good ‘crap detection’ abilities so they can assess the advice, action what’s useful and ignore the rest.
As another, admittedly small, step towards this grand aim, I offer you four kinds of unhelpful PhD advice so you can recognise them then they are offered. I offer these in the hope that in the comments you will offer some suggestions and ideas of your own.
Advice that infantilises you
Just because you are a student again, doesn’t mean you are a child. Infantilising comments are harder to spot than other sorts, but they are the sort of advice that assumes you are less capable than you actually are. They might be something like: “Your supervisor will work you to death and take all the credit”. This assumes that the PhD student has no power to talk back or refuse to be treated like dirt. Or “No one does a PhD in 3 years,” which assumes you cannot manage yourself, or a project, to deadline. Or “Just sit down and write it!” – do they think you haven’t already tried that?
PhD students occupy what Dr Mary-Helen Ward calls in her excellent thesis ‘a liminal space’. Liminal is a word derived from the Latin ‘limin’ for threshold and means an inbetween state. This is a complicated explanation of course. Most people see the word ‘student’ and make all kinds of assumptions, about who you are, what you do with your time and what you need in the way of help. This is the reason you see so many patronising workshop titles like “How to survive your PhD”…
… Hang on – that was the MOOC we ran last year. In my defence, there were Reasons and I was Conflicted.
Anyway, you get my point.
Over 50% of research students have come from the workplace back to study. Many PhD students are much older, with a lot of life experience. I’ve learned to be careful of what we in the trade call the ‘deficit model’ of teaching – teaching which assumes the student don’t have any prior knowledge, or agency.
I don’t know what you can do when presented with unhelpful infantilising advice, but I think a start would be to point out that you are a grown up. Assert your prior knowledge, skills and experience. You might have to change some of your ways of doing things to make them more fit for academic purpose, but you don’t have to throw out the baby with the bath water.
Advice that is actually a sexist / racist / ageist comment in disguise
I was a bit shocked at some of the unhelpful advice tweets that were shared, particularly by women:
- “Don’t write abt women, you won’t get a job”
- “You’d better get on with it (PhD), because after 35 women don’t accomplish much.” (said by a male Phd candidate; I was 25)”
- “You should date [a research subject]. The pillow talk will be helpful information for your research.”
- “as a woman a PhD will be especially problematic for you – it will destroy any chances of promotion or a career”
- “Well a PhD is very hard on a women’s brain” (from a doctor when I was trying to get a mental health plan).
- “you should/will have to sleep with your (male) supervisor if you wish to graduate”
- “Don’t sleep with your supervisor (pretty sure guys don’t get that nugget of advice).”
- “Don’t you want to have children?”
- “You are so lucky that you got married before starting a PhD. Otherwise no men would marry you”
- “Now that you’re about to get that doctorate, it’s time for you to become a mom; then your life would be complete.”
- “You got enough education for yourself now, it’s now time for a baby!”
I won’t go on because I feel a fit of Feminist Rage brewing, but suffice to say, just imagine any of those comments being offered to a man and you will see immediately how ridiculous they are.
Other bits of unhelpful advice were ageist: “You’re too old to go back to school” and “You’re too young to do a PhD”. Some, disturbingly, suggested that the student should do a certain topic because of their race: “write abt ur country” bc/ u are “foreign” student… even if u rather do 19th France, etc!”. Or advice that assumed that the topic should be done a certain way because of where it was located “Good to include gender issues. Since your research was done in Africa, people expect to hear about the women.” (a trifecta of patronising, sexist and racist!). Or advice that assumes the person doing the study, shouldn’t do it because of their background: “I always get asked if I am Jewish because I am doing a Jewish topic. When I say I’m not, they ask ‘why do it?”. And the most blatant of the lot: “If you want to make it in academia, you need to change your accent.”
I can’t even, ok?
Talking back to this kind of casual intolerance can be hard. Some people often don’t even realise what they are saying is totally unacceptable – or worse, don’t care. My sister and law, Aurora has a good line that I trot out on these occasions: “You might not have meant to be racist, but in saying that you become the unwitting tool of racism”. Try it out some time. It’s fun.
Advice that is out of date
The most common piece of unhelpful PhD advice I hear is along the lines of: “Only 3 people read your PhD – including your mother, but not your supervisor”.
This advice is from late last century when this person was a huge star:
Remember him? Of course you don’t. Consider that the people who give out this kind of advice often got their jobs in academia when this was the height of fashion:
Or maybe the first time that was the height of fashion … this 80’s look is probably on trend right now. But I think I’ve made my point. This is advice you can comfortably ignore.
Yes, it used to be the case that people didn’t read theses. This was understandable when they were kept in the library stacks and a librarian would stand over you, breathing down your neck, every time you wanted to read one. Times have changed. Data is emerging that shows theses are one of the most downloaded documents in university repositories. People will read it. But it also means your thesis is out there, forever and can be subjected to electronic scrutiny. I’ve known people who have lost their jobs because they thought their plagiarism was safely hidden away in the library stacks.
A more confusing, relatively recent, development is supervisors advising students will not be published in book form if they put their thesis on an online repository. Some disciplines still see the book as the launch of a scholarly career, so this advice has teeth. I’m not sure there is really any evidence for publishers not wanting to print a thesis that is already online – most theses are extensively rewritten when they are put in book form anyway. There is much talk about scholarly presses dying, so should you really bet the farm on that idea that a book is a career starter?
You’ll have to make up your own mind. But I do know this – when old ways die, new ways have room to grow. I have a publishing deal based on this blog, which will contain some material that is already online. The publisher recognises that people still like to consume books. Books are neat packages of information. They are nice to own. Print on demand and other low cost, small print run options make book publishing more accessible – I’ve published a low cost ebook that pays for this blog to stay online. Slowly, surely, what counts as ‘academic prestige’ changes.
Personally, I’d rather be the change. Ignoring a lot of advice around academic publishing has worked out pretty well for me, but your mileage may vary.
Advice that is demoralising
The more poisonous sort of demoralising advice assumes you need to be traumatised to do good work: “you have to make sacrifices” (maybe, but how many is too many?), “If you’re not suffering, you are not doing a PhD properly” (says who?), and – the worst one I got “(from my supervisor) The problem with you is that you are not prepared to die for your PhD”. Just no, ok? A supervisor should never say this. Ever.
This sort of demoralising advice is usually offered by people who are just trying to be helpful by being ‘practical’:
Why bother? It’s not like you’ll get a job with it”
“It’s cripplingly expensive”
“Part time students often drop out”
“No one cares about what you do”
“One in four of you will not complete your PhD”
“It’s not your life’s work”
“A good thesis is a finished thesis!”
Variations on this sort of advice inevitably come up when you convene a panel of supervisors to talk to new students and I always cringe inside. Look, some of the stuff in the list might be true. Or, it might be true some of the time for some people, Or it might potentially be true, maybe – if you have bad luck. But seriously? Do you need to hear it right right at the start of your degree?
Sometimes, especially in a rich, tolerant, liberal society which has the resources to spare, people just do stuff because it’s fun, it’s interesting or it’s creative. This activity might end up being pointless, or it might help us discover gravitational waves or something else that’s well – practical. This sort of advice is unhelful because some people doing a PhD might be career driven and don’t need you to harsh their buzz. Others are just walking the road to see where it goes. Don’t be that person who ‘helps’ by offering practical advice when it’s not wanted. I know, it’s easy to do. It makes you feel good, wise and beneficent. Hell – I’ve done it myself, plenty of times. But please, if the PhD student looks away or tries to change the subject when you start being practical, leave them the hell alone ok?
So, this has turned into a bit of a rant. I’m sorry – I was feeling the rage after I started the #unhelpfuladvice meme. What about you? Have you had unhelpful advice? Did any of it turn out to be useful? Tell us about it in the comments.
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