Advice on Academic Advice

When hunting for a job, you need all the ideas you can get -- and you need to ignore plenty of them, writes Nate Kreuter.

July 13, 2011

As an advanced graduate student and junior faculty member, you’re going to receive a lot of advice. Some of it you’ll seek out, and some of it you won’t. Advice is a good thing, and I don’t think one should ever turn it down. But neither should one follow all of it. You couldn’t if you tried anyway.

While you’re a graduate student, the bulk of the advice you receive is likely to come from your dissertation director (or another faculty mentor). This individual is probably the most useful and trustworthy source of information you’ll have, assuming that you have a healthy working relationship with the person. Unfortunately, though, faculty members’ expertise about certain things — like the job market — can begin to erode quickly as they get further and further from their own job searches, even while they become more established experts in the field. If faculty members are still active in serving on search committees, I suspect that their knowledge of current markets is less prone to erosion. Over the past few years, dramatic budget exigencies in virtually every state have fundamentally changed the academic job markets. Everything from the number of positions available to the timelines of hiring processes appear to be in a state of flux.

Because market forces are changing so dramatically and rapidly, well-established professors, despite their deep knowledge and experience, might not have the best perspective on how to handle or approach the situations arising in what we can only hope is an utterly unique moment in the market for academic labor. It might be in your best interest as a graduate student approaching both your dissertation defense and a run at the job market to befriend and pick the brain of a junior faculty member, someone who has more recently dealt (successfully) with the job market.

Junior faculty are frequently shielded from working too much with graduate students, or at least with advanced graduate students. This is in the best interests of both the junior faculty member and the graduate students. Junior faculty members need to focus on research and solidifying their tenure cases, and a graduate student will be best served by letters of recommendation from more established scholars in the field, rather than a relative unknown. This dynamic, though, often means that a junior faculty member’s expertise about topics such as the job market goes untapped. A junior faculty member who has recently navigated the job market may have an excellent sense of current market conditions, expectations, and trends.

It’s obvious that you should seek out advice from the senior faculty members with whom you work, but it’s worth building a relationship with the new professors as well. In addition to getting some good advice for yourself, that relationship can help the junior faculty member transition more fully into the culture of a new department. Sometimes the best advice is the advice that you triangulate for yourself from multiple sources; a combination of advice gleaned from the seasoned expert and the newly minted professor. Personally, I feel that the best advice is just this sort of “hybrid” advice from multiple sources. Though, too, there are times when you simply need to acquiesce to the advice of the senior expert and do as they say.

Perhaps one of the most difficult things when you get advice is how to handle the recommendation that you know to be bad. Unfortunately, there aren’t rules that can help you discern good advice from bad, but over time and as you are more fully acculturated into the profession, you’ll develop a sense of intuition about how to handle various types of advice, and which perspectives to trust. When I receive a piece of advice that seems off-kilter, my tendency is to still thank its source, and then quietly and discreetly not follow it. I don’t want to sacrifice a working relationship just because I happen to disagree with someone in a particular case. Sometimes grad students receive very bad advice from a relative or friend in the business world, where norms and expectations can be very different from what they are in academe. Conversely, sometimes a trusted friend from outside the ivory tower can put a petty problem into perspective, and suggest a course of action that isn’t necessarily obvious to those of us who walk the quirky halls of the academy.

Good advice won’t always fall into your lap. As a graduate student, you need to cultivate a network of trusted people and resources that you can call upon when a tough issue comes up. As you transition into the professorial ranks, the issues you have to navigate will become both more difficult and more high-stakes. You’ll need your network more than ever. But, once you’ve packed off to your first academic appointment, your advice network will become a network more literally, for your established mentors will likely be far away, rather than just down the hall. This means that it will become more important to cultivate your network, to maintain the social ties that break down more quickly over a long distance.

Of course, it will be important as well to seek out new mentors at your new institution, for they will be in the best position to help you navigate your new school’s idiosyncrasies. Not all of these resources need to be academic. One of my most important resources for advice is a friend who is a former Army officer and current ne’er-do-well whom I’ve known since we were 12. I trust him. Sometimes before sending an email, or making an inquiry, or responding to a tough situation, I call him up and say, "Should I do X?" and sometimes he says "No" and other times he says "Hell no," and yet other times he says, "Sure, what are you worrying for?" All three are helpful.

My admonition — that not all advice is worth following — of course applies to the column as well.


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