Dos and Don'ts in Academia and Life

What’s the best advice you have ever received?

September 3, 2019

What’s the best advice you have ever received? Maybe there is something that a mentor told you that has stuck with you? Is there a really great quote from a book, or something your boss said in a meeting?  Have you had an “aha” moment that put everything into perspective?  


Janni Aragon, University of Victoria, Victoria, Canada 

The best advice was from one of my dissertation committee members. He suggested that I try to write one page a day and noted that this includes revisions. This was the most powerful advice that I had that I use to this day with my projects and with mentoring my students. When I shared this advice with a graduate student this summer, I saw her relax. The advice is realistic in our competitive academic culture. 


Niya Bond, The University of Maine, Orono, ME, US

I’ve had a bad tendency to approach my identity—in all its many iterations--from a place of lack. This is especially true for me professionally, as in the past, I've proved exceptionally skilled at convincing myself that “I can’t” when it comes to my career:

  • I can’t figure out what my true professional path is
  • I can’t take that professional risk—it might not be worth the rewards
  • I can’t move up—I don’t have the skills/qualities/experience needed for that position

Essentially, I’ve built barriers to my professional destiny by promoting personal deficits—often imaginary. About a year ago, I was trying to explain the frustration that this fretting in the not-yetting had produced for me, and the person I was speaking with asked:

What if you took half the energy you spend creating disclaimers and devoted it instead to demanding what you desire? 

At first I bristled—surely it wasn't that easy; I couldn't just demand what I desired! But as I sat with the discomfort of that statement—and it is uncomfortable to acknowledge that I might have actually cornered myself into an unhealthy complacency by creating my very own self-defeating career motto—I started to feel enthusiastic. What if instead of creating exigency plans for my career, I started from a place of excess? What if instead of using fear to prevent me from being future-forward, I embraced my capability? What if I moved from immediately figuring out why I “can’t” do something to why I “could” or “should?” It’s a shift that hasn't been easy for me—I tend to like my routines. But, it has been essential to my growth this year. I entered 2019 excited about the professional possibilities I saw in my future, and part of that excitement stemmed from changing the way that I focused on my career-course. I moved from creating self-induced obstacles to proactively taking advantage of professional opportunities. This shift is still-ongoing, and it certainly hasn’t been perfectly executed, but the strategy is permanent. I'm already planning my demands for 2020. 

Melissa Nicolas, Washington State University, Pullman, WA, US

I’ve received two pieces of advice that are game-changing, but I have only recently been able to kinda-sorta apply them. 

The first is the 80/20 rule for writing. The idea is that if you keep working on a piece of writing until you are 100% satisfied with it, you will never send anything out. So, when you are 80% happy with what you have, you send it off, knowing that the reviewers are almost always going to ask you for revision and you can use their sage advice to address the remaining 20%. Giving myself permission to not produce an A paper right out of the gate has allowed me to be more productive.

The second piece of advice, and the one that is the hardest for me to practice, is: it isn’t personal. There is so much that happens in our daily work lives that can seem personal—we get a bad teaching evaluation; our conference proposal gets rejected; we are passed over for a plum committee assignment; we are told to revise something for the 100th time—that it is easy to feel like “they” are out to get us. But the truth is that all of these things happen to everyone in our line of work all the time. When I am able to understand these situations as just par for the course and not as statements about my personal worth, I am better able to keep things in perspective and not be devastated each and every time something happens. The struggle to live this advice is very real.


Mary Churchill, Boston University, Boston, MA, US

Some of the best advice I have received: 

  1. Don’t give your brain power away for free unless you do so knowingly. As an academic, your thoughts and ideas are the main things you have to “sell.” They are valuable. Be generous and give them away knowingly and with intention to causes and organizations that demonstrate the values you believe in. For everyone else, charge what you believe your ideas are worth. 
  2. Keep your options open. Do both. This was a mentor’s response to my question about whether I should pursue an administrative position over a faculty position (a recurring question in my life). He advised me to keep my options open and to never define myself as either an administrator or a faculty member but to always see myself as both. 
  3. Follow a great leader regardless of the position or institution. You will always learn more from a great leader than from a bad or even an indifferent leader, regardless of the status of the position or the prestige of the institution. A great leader will mentor you and help you learn and grow and will bring you into their networks. I have been very fortunate to have worked with many great leaders throughout my life.


Readers, what's the best advice you have received - in academia and in life?


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