Early on in my academic career, I had to learn whether to hear or to heed advice that crossed my desk. As a new student in my graduate program, I heard harrowing anecdotes about the state of the job market. I listened to advanced students’ frustrations with our department and our institution. I was still so green and did not yet understand their frustrations. I wanted to believe that things would be different for me, and I did not yet realize that the anecdotal evidence and disgruntled ranting were advice, plain and simple.
Taking advice is one of the hardest things to do in any profession, but I find it especially challenging in academe because there is so much feedback. From the peer review process to questions from our students to critical inquiry from our research partners to comments from conference audiences, as academics we are used to responding to reactions and opinions about our research and teaching.
Somehow, we regard that feedback as professional and we have to decide how to act on it, whether we change our research question, adjust that classroom activity, or incorporate another theory into our project’s framework. Academe affords us some flexibility in our work, both in the way we work and what we study, but when feedback takes a personal turn, it feels like an infringement on our professional turf and it can be challenging to hear.
Sometimes, taking advice is simply not possible. It could be that the advice is shortsighted, outdated, or ill-timed. In these cases, it is difficult to follow advice because it may not even apply. When a job candidate interviewing for a position in my department advised me not to prep a new course while trying to finish my dissertation, I thought that was solid guidance. However, after my advisory committee approved my dissertation plan, my departmental funding ran out and without external support, I took a visiting position at another local college. I prepped two new courses this past year while writing my dissertation project because I needed funding.
Sometimes, taking advice translates into big adjustments in your work. It may feel like a huge imposition to make changes to your ideas, but consider the source. The adviser, in this case, may have encountered similar frustrations or even pursued answers to similar questions and either struggled or hit proverbial roadblocks.
When I was first conceiving my dissertation project, I was convinced that a mixed methods project was the right methodological answer to my research question. I was taking a class with a geographer at the time and she strongly advised me against such an approach, echoing sentiments my adviser had already shared. I heard them and grudgingly tweaked the project over the next few months. Looking back, I am grateful that I listened to their advice, because even without the qualitative component, the project has taken me over a year to complete. Now that my dissertation project is "finished," I am looking forward to mounting the next phase of the research and collecting qualitative data.
Sometimes, taking advice leads to a radical reimagining of one’s future plans. In this case, it feels incredibly tough to listen to others, especially when that advice comes from outside of the academy. Several years ago, a stock-trader friend from college forwarded me an article about the dismal state of the academic job market. I was seriously hurt by the implication that he thought I’d never find a job. I had heard advanced graduate students lament the state of the job market, too, but I put my head in the sand. If I had heeded this explicit and implicit advice to consider non-faculty careers or to look outside of the academy earlier, I would have turned my sights towards alternative-academic jobs sooner. I was able to cobble together some non-academic experience so that I can focus on finding the right opportunity for myself.
When taking advice, consider the source. Sometimes the benefit of experience can prevent future professional struggles. Hearing feedback from colleagues could force you to adjust plans, rethink projects or scrap ideas altogether. Some advice, however, is dated and the nature of the profession is always changing. If you feel the advice does not apply because it is no longer relevant, it may be necessary to find mentors or colleagues in touch with the realities of the state of your given profession or the current job market.
When taking advice, consider hearing the advice and deciding if it applies to you in your current phase of life. Maybe as a new graduate student or an early career scholar, the advice does not apply. But that does not mean as your career progresses that it may not be useful in the future. File it away. When I became a graduate student, many of the advanced graduate students seemed disgruntled about the state of the academy, their job market prospects, the state of our own department and the larger university. I could not understand why they were so frustrated because I was so new to this field. I thought that perhaps by the time I got to teaching or that I entered the job market, that things would be different. Over time, I have come to understand their frustrations, and feel grateful that they were open and honest about their experiences.
Consider filtering what you do not need. Not all solicited or unsolicited advice will apply to you, but chances are some of it will. And even if you don’t want to hear it, you have to be open to hearing firsthand accounts or personal experiences that relate to your work and your professional world. If you feel you will never find yourself in the same kind of personal circumstances as your adviser, that’s fine. But life and work are unpredictable. Better to hear about some success (or horror) stories to understand how others have handled similar professional circumstances.
Rachel Leventhal-Weiner is a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Connecticut. Follow her on Twitter here: @rglweiner .