“Advice is a form of nostalgia”

Advice is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it’s worth.

– Mary Schmich, “Wear Sunscreen”

This is so true, especially in the field of advice for students.

There is a huge amount of advice out there, and those of us giving it all believe our tips are useful.

But the truth is, none of us have discovered “the secret to end procrastination” and there is no perfect system for time management, no perfect system for working with literature, and no single approach to writing or research.

There is a danger, in our field, that we start to believe our own hype and that we make claims which aren’t really substantiated. The best we can hope for is that it works for some people, and doesn’t do any harm to others.

How can advice do harm? When we over-sell our advice, there is a possibility that those for whom it doesn’t work start to blame themselves. If that’s the case, and that person is low in confidence already, they aren’t likely to tell those of us giving advice that it didn’t work for them.

This introduces a kind of confirmation bias… we only hear from the people who like our work, and that can lead to a distorted view of how good our advice really is.

The common phrase (and I used to use it myself) is that “if I can do it, you can too”. But maybe the way I did it won’t work for you. Maybe I worked under different circumstances. Maybe I just think differently.

I can’t promise results. I don’t have all the answers, and I haven’t discovered a secret. I have just spent a really long time trying to figure out ways of working to make PhD life easier. The blog posts on this site and in my book are my best efforts so far, and I hope you find them useful.

UPDATE: This comic from XKCD kind of sums up what I’m talking about…

9 thoughts on ““Advice is a form of nostalgia””

  1. This is spot on for many reasons. I think the bit that people forget when they give advice is those moments where you find an approach or technique that works for you often happen after a load of processing/composting/fermenting time that doesn’t look productive but is part of the PhD learning experience. It is almost as if some people on finding something that works believe that they can offer a short cut around that uncomfortable process of learning and maturation. They can’t. No-one can. That’s not to say that advice isn’t helpful – I follow this blog so it obviously is – its just that it isn’t a ‘fix all’ sticking plaster but rather something that you interact with over time. Like what worked for me years ago isn’t helpful now and vice versa. Great post James.

  2. Really beautiful post and comments.

    I wonder if it is helpful to think in terms of sharing instead of advising, at least for some of us bloggers/sharers.

    One day when I was just REALLY struggling and was COMPLETELY stalled out regarding my MA thesis, I encountered the advice to consider engaging in blogging to build up my writing chops/muscles. I took the advice and it did me WONDERS. So much good has come of it (meaning for me, as I’ve learned of so much by having to reflect, write, and learn toward creating posts). And, some people read the blog, and I hope no one reads peer sharing like law! The blog has been shared at at least one uni resource page.

    Just thinking: I’m an educator and researcher, and it is hard not to reach out and try to share when people are clearly trying to work things out (teaching/help bug!). I see the benefits of sharing strategies and information about tools, but I admit I have been concerned about sharing advice with fellow grad student travelers ever since reading a warning about listening to peers who haven’t finished just like you! I see the point but hope it is still “okay” for peers to talk and share among ourselves. The trick for students may be to “share” and not advise, I’m thinking. I did read an insightful blog post about the dearth and importance of sharing workflow methodology among scholars (I don’t know how true a dearth there is) and the value of learning together. I’ve tried to maintain a “just sharing possible strategies” and “this is what’s working for me right now” posture. I really hope I’m succeeding there, especially in light of your point above about the harm that can inadvertently happen. Thank you for articulating it!

    One of my rewards for finishing up, submitting, and graduating will be to produce a more streamlined, “cleaned up,” faster-to-read version of my blog. At the “About” page of the new version of the blog I plan to include something like:

    “At this blog I document and share posts, videos, downloadables, photos, and links to blogs, documents, and book descriptions that most helped me to understand graduate school, research project management, and graduate-level writing. These resources helped me to self-identify as an academic researcher-writer, finish my thesis, and earn my MA degree.

    Because writing methodology and flow are very personal, some of the resources and strategies shared at this blog likely will not work for you. That’s okay. My intent is to raise issues, topics, questions, and ideas for consideration and to put you in contact with resources that might assist you as you develop your own, personalized writing methodology.”

    I pray that any sharing I do in the interim and then only helps and doesn’t harm.

    Thank you again, for your post. And I’m glad you’ve decided to keep sharing. Your blog has helped me IMMENSELY.

    [link removed]

  3. I agree that advice can be a form of nostalgia for some if they think that their way of doing things is the only way. Then it is really a monologue rather than a dialogue.
    I appreciate the advice on your site and am smart enough to experiment with different approaches to find out what works for me, I’m guessing that is true for most people undertaking PhDs.
    I think there are common pitfalls and mindsets that do happen and I have found your advice really good in that regard! I’m quite isolated in my studies as I’m at South Korean university in a small department~ your advice has helped me realize that phases/feelings I go through are quite normal and that alone has helped me move on and refocus. Sometimes it’s just helped me avoid the downward spiral of unnecessary self-criticism. Please keep your observations and advice coming~ it’s made a huge difference to me already 🙂

    • Thanks Tamara. There certainly are common pitfalls and a lot of people experience the same emotional rollercoaster!

      Glad you’ve found my advice useful. I’ll keep trying!

  4. A very relevant post topic !

    That is why the very first quality of a good research director is to listen first, and advice secondly. The point is : if you want to give useful advice, you need to take the time for understanding the context, and in particular the means your partner has in own hands (personal, institutional, cultural background, and effective means at the moment of giving advice – because the circumstances can influence what is possible or not, and not only the individual capacities…).

    Sometimes the best advice that you can give to somebody is to go talking with somebody else, that you know capable of giving an interesting complementary advice, that you are not in state to give on your own.

    There is something else important in my opinion, especially in a research context, it is to be able to distinguish giving feed-back and giving advice. Sometimes the best feed-back is to acknowledge that you do not understand the problem, that there is something missing in the explanation; then you can start to discuss about that.

    I totally agree about the comment about the differences of capacities and approaches.

    As advice receiver, it already happened to me to do it another way than what I heard from the advice, just because I thought : I need to test this complementary/alternative approach that nobody else did. The good advisor is the one who can understand and accept this kind of reaction… and is ready to restart the discussion from this starting point. In that case, perhaps the statement about “nostalgic advice” can become not true anymore : in place of relying on your personal experience, you are relying on your developed analytical skills and capacity of anticipation, for thinking about new solutions with somebody else. In some academic and teaching institutions, it is hard to reward this kind of attitude, but it is a pity.

    Last but not least, sometimes it is rather about taking the risk, and give appropriate support to (or sharing the risk with) the one who is taking the risk (e.g. the PhD student, etc…).

  5. Advise is a form of nostalgia, indeed.

    And you nailed it when it you said how your PhD path of three month writting was succesful, but right now I am trying to seek that kind of efficiency in writting ONE paper in less than a month (with all experiments performed) and can’t seem to put all the data in a coherent way (Sadly because I had my MSc made in a very loose-cannon way).

    Rethink what I did and then improve, now that I’m Piled Higher and Deeper… I guess that’s the closest to a General Formula of success.

    Thanks for the post. Good that you are keeping it real…

  6. Thanks for your post… and appreciate your efforts… indeed, context is key to giving as well as receiving advice… and its good to know that you are sensitive to that as an advisor! But taking context too seriously may inadvertently lead one to underestimate what characterizes us all as humans, our potentiality to actually change the way we think and do things. So while it is important to appreciate that everyone’s circumstances may differ from your own, equally important is to remind others of their potential to “just do it” 😉 !

    • Thanks Niko! There is potential to change… we just need to be careful about claiming to know all the answers.

      I’m not going to stop giving advice, as it’s certainly had a big impact for some.

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