"Advice is a form of nostalgia"

October 7, 2013
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...

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PhD: an uncommon guide to research, writing & PhD life

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