Monday, July 22, 2013

Ignore Academic Advice

Harvard Professor Radhika Nagpal wrote a post at Scientific American about strategies for junior faculty that is very different from the majority you read because its tone is optimistic and positive. I will let you decide for yourself how much you agree--I didn't necessarily agree with everything but found it refreshing nonetheless--and will focus on just one part of the argument that I particularly liked:

Stop Taking Advice

This resonated with me, since I've written blog posts telling people to do exactly that, and I've periodically written posts talking about what I consider bad advice. It is entirely possible that I think it is bad because it just doesn't quite fit me or my department/university, and that's really the point. There is very little universally useful advice.

Over the years I have heard advice about everything imaginable in academia (and there are even posts on advice about academic advice. Oh damn, is that what this is too?). When I typed in "academia advice" in Google, I got over 15 million results. As Nagpal notes, you can end up with lists of things you're supposed to do, and spend too much time focusing on the stupid lists rather than something useful.

I understand the irony of providing advice about ignoring advice, but it doesn't bother me since I am telling you to ignore it anyway if you want. Instead of seeking advice, look for role models and ask them questions about how they do something, but then adapt what they say to your own context without necessarily following it blindly. I still routinely do that now, to my great benefit. I have been department chair one year, and during that time I have talked to my two former chairs (Bob Kravchuk and Ted Arrington) as well as Ken Godwin, who had been a chair before he came to UNC Charlotte, about specific issues I was dealing with. To their credit, none of them offered sweeping advice about how to be a chair. Instead, they explained to me how they had addressed similar things, and I adapted that to my particular case.

Academia is an odd profession in many ways and we all need help navigating it, but we don't need to get too tangled up in how-to lists, no matter how well meaning.


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