I want you to imagine that you are going to build a fence. You have a wide choice of potential materials and style. Well and good. But you haven’t build a fence before, so where do you go for some advice? You can:
(1) go to someone who has built a fence – yes one – and who knows, they say, the perfect way you can get the fence built cheaply and efficiently
(2) talk to and read the stories of people who have built a fence and have learned some things in the process
(3) go to a skilled tradie who has built a lot of fences. You can visit their fences to see their work for yourself
(4) get a manual written by someone who knows a lot about fences and has also built a lot. They don’t just use their own fences as examples but refer to fences built by other people and fences built using a range of different materials and approaches.
Now (2-4) are all helpful, each one, by themselves. You might also very fruitfully combine them – so you could talk to some people who’ve built fences, talk to a tradie and buy a manual.
You could choose however to only do (1) , that is, talk to someone who has built one fence for themselves. Now this is a potentially risky strategy. The one-fence-maker’s version of how to build a fence might work really well for you. On the other hand it mightn’t. They were perhaps using different materials, or building a fence in a different style, or their fencing needs are just very different from yours. You could, if you go with the one-fence-maker, end up with a costly and time wasting experiment. Or not. Of course, you might get lucky and/or you might have the all the knowledge you need to make up for what the one-fence-maker didn’t tell you.
Now, humour me. Please change the words building a fence to any of these – writing the thesis, writing a journal article, doing a doctorate, doing the viva, writing a research proposal, getting a job … Of course the fence analogy doesn’t really hold for these situations, because doctoral researchers for example aren’t doing their doctorate by themselves. They have supervisors/committees/gradschools. They aren’t just dependent on the advice they get online and from books. But I reckon that some of my fence-building analogy is pertinent.
The web has proliferated advice about every aspect of doctoral education, academic writing and scholarly career development. In general, I think that’s a Very Good Thing. Learning and knowledge is shared. It is not kept in tiny journals, closed offices and people’s heads.
Some of this knowledge is offered free and some costs money. And there is both less helpful and more reliable advice and support around. But this is not a simple binary. It’s not that free=good, and for sale=bad. Not at all. There is the best to the worst advice and support in both free and for sale services.
This kind of advice “market” both interests and worries many of us. Julia Molinari wrote about dubious proof reading services not long ago in the Guardian, and Doctoral Writing SIG scholars Claire Aitchison and Susan Mowbray have been studying the doctoral support field, as have Inger Mewburn and I.
And we’ve found some pretty interesting things – for instance I’ve recently seen:
* a book about how to write your PhD by someone who is only half way through their own,
* an advice service set up on the basis of n=1, I wrote my thesis this way so this is how you should write yours,
* a writing tips website that basically re-publishes other people’s advice as its own,
* a self published book that brings together bits and pieces from other people’s work and twitter chats, largely unacknowledged,
* a book on how to turn your thesis into a book but this is the author’s first book, they haven’t actually turned their thesis into a book at all, they just want to …
And so on. I can’t help but compare this kind of advice to: the carefully constructed posts and books by highly experienced scholars; the sharing of personal stories and experiences; and the pedagogical writings of those whose work is academic and researcher development or writing, language and linguistics.
I’m not arguing for some kind of peer review system here, or a bizarre quality kite mark scheme. Not at all. It is just a caveat emptor situation out there/in here. The fence analogy is probably the most helpful for anyone wanting to make sense of the proliferation of what’s on offer. You have to shop around and consult multiple sources.
So to that end, here’s a couple of questions that I think might be useful in making sense of advice.
First off – determine whether whether what you are looking at is sharing of experience or advice.
Question: WHAT’S ON OFFER – ADVICE OR SHARING?
Sharing experiences is generous, and a gift. Learning in public is brave, and readers need to recognise and value the offer of some vicarious education. The reader can take what they want, compare sets of experiences with one another, and see how their own experience checks out. Building up a sense of your own experience by engaging with other people’s is part of the way we live our lives and construct our repertoire of understanding and possible actions.
However if what’s on offer is advice, then I think something different is warranted.
Question: IF ADVICE, CHECK THE PROVENANCE. WHAT’S THE SOURCE? WHO’S WRITTEN THIS?
What’s their track record? what’s the basis on which they are offering advice to you? What has the writer done? Are they n=1? Or are they experienced writers, supervisors, researchers in the topic that they are addressing, academic developers, teachers of methods or writing? Can you read their work – are there samples available for you to see? Can you see what people they have worked with have done as a result of their support and advice? Do they have good references from people who’ve used them? Can you try something free before you buy?
So given this, what actually is my advice about the proliferation of advice? Should doctoral researchers and early career academics just leave it all alone? NO. Not at all. Take my view with a big pinch of salt of course, as I’m one of the people in the mix. But I’d carefully check what’s out there and then plunge in. I’m sure it’s much better to be informed than just squirrel away on your lonesome.
But I’d look at several sources of advice rather than just one or a few, take the books out of the library rather than buy them, find out what works for others, and then see what you think will work for you. And, as Howard Rheingold says, have your crap detectors at the ready.
And now, just for a laugh, a bit of vintage Australian comedy about the ultimate not-to-be-trusted salesmen, the Dodgy Brothers.