Unhelpful PhD advice



No matter who you are, when you start your PhD advice falls around you like fine rain. Despite the fact that I worked in research education already, lots of people felt free to give me advice when I started. I noticed that the advice ranged from the banal and obvious:

“Don’t leave all your writing to the last minute”
“Make sure you have regular meetings with your supervisor”

To the confusing:

“Try to write papers during your PhD to improve your chance of getting a job”
“Don’t get distracted writing papers while doing your PhD,  finish your thesis”

… the disheartening:

“There aren’t many jobs in academia anymore”
“You’ll end up being over qualified and underemployed”

And the outright bizarre (and borderline offensive):

“Make sure your husband knows you are actually studying on weekends” (wtf?)

Of course, if it wasn’t for all the uncertainty around the PhD, and the ever present hunger for advice, I wouldn’t have a career at all. But I think it’s fair to say, not all advice is good. Or, rather, that some the advice might be good, but it’s possible it either:

a) Won’t work for you.
b) You don’t need to hear it right now, thank you.

The other week I asked people on Twitter to send me the best examples of bad PhD advice for a workshop I was putting together and it triggered a huge flood of tweets. The advice ranged from laughable to the seriously offensive and you can read most of them under the #unhelpfulphdadvice tag I started. So much of the advice was questionable, but there was just enough of a kernel of truth in some of them that people found the hashtag too real and had to turn away.

Pat Thomson has pointed out that advice floating around on the internet can be suspect. Rachael Cayley over on the excellent explorations in style blog points out that advice is often offered without any context. Actioning advice on examination designed for the US system, which is so different from the Australian system, can be, frankly, dangerous. Books are better, but they can be limited. Books are often full of good advice, but there’s a difference between telling someone what should be done and helping them do it. I agree with Pat that all PhD students need to develop good ‘crap detection’ abilities so they can assess the advice, action what’s useful and ignore the rest.

As another, admittedly small, step towards this grand aim, I offer you four kinds of unhelpful PhD advice so you can recognise them then they are offered. I offer these in the hope that in the comments you will offer some suggestions and ideas of your own.

Advice that infantilises you

Just because you are a student again, doesn’t mean you are a child. Infantilising comments are harder to spot than other sorts, but they are the sort of advice that assumes you are less capable than you actually are. They might be something like: “Your supervisor will work you to death and take all the credit”. This assumes that the PhD student has no power to talk back or refuse to be treated like dirt. Or “No one does a PhD in 3 years,” which assumes you cannot manage yourself, or a project, to deadline. Or “Just sit down and write it!” – do they think you haven’t already tried that?

PhD students occupy what Dr Mary-Helen Ward calls in her excellent thesis ‘a liminal space’. Liminal is a word derived from the Latin ‘limin’ for threshold and means an inbetween state. This is a complicated explanation of course. Most people see the word ‘student’ and make all kinds of assumptions, about who you are, what you do with your time and what you need in the way of help. This is the reason you see so many patronising workshop titles like “How to survive your PhD”…

… Hang on – that was the MOOC we ran last year. In my defence, there were Reasons and I was Conflicted.

Anyway, you get my point.

Over 50% of research students have come from the workplace back to study. Many PhD students are much older, with a lot of life experience. I’ve learned to be careful of what we in the trade call the ‘deficit model’ of teaching – teaching which assumes the student don’t have any prior knowledge, or agency.

I don’t know what you can do when presented with unhelpful infantilising advice, but I think a start would be to point out that you are a grown up. Assert your prior knowledge, skills and experience. You might have to change some of your ways of doing things to make them more fit for academic purpose, but you don’t have to throw out the baby with the bath water.

Advice that is actually a sexist / racist / ageist comment in disguise

I was a bit shocked at some of the unhelpful advice tweets that were shared, particularly by women:

  • “Don’t write abt women, you won’t get a job”
  • “You’d better get on with it (PhD), because after 35 women don’t accomplish much.” (said by a male Phd candidate; I was 25)”
  • “You should date [a research subject]. The pillow talk will be helpful information for your research.”
  • “as a woman a PhD will be especially problematic for you – it will destroy any chances of promotion or a career”
  • “Well a PhD is very hard on a women’s brain” (from a doctor when I was trying to get a mental health plan).
  • “you should/will have to sleep with your (male) supervisor if you wish to graduate”
  • “Don’t sleep with your supervisor (pretty sure guys don’t get that nugget of advice).”
  • “Don’t you want to have children?”
  • “You are so lucky that you got married before starting a PhD. Otherwise no men would marry you”
  • “Now that you’re about to get that doctorate, it’s time for you to become a mom; then your life would be complete.”
  • “You got enough education for yourself now, it’s now time for a baby!”

I won’t go on because I feel a fit of Feminist Rage brewing, but suffice to say, just imagine any of those comments being offered to a man and you will see immediately how ridiculous they are.

Other bits of unhelpful advice were ageist: “You’re too old to go back to school” and “You’re too young to do a PhD”. Some, disturbingly, suggested that the student should do a certain topic because of their race: “write abt ur country” bc/ u are “foreign” student… even if u rather do 19th France, etc!”. Or advice that assumed that the topic should be done a certain way because of where it was located “Good to include gender issues. Since your research was done in Africa, people expect to hear about the women.” (a trifecta of patronising, sexist and racist!). Or advice that assumes the person doing the study, shouldn’t do it because of their background: “I always get asked if I am Jewish because I am doing a Jewish topic. When I say I’m not, they ask ‘why do it?”. And the most blatant of the lot: “If you want to make it in academia, you need to change your accent.”

I can’t even, ok?