Poll: do our advice posts teach you stuff your adviser didn’t?

We write a lot of advice posts. On everything from responding to reviewer comments, to good and bad reasons for choosing a research project, to how faculty search committees work, to how to write clearly. And we’re often surprised by how much traffic they draw and how widely they’re shared on social media. And they don’t just draw short-term interest either. Our most enduringly-popular posts–posts that continue to draw dozens of views per day, even though they’re years old–are mostly advice posts.

This surprises us because we often toss out advice that’s familiar to us, often stuff we were taught as grad students. And so we tend to assume it’ll be familiar advice to many (not all) readers. And maybe it is? Maybe lots of people are reading and sharing our advice posts not because the advice is new to them, but because it’s familiar?

So we hope you’ll indulge our curiosity by taking the very brief two-question poll below. Are our advice posts teaching you stuff you didn’t learn from your adviser or coursework? (We’re not asking how our advice posts relate to other sources of advice–your friends, other bloggers, etc.) The poll isn’t just for grad students, or just for ecologists–we encourage all readers to take it. Thanks!

UPDATE: From past experience, most poll responses come in the first 24 hours. So here are the results. We got 166 responses. Not a random sample of any well-defined population, of course, but probably broadly indicative. The breakdown by career stage is as you’d expect: it looks like our overall readership, but skewed a bit younger (49% grad students, 22% postdocs, 23% faculty, 6% other categories). Most respondents said that our advice posts often (36%) or sometimes (44%) teach them things they didn’t learn from their advisers or coursework. 11% said our advice posts mostly just repeat what they’d already learned from their advisers or coursework. 7% said our advice posts mostly give different advice on the same topics covered by their advisers or coursework. Looking at the crosstabs, responses didn’t vary by career stage in any obvious way. So there’s the answer: our advice isn’t redundant! 🙂

21 thoughts on “Poll: do our advice posts teach you stuff your adviser didn’t?

  1. “Our most enduringly-popular posts…….are mostly advice posts. This surprises us….”

    I have to say that it doesn’t surprise me at all, and for two reasons. First of all there’s still a LOT of crappy advice being given by senior colleagues to junior colleagues (including advisors/supervisors to grad students). By coincidence I was discussing this at the weekend with a friend who did his doctorate at Oxbridge (in molecular biology) and received terrible supervision/advice, including spending lots more time doing experiments when he already had enough data for his thesis. We all know this kind of thing still goes on.

    Secondly, a significant proportion of your readership is going to be from countries where postgraduate education is still developing and where advice, from any source, is eagerly consumed because the institutions where they are studying just do not have the systems in place to effectively advise and manage postgraduate research.

    For the record, my most viewed post was an “advice” post: https://jeffollerton.wordpress.com/2015/01/08/what-do-academics-do-once-the-research-is-published/

    • Your first reason could be right. I think your second reason is off. About 70% of our pageviews come from the US, Canada, UK, Australia, and NZ, English-speaking countries where postgrad education is well-developed. And the bulk of the rest of our pageviews come from non-English speaking countries where postgrad education is well-developed: Germany, France, Sweden, etc.

      • OK, but a better test of whether my second hypothesis is incorrect is whether the proportion of page views for advice posts has a different geographical composition to other types of posts.

      • True. Though I strongly suspect you’d find that most people reading our advice posts are from the US, Canada, UK, etc. Our advice posts draw a substantial fraction of all our traffic. So given that most of our traffic comes from countries with well-developed postgrad education, it’d be pretty hard for our advice posts to mostly draw traffic from countries lacking well-developed postgrad education. The numbers just wouldn’t add up. But yes, it’s possible that the sources of traffic for advice posts skew a bit differently than that for non-advice posts.

      • After I posted my reply it also occurred to me that a significant number of postgraduate research students in the UK, the rest of the EU, and North America and Australia, come from overseas; particualrly Asian and African countries where academic norms and expectations can be rather different. I wonder if that’s also a large fraction of the “advice” readership?

      • @jeffollerton:

        ” I wonder if that’s also a large fraction of the “advice” readership? ”

        Don’t know. It’s my anecdotal impression that ecology postgrad students from Africa and Asia are more common in Europe than in N. America, but I really have no idea.

  2. I think just as you think you’re writing about stuff “everyone knows,” advisors (even young faculty) have been in the game so long that everything is old hat to them and it’s hard to remember what newer folks don’t know. This definitely happened it me. A lot. Being fairly independent, my advisors assumed I knew the ropes, more or less, which of course wasn’t the case. Writing papers was the worst offense, in my case, as it came late in my PhD, when advisors were more focused on newer grad students. Sure, I could write. I’ve written travelogs, magazine articles, blog posts, pieces of fiction, and my scientific proposals got funded. But the writing style of science articles is a very odd and particular one (and horrific, in my opinion). My first draft of my first paper was ruled by an advisor as “too informal”. The next draft still had “too much opinion” in it. When I finally had something to submit, I found the process of trying to figure out where to submit it and going through the gauntlet of actually submitting it really difficult. I had many many questions about things my advisors didn’t think twice about.

    FWIW, this is not unique to academia. I have fenced for over twenty years at this point, and have taught beginners for much of that time. I frequently have to catch myself, my wording, and remember to assume that the students know very little. For example, in fencing, one foot goes in front and the other in back. Beginners don’t know which is their front foot and which is their back foot. In a memorable first lesson, I told the students, “put your front foot forward,” to which I got puzzled looks and some attempt to just pick a foot and put it in front. What I should have said is, “put your dominant foot forward.” I think that in any area of study where people develop expertise over time, it becomes hard to remember what the beginners don’t know. And, importantly, the experts tend to forget how it *feels* to be a beginner. That’s why I try to take on a new activity or sport every few years. It’s important to remember what it’s like to not know anything and feel inept.

    • Oh, and even when you guys write about something that I’ve learned at least something about, you usually either (1) have more details, which increases my knowledge; and/or (2) have a somewhat different approach/outlook/perspective, which I appreciate. There’s more than one way to do science, and it’s good to see multiple ways that work.

    • “I think just as you think you’re writing about stuff “everyone knows,” advisors (even young faculty) have been in the game so long that everything is old hat to them and it’s hard to remember what newer folks don’t know.”

      At least for me, I get cured of this every time I bring a new grad student or summer undergrad into the lab, or have to teach a class. As you note, having to teach beginners is a great way to constantly be reminded of how much one knows, and how non-obvious it is. (I get this experience coaching youth baseball too)

      There’s probably a post to be written on the analogies and disanalogies between teaching or mentoring, and coaching sports. For instance, the baseball players I coached mostly weren’t total newbies. But by the time they got to me, they often had some ingrained bad techniques. Which creates a dilemma: given the limited practice time available and the difficulty of changing an ingrained habit, how much effort do I put into unteaching bad techniques? Vs. just letting the players do what (sort of) works for them, even though it will limit how good they’re able to get? I haven’t often run into the analogous dilemma as a mentor. But it comes up fairly often when I’m teaching, when students enter the class with mistaken preconceptions. And in that context, I find those preconceptions always have to be corrected. There’s no such thing as a mistaken preconception that even sort of works for the student holding it.

  3. Delurking to comment, but as a grad student–while a lot of your advice dovetails with advice from my PI and “professional development” mentoring I’ve received both from him and my undergraduate PI, all of that is very informal, and it does come back to who your PI is. Mine happens to care a lot about professional development and spends a lot of time in lab meetings trying to transfer those skills in a positive way, and I know other PIs feel similarly. On the other hand, I also have friends in other labs who don’t have regular meetings with their PIs or even regular lab-wide meetings. How are they ever going to pick this sort of informal advice up if their PIs are frequently gone from the lab?

    Almost none of the advice topics you mention have been covered in my coursework, by the way; my sense is that the direct mentoring students get on this question is wholly dependent on their individual relationships with mentors within their labs, either PIs or other postdocs and grad students. All of my experience has been picked up via informal conversations with other researchers of a variety of experience levels. The unfortunate thing about that is that it’s pretty easy to fall through the cracks if your informal network of contacts or mentors aren’t personally good at this sort of thing. It leaves a lot of aspects of development up to chance.

    And it’s not just overtly professional advice from your blog that I find helpful, by the way; other sorts of advice like Meg’s crying in science post are things I can easily see coming from a PI in private, but if your PI doesn’t know what to say or do about a student who cries–or is, god forbid, one of the abusive sorts of advisors who treats students poorly–where are you ever going to hear that? So I often forward your posts (among others) to friends of mine as a sort of supplement to in-lab mentoring. Even if your PI is an excellent, highly invested mentor, it helps to have different perspectives on professional topics as you develop your idea about what it means to be in academia.

    • Thanks for delurking Erin. There’s definitely a theme emerging in this thread: good mentoring is fairly rare, and that even good mentoring often is fairly informal and so will lack detail or have gaps in coverage.

      Re: picking stuff up in informal conversations, I did a lot of that as a grad student and postdoc. Which is part of why I think it’s very important for students to seek out and create for themselves opportunities for those sorts of conversations to happen. Make sure you meet with visiting speakers, for instance, even if the speaker works on something different than what you work on. Attend seminars. Etc.

      • Yes. And true about all the informal conversations. But for some people, the informal conversations are necessarily curtailed. Becoming a parent means spending a lot less informal time with everyone. Doing extensive fieldwork or moving to satisfy family/health issues means almost all the informal time is gone. And then, with informal networks, you run into issues of privilege. What if you can’t really afford the happy hours? What if you don’t really feel like you belong (because you have a different background than others) and therefore find it uncomfortable to be in informal situations. There’s a strong point to be made that much of what is taught informally should be formalized.

      • @Margaret:

        “And then, with informal networks, you run into issues of privilege. What if you can’t really afford the happy hours? What if you don’t really feel like you belong (because you have a different background than others) and therefore find it uncomfortable to be in informal situations. There’s a strong point to be made that much of what is taught informally should be formalized.”

        Good point. Dave Harris touched on this in comments on a recent post as well. Although to continue the thought, I’m not sure if this blog necessarily “levels the playing field” in ecology (as Dave suggested it does). Even though in principle anyone can read us, I doubt our readers are a random sample even of English-speaking ecologists. For instance, I wouldn’t be surprised if ecology grad students in “top” programs are more likely to read us than are other ecology grad students. As a non-hypothetical example, our readership is male-biased (though steadily becoming less so). And at least a few readers see us as writing for a select audience and are put off by that: https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2012/11/12/reader-feedback-what-audience-are-we-aiming-for/.

  4. I agree with the other commenters that the amount and type of advice that you get from supervisors is highly variable. There is a very low chance that your PI will be your go to person for advice all of the time which is why it is so important to find multiple mentors. I found that sometimes I didn’t even know that I needed advice or should seek it out in the first place. Now that I’m advising students myself I make a point of not taking their knowledge about anything for granted and I try not to come off as condescending when I offer advice.

  5. No doubt there are ranks of students from many schools who get little to no useful career advice from faculty – at BS, MS, and PhD level. I had many great profs for teaching and reaearch, little advice for career stuff.

    • ” I had many great profs for teaching and reaearch, little advice for career stuff.”

      This raises the question of whether some of our advice posts are more needed than others (say, career advice vs. stats advice). Don’t know.

  6. Sometimes it’s advice you didn’t know to ask or were too afraid to ask.

    Sometimes it’s a completely different perspective to what your advisor says (not everything your advisor says is gospel!). Useful if your advisor’s advice seems wrong for you.

    Sometimes it confirms what your advisor says (sometimes your advisor’s words are gospel!)

    Sometimes it’s simply interesting to see how things are different in different countries / university types / for different people.

  7. Pingback: Some basic tips for PhD students for giving effective conference presentations | Jeff Ollerton's Biodiversity Blog

  8. About your two theses, I think they’re both partly right. Naturally, one would search with familiar terms in the hopes of finding some new and useful information. Hitherto, it’s partly new information that’s being viewed, or beknown information that is reviewed. Perhaps, e.g. the Googler wanted to verify something they’d partly forgotten or just weren’t sure of their position. Anyway, whether or not it’ s novel information or not, I figure verification is a grand factor in finding the right explication for your [alleged] observation.

    I hope my contribution was useful in some way.

  9. Pingback: Birthday reflections on blogging | Dynamic Ecology

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