On getting—and giving—well-meaning but bad advice

Listen to other people’s advice, but that doesn’t mean you should follow it.

– Janet Currie, as quoted in Air & Light & Time & Space by Helen Sword

When I was thinking about coming up for promotion to full professor, I asked some senior colleagues whether they thought it would make sense. Two senior colleagues independently said that, while they thought I was definitely deserving of promotion, they were worried that I hadn’t done enough teaching at Michigan; they thought that might cause problems for promotion. I had actually taught somewhat more than I should have, but had had several leaves, including based on having two children at Michigan. These colleagues were concerned that those gaps in my teaching record might cause problems for promotion. I decided to come up for promotion anyway—I felt confident I could write a strong teaching statement. I was promoted…and got a teaching award as part of the process.

I truly think my colleagues had my best interests in mind when they gave the advice—they have been incredibly strong advocates for women in science. (Indeed, they have surely contributed to a climate and culture that has allowed me to be successful.) But, in my case, following their advice would have led to me postponing a promotion, which would have meant postponing the raise & other benefits that come with it. As one example of the latter—I don’t think I would have been able to do some of the things I’ve done this past year related to grad student mental health without being at the full professor rank.

In the past few months, I’ve shared this story a couple of times, using it as an anecdote about how some people mean well but end up giving advice that isn’t in the best interests of the advisee. Now, based on the results of the poll we did on listing parental & other leaves on CVs, I’m realizing that I have probably* been doing the same thing. I have been advising people not to list parental leave on CVs. I didn’t have direct evidence of listing leaves on a CV being used against anyone, but was focusing on the downsides (we know some people doubt whether moms will really be committed to their work) and not on potential upsides (that committee members might productively use that information).

Since the poll results started coming in, I’ve been thinking about other places where this applies. One obvious place relates to mental health. I know some people do not seek mental health care because of fears of how it might harm them. To use one example, I was recently at a seminar where the speaker mentioned that law students can be really nervous about seeking mental health care for fear it might mean they won’t be admitted to the bar later. People have asked my advice about whether to disclose mental health conditions (generally as part of a diversity statement on a faculty job application). Similar to my advice about parental leaves on CVs, I’ve tended to recommend against disclosing mental health conditions in diversity statements, again worrying about biases that persist related to mental health.

In the end, the issue comes down to how to assess the risks vs. rewards of different options. This is particularly hard when dealing with things that are hard to quantify (including biases) and that change over time, sometimes rapidly. It’s hard when a potential downside seems unlikely but also really, really bad. How do you compare that to the more likely, but much less beneficial upside? And it’s hard with things where we have limited experience. Unfortunately, there are a lot of things that are hard to quantify, variable, with asymmetric costs & benefits, and where we have limited experience.

When I am the person that someone is seeking advice from, I think a key role of mine is to be a sounding board, to help people consider the different options and, to the extent possible, to help them weigh the pros and cons of those options. But reflecting on all this reminds me that I probably need to do a better job of considering my own biases (which will be influenced in part by my own experiences) and how those are influencing the advice I’m giving and the things I’m (perhaps inadvertently) highlighting or downplaying. To go back to the colleagues who gave me advice on promotion—I am 100% sure their advice was based on having come up through a system that was much more hostile to women and to seeing the effects that had. And when I thought about why I was surprised by the responses to the poll, I realized that some of my thinking had been along the lines of “Well, I’ve never heard anyone say anything specifically about CV statements, but I’ve heard a lot of sexist crap over the years.”

What strategies do you use for yourself as you consider different options, especially when you don’t have (recent) data to inform the decision? How do you help mentees as they make those decisions? I’d love to learn about different strategies that people use!



* “Probably” because it’s a very unscientific poll. I am still concerned about possible biases in what people will admit to, but we asked the poll questions in a way to try to get at observed behaviors, in part to avoid social desirability bias that might occur if we asked people about their own views.

7 thoughts on “On getting—and giving—well-meaning but bad advice

  1. Question: how sure are we that asymmetric costs and benefits (likely but small benefits vs. unlikely but high costs) are what’s really going on in some of these cases? I’m thinking of the example of listing vs. not listing parental leave on a cv. That seems like a matter of weighing a less-likely cost of listing (somebody on the search committee won’t want to hire a parent) vs. a more-likely cost of not listing (the search committee will see a productivity gap on your cv and not know what to make of it). Yes, I know that I’m just redescribing your example in terms of costs vs. costs rather than costs vs. benefits. But I’m honestly unsure what’s the best description here. Hopefully somebody who knows the cost-benefit analysis literature (which I don’t) will comment and clear up my confusion here.

    “I realized that some of my thinking had been along the lines of “Well, I’ve never heard anyone say anything specifically about CV statements, but I’ve heard a lot of sexist crap over the years.””

    I suspect that kind of thinking is behind a lot of well-meant but bad advice: overgeneralizing from personal experiences, especially negative ones. Lately I’m coming around to the view that everybody overgeneralizes about everything.*

    “What strategies do you use for yourself as you consider different options, especially when you don’t have (recent) data to inform the decision? ”

    Go collect some data. 🙂 Or ask this blog to collect some. 🙂 I’m mostly not kidding. Increasingly, I think one of the best uses of this blog is to do polls like yours on parental leaves and CVs. I don’t think there’s any other person or organization that can easily take a fairly large and diverse sample of academic ecologists’ opinions, the way we can. No, they’re not scientific polls–but they’re a *big* improvement on any one individual’s anecdotal experiences.

    And even if you don’t have data on the question of interest, so all you have to go on is your own anecdotal experience, I think you’ll tend to give better advice if you’re the sort of person who does seek out data when it’s available. (I mean, seek it out for purposes of learning, not to support a conclusion you’ve already drawn.) I think you’ll be less likely to overgeneralize from your own experience, less likely to give outdated advice, and less likely to give overconfident advice.

    *insert your own “that’s an overgeneralization” joke here.

  2. So, has anyone ever received well-meaning but bad advice springing from *optimism*? From *over*estimation of the likelihood or magnitude of benefits, relative to the likelihood or magnitude of costs? I have some possible examples in mind, but I first want to hear from others.

    • Not optimism per se, but a focus on benefits over costs leads universities to regularly advise people to apply for prizes and grants for which they have a very low likelihood of success. I think this arises because the person giving the advice would look good if people from their institution succeeded in the prize/grant scheme that they oversee, but doesn’t have a direct stake in the productivity cost of a failed application.

      • I think Angela’s example is a good one!

        I also wonder if some of the advice that ignores how different aspects of identity (e.g., gender and race) can influence how something is perceived could fit in this category. I tend to think of it as arising from obliviousness (either overall or failing to consider it at a particular moment), but I suppose sometimes it’s optimism. As one example: I was recently at an event where the topic of dress & administrative positions came up. A male administrator who meant really well started talking about how it’s possible to dress informally these days in that role. The woman of color sitting next to him noted that isn’t true for everyone.

      • @ Meghan: good example. @ Angela: agree, not an example of optimism per se, but it’s a related case.

        The example that came to my mind was well-meaning but badly-phrased advice intended to boost the confidence of faculty job seekers, particularly those from underrepresented minority groups. For instance, telling a faculty job seeker “Don’t worry, you have a strong cv, you’ll definitely get a job” or “Don’t worry, these days women have it easy on the faculty job market”. The faculty job market is very competitive; no one has it easy, no matter how strong their cv or what their personal attributes. For readers who missed it, we have an old post with more discussion of this: https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2019/04/03/poll-results-are-eeb-faculty-job-seekers-receiving-good-advice-about-the-eeb-faculty-job-market/

  3. “What strategies do you use for yourself as you consider different options, especially when you don’t have (recent) data to inform the decision? ”

    Sometimes you have to infer without specific data – i.e., by using your general knowledge of people and how they behave and the general situation. Sometime you have to just hammer out the positives and negatives as best you can assess them even when you have low confidence in your assessment.

    You didn’t give bad advice by suggesting people avoid putting parental leave on their CV. It might depend on the situation. The poll you took before was informal. it might not be accurate, or it might be a slim majority one way or the other. If it’s 60/40, then whether the leave is listed or not, or whether it’s viewed in a positive light if it is listed, is still a crap shoot. There might be other factors that will impact people’s views on that issue, or other factors that weigh heavier for any individual.

    You’re absolutely right, people *should **absolutely** not* disclose *any* health conditions unless there is strong evidence that the disclosure will be viewed in a positive light or the condition is likely to be known already. First, unless it will significantly affect your ability to do the job, your health situation is none of the potential employer’s or future coworkers’ business. Second, any health conditions could be stigmatized by a hiring committee or panel. Since it’s none of the potential employer’s business, why take the risk?

    In any kind of application for anything, job, grant, loan whatever, don’t disclose anything about yourself that’s not directly relevant to and/or providing some positive impact on the application (e.g., charity work on a job application). The parental leave issue might be directly relevant if, say, a person was off for a year and there’s a big gap of some kind that needs to be explained. But if OTOH you wrote 33 papers over your year of parental leave and were employed throughout, then it’s not necessary to include it, so don’t. Only include it if it explains something.

  4. Pingback: Farewell (sort of) to Dynamic Ecology | Scientist Sees Squirrel

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