Avoiding Bad Advice From Your Colleagues

How to ignore, reject, or only pretend to follow terrible guidance

Marta Antelo for The Chronicle

March 04, 2013

An assistant professor I know in the social sciences at a regional state university considers herself open to criticism. She listens to suggestions from student evaluations and from senior faculty members. But she was puzzled about how to react to two contradictory critiques of her publication plans.

First, in an informal hallway chat, the head of the promotion-and-tenure committee said she should try to get an article into a particular journal: "It's the benchmark of being a star in our field." A few days later, during her annual review with the chair of the department, she mentioned a desire to publish in that journal. He replied, "Oh, no, that one is too hard to get into and too specialized. Don't bother trying."

I have written often in these pages about finding a good mentor, understanding your role as a protégé, and, most recently, being open to useful criticism.

Not all advice, however, is good. Some is outdated, out of context, impractical, even malicious. Graduate school and the tenure track in the early 21st century are not for the faint of heart, the tone deaf, or the fragile. But a further quality you must cultivate is to know when and how to ignore, reject, or fake absorbing terrible advice—even when it is offered with the best intentions.

Investigate before you commit. Unless you are advised to "Duck!" because an errant fraternity football is zooming toward your head, you should never immediately employ any recommendation, no matter its apparent merits. I have seen graduate students and new faculty members plunge into major research projects that "seemed like a good idea at the time," only to find out, after too many hours and too much labor, that the work was neither viable nor rewarding.

So sit back, gather more data, accumulate more wisdom, and ponder before you plunge. In short: Delay.

Suppose you, a graduate student, are talking with a member of your committee who suggests you do additional research or chapter sections. Your first instinct is to think that the professor must know what he is talking about, and that he would be pleased by your immediate agreement. But force yourself to tactfully defer action, as in, "Wow, never thought about that. Let me look into it."

Then look into it. Review the suggestion when you next meet. A good adviser will be swayed if you persuasively argue that the new line of inquiry has been already exhausted by other researchers, or that it would add a huge burden to your loaded research agenda.

Triangulate contradictory advice. Sometimes openly sharing what you're told will straighten out the contradictions. To do this, your "read the room" skills need to be well developed. In the case of the assistant professor who was told two different things about publishing in a certain journal, she sensed that both of the senior faculty members were (a) well intentioned; (b) not the prickly "I am always right" sort; and (c) good friends with each other. So she wrote a carefully worded e-mail to both saying how much she valued their advice but wanted to make sure "I fully understood."

Her openness worked: She got back rapid responses in the vein of, "Yikes, we must have confused you. Let's sort this out before our young friend loses faith in us!" And they did, eventually taking her to lunch and conferring on a reasonable and doable publication agenda.

Hear out even seemingly useless advice. Another assistant professor I know thought she had received a singularly ineffectual suggestion from a mentor: Procure a carrel in the library for "heavy thinking" work. She assumed that such an archaic venue would be of no use to her. But a month later she met an assistant professor who had received the same advice and taken it. He sang the praises of the cozy carrel, the inspiration of all the great works around him, and the solitude of the location.

So she tried it, too. With e-mail and cellphone turned off she had no distractions, and no one could find her. She felt much more productive because of the accompanying reduction in anxiety.

So a "bad" idea turned out to be a good idea.

Plead "busy" and just say no (thanks). I have often suggested keeping a scheduling chart to prove that you are too busy and too engaged to, for example, take on a new major project beloved by a senior professor but of no interest to you.

Generally, a polite response does not have to be a positive one. Hear people out with interest or at least feigned interest. Then just say, "Thank you, but unfortunately I'm busy." Most rational people understand that word and identify with it. Certainly you can elaborate, as in, "I'm fully committed to these projects, and I could not do yours justice." But stick to your response, and eventually the message will sink in.

Don't assume that an off-the-cuff suggestion is "must do" advice. Faculty members offer lots of ideas and guidance. Anxiety occurs when the junior partner of a conversational dyad assumes that the senior attached great value to the suggestion.

Remember that most senior professors want to help, whether it is your formal adviser in graduate school or a member of the P&T committee while you are on the tenure track. An idea pops into our heads of some action that can assist your research, teaching, or service—and we share. Perhaps some of us would be hurt if you rejected it out of hand, but most of us rarely attach our own egos to the advice. Graduate students and tenure-trackers might hear "you must" when we were just thinking "you might."

Seek out a champion. The best antidote to bad advice is a trustworthy, decent, supportive, shrewd, and politically powerful mentor. Ideally, your dissertation adviser or your tenure-track mentor would not only give good advice but intervene or deflect the bad variety. When someone else offers a suggestion that seems to be a waste of your time or energy, your champion should be someone who will say, "Don't worry; I'll handle it," and then does.

That said, the best advisers, while defending their protégés, don't become ersatz helicopter parents. Years ago, a senior scholar I very much respected told me to remember, when dealing with my own doctoral students, that "you can't and shouldn't drag them across the finish line."

Graduate students and junior faculty members are adults. It is important for them to develop the political skills to navigate the dissertation process, job hunting, and promotion and tenure without having their hands held throughout. Good advisers, just like good parents, know when to let you deal with your own problems and fight your own battles.

Flee. All of my suggestions so far have assumed that the bad (or untimely) advice you receive is well intentioned or at least not meant to harm. But the many forums, blogs, and wikis for young scholars, and the many testimonies I hear, certify the existence of a subset of the senior faculty population that I call the "wreckers." Perhaps the source of their bile is insecurity, a twisted ego, or plain meanness. Whatever the cause, they seem to go out of their way to sabotage the careers of those they should feel a sacred obligation to assist.

Notorious case in point: A professor at a liberal-arts collegerecalled, with accompanying shudder, her dissertation "adviser"—a term she always uses with air quotes. He was a well-published and respected researcher, and she felt privileged to work with him—until the harassment began. He would (a) belittle everything she wrote, said, or did; (b) suddenly reverse previous advice, so that she found herself twisting in knots of theory and method; and (c) cut off contact for months at a time, then castigate her for her lack of "responsiveness." And so on ... for years. She finally fled, transferring to a doctoral program in a related field.

After some time, in conversations with those who knew the "great man," she caught on: He liked to make others, especially those he had power over, miserable.

Thankfully the truly evil are a small minority among the professoriate, but that is no solace to their victims. But they are not hard to detect if you pay attention:

  • Is the advice delivered with a tone or modifier that makes you feel bad? Does the adviser imply, or state outright, that you are stupid if you don't follow the advice?
  • Does the adviser assert that he is the sole source of wisdom, trying to isolate you from other guidance? Beware someone who tells you, "I'm the only one you can trust." In contrast, good advisers will urge you to get advice aside from their own and will admit the limits of their expertise, as in, "I can help you on the methods section, but Professor Gupta is the real expert on the theory you are dealing with."
  • When the advice leads to failure, does the adviser blame you? Good advisers are embarrassed, apologetic, and want to make up for it if something they suggested does not pan out.
  • Does the adviser seem unconcerned about the consequences of her poor advice? Does she shrug and move on to new, equally questionable recommendations? Bad advisers are never truly sorry.

Don't get caught up in the pressure or drama of a moment. The key to making smart decisions about whether a piece of advice is useful or not is to step back and make a dispassionate cost-benefit analysis, in consultation with people you trust.

The advantages of learning to discern good advice from bad will not just flow to you, but will make you a good adviser to your own mentees, and so uphold the best values of academe.

David D. Perlmutter is director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication and a professor, Starch Faculty Fellow, and International Programs Faculty Fellow at the University of Iowa. He writes the "Career Confidential" advice column for The Chronicle. His book on promotion and tenure was published in 2010 by Harvard University Press.