Dear Kerry Ann: The Difference Between Advice and Opinion
Wednesday, June 22, 2016
Posted by: Allison Van Buren
Dear Kerry Ann,
I’m a newly minted Ph.D., and I’m starting a tenure-track job this fall. I’m excited to start my new job, and I want to be successful winning tenure. Throughout graduate school, my adviser was available to answer questions, but I don’t feel like I received any meaningful mentoring about this next stage of my career. As a result, I’ve been frequenting discussion forums and Facebook groups and asking people what advice they have for a new faculty member. The problem is that any question I post online elicits a large quantity and wide range of advice (as well as lots of horror stories). I’m finding myself overwhelmed and confused by all the different opinions expressed and a bit nervous after reading so many negative stories. How does a new faculty member know what advice to follow and what to ignore?
Congratulations on both your graduation and tenure-track job! As you know, the transition from graduate student to faculty member is an important moment in your career, and you’re correct that this is a time when advice can be helpful. To sort the wheat from the chaff, I encourage you to ask yourself a few simple questions.
What’s the Difference Between Advice and Opinion?
Throughout your career, you will receive two types of feedback when asking for help: advice and opinion. Advice comes from people who have already done what you are trying to do, it is aimed toward helping you achieve your goals, and it’s rare. (So it should be treasured.) In contrast, opinion is speculation about what you should do, it’s readily offered by people who have not yet achieved the goals you’ve set out for yourself, and it is in abundant supply online.
What I have frequently observed in public forums online is a pattern: someone posts a question, there is a rapid-fire barrage of feedback, and then the discussion quickly descends into ain’t it awful. When graduate students attempt to advise other graduate students, and new faculty members share what they would do in situations posed by other new faculty members, an element of experience is missing. And the added danger of unmoderated online groups is that it’s also unclear what the intention is behind the feedback. Are people trying to be helpful? Are they trying to position themselves in the group? Or are they projecting their own fears and insecurities onto the conversation?
Honestly, I have witnessed some disastrous conversations in online communities where the crowdsourced solution would surely lead in the opposite direction of the asker’s goal and possibly cause long-lasting damage to professional relationships. That is why you may hear senior faculty members derisively referring to peer mentoring as “the blind leading the blind.”
You can cut through feedback quickly by asking one simple question: Has the person responding already done what you are trying to do? If they have, it’s advice, and you can consider whether it is useful (or not) in your context. If they have not, it’s an opinion, and you can let it go. That tends to be a surprisingly effective filter because of how little qualified advice is available in most online settings.
For example, when I was on the tenure track, I didn’t take advice about how to win tenure from other untenured faculty (despite the fact that their opinions were often strongly stated and readily offered). Why? Because if my goal was to win tenure, an untenured person is only guessing about what will be effective. That is why book writers don’t seek publication advice from authors who only write articles, why parents rarely take child-rearing advice from people who do not have kids, why people seeking external funding don’t solicit advice from colleagues who’ve never done funded research, and why those seeking work-life balance don’t ask workaholics for tips.
I'm not saying that peer feedback has no value. Many tenure-track faculty members find online groups helpful in providing a sense of community, reducing isolation, making connections and providing accountability for behaviors that improve productivity (such as daily writing). I’m simply suggesting that you develop a quick and reliable filter to discern the difference between qualified advice and random opinions.
Are Strangers Online Your Best Source of Advice?
If you narrow the pool of feedback you consider to those who have already met your goals, then you will quickly realize that online forums may not be your best avenue for qualified advice. I can’t help but ask what other sources you are tapping into. Specifically:
- Have you contacted your new department chair with your questions?
- Has your new department assigned you a tenured faculty mentor and, if so, have you contacted that person?
- Have you read any of the excellent books available for tenure-track faculty written by faculty development experts (e.g., Advice for New Faculty, The Black Academic’s Guide to Winning Tenure Without Losing Your Soul, Academic Motherhood)?
- Have you signed up for mentoring programs available on your campus and/or in your discipline (via your professional organizations)?
- Have you explored online resources offered by your campus’s faculty development center, teaching center or groups that provide online access to qualified advice?
Can You Get More Specific About Your Needs?
If you’re asking people generic questions like, “How can I win tenure?” or “What advice do you have for a new faculty member?” you are likely to elicit equally generic advice, such as: “You need to publish a lot,” “You should be strategic,” “Pick your battles” and so on. The key to getting the best advice is to get highly specific about what you need right now to optimize your performance and asking targeted questions.
As a new faculty member starting in the fall, I’m guessing you need to move, settle into your new home/office/community, prepare for any classes you will be teaching and have a highly productive summer in terms of your research and writing. Your department chair can answer most of the practical questions you have about setting up your space on the campus. So the key short-term areas of need are likely to be: 1) how you can prepare your syllabi so you don’t overfunction on teaching your first semester (to the exclusion of all else), and 2) how you can develop the habits of writing productivity this summer during your transition.
If that sounds accurate, there’s plenty of qualified advice out there! You could read a book on writing productivity (for example, How to Write a Lot). You could join a positive community of active daily writers. You could participate in an expert-led community on efficient teaching (like Chavella Pittman’s Teaching in No Time). You could ask your new department chair to suggest any specific faculty members in your new department whom you could contact to chat with about how your syllabi do (or do not) approximate departmental norms (and whether those faculty members might possibly be teaching mentors for you in your first term). Each of these resources are targeted to far more specific and immediate needs than “Do you have any advice for a new faculty member?”
Is Seeking Advice Online a Procrastination Mechanism?
I hope this doesn’t sound rude, but when people are spending a lot of time online seeking advice from strangers, I have to ask a few clarifying questions: 1) What are your summer writing goals? 2) Are you well on your way to meeting them? 3) Do you have a daily writing habit? If the answer to any of these questions is no or “I don’t know,” then your first order of business is to stop posting questions in online groups and start doing the one thing that matters most to your career: writing. Why? Because all that time you spend on Facebook and discussion forums is time that you could spend moving manuscripts out the door. You will never again have a summer with so few expectations and so much time, so don’t waste it procrastinating on social media.
Are You Savoring Your Transitional Summer?
You’ve just achieved an enormous goal -- completing your degree -- and you’ll be in the pressure cooker of tenure-track life in short order. This should be a summer of celebration! That means marking your transition with celebratory rituals, engaging in leisure activities that you enjoy, prioritizing your self-care and -- dare I say -- having some fun! You will only have a handful of transitional summers when you are moving from one chapter to the next in your academic career. The beauty of them is that they afford you the space to get clear about your priorities and to start the next chapter of your career rested, rejuvenated and ready for success.
I hope that differentiating between advice and opinions will help you to cut through the overwhelming chatter and confusion you are experiencing and get your immediate needs met. And I’m sure that readers will be able to add to the list of resources for qualified advice in the comments section below.
Peace and productivity,
Kerry Ann Rockquemore, Ph.D.
President, National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity