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The illusion of advice

by David Garofalo

Academics love to give advice. From strategies for completing the PhD to becoming an effective researcher, the stories they are ready and willing to sell you as advice are endless. Students and young scientists in turn, constantly demand a supply of advice. And they will use this advice to mimic successful behaviors to presumably become themselves successful. But they don’t know that what they’re asking for does not exist. They are deluded. I believe advice to be an illusion. There’s no such thing as advice.

Imagine you are a college freshman and you come to me for advice on what you should do to become a physicist. Is there anything I could give you of value? The more I attempt to hone in on what is most certain concerning what you should or should not do, the more the information becomes obvious and useless. After an in-depth analysis, here is the best I can offer you: If you want to become a physicist, you should almost certainly avoid getting hit by a truck. The reason is that dead people cannot do physics. Given the output of some physicists, however, one might even question that.

Advice is not a thing because I don’t know you. Advice cannot be a thing for others because they too don’t know you. In fact, you probably don’t know yourself well enough to know what choices to make that will improve your life; i.e., you can’t give yourself advice. While this may mostly be due to your young age, chances are good that you will drift through life not knowing yourself well enough to make decisions that will improve your life. You will choose. You will make decisions. Sometimes they will make your life better. Other times they will make it worse. What you end up doing, your trajectory in life, will most likely be the result of random events to which you reacted in random ways. I think most people go through life this way. Because we seek meaning, we naturally tend to construct stories designed to justify the outcome as a natural consequence of who we are. This is also an illusion. Because most people have little insight into themselves, they end up having little impact on their life, which instead, owes its character to the external randomness provided by the world.

After my PhD, I did a postdoc. That’s standard. I never asked and nobody offered input on this, but if I had, I’m sure I would have gotten criticism of my choice to teach at a local college during this time. Your time as a postdoc is special. You are unlikely to be paid only to do research in any other capacity later in your career, so this is a unique opportunity. If you ask, people will surely tell you to take advantage of that. It makes sense. Go as deep as you can into your research field as a postdoc and this will help create the foundations of your future research path. It would have also been the worst thing I could have done. Luckily, I realized this about myself. Had I not begun teaching early during my postdoc, I would almost surely not be an academic today. This is one out of many personal examples.

If you are an introspective person, you may learn about yourself and find out who you are, to some degree. This takes time. If you pay attention to the moves others make, you may also learn something about them. This also takes time. As you develop insight into your neighbors, you can then evaluate the effect of the choices they made and use that to develop strategies for yourself. If this is you, as you mature over time, you have a fighting chance of coming up with a roadmap for making choices that will improve your life. But none of what I wrote here, and none of what others do or say, constitutes advice.

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