Early career scientists are oft showered with advice, recommendations, and suggestions from mentors, committees, more senior peers, random folks we just met at a conference. Everyone has hir take. We (hopefully) learn how to filter this information, assessing its relevance, trustworthiness, and value.
Yet, in giving and taking advice, we can easily lose sight of one key element: implicit context.
With rare exceptions, grad students and postdocs are surrounded by individuals who have spent most to all of their careers in an academic environment or something very similar. Some advice – for example, regarding experimental design or evaluation of research quality – is broadly applicable. But once we move beyond the actual science, context is immensely important.
Context can change the weight and relevance of information. Consider this recent exchange on Twitter:
This is just one example of something happens a great deal. Sometimes we don’t realize how insulated our viewpoints and those of our colleagues can be. We provide default responses to general questions without considering whether they are applicable outside our own sphere and/or relevant to the situation on which we’re advising.
I think this contributes to the feeling that academia is poorly preparing PhDs for anything other than (academic) research. And there is some truth to that. “Get a PhD; it’s essential training. Do a postdoc; you need to carve a niche and develop expertise. [Other thing (e.g. teaching, outreach, etc.] is not important; it’s the research that matters.” It’s (mostly) reasonable advice – if you plan to stay in academic research.
Advisers in academia can be a wealth of wisdom, even if your path is taking you somewhere else. But as we weigh this information, we need to remember the context implicit to the advice – and then accept or ignore it accordingly.