have I got “advice” for you… 

I want you to imagine that you are going to build a fence. You have a wide choice of potential materials and style. Well and good. But you haven’t build a fence before, so where do you go for some advice?  You can:

(1) go to someone who has built a fence – yes one – and who knows, they say, the perfect way you can get the fence built cheaply and efficiently
(2) talk to and read the stories of people who have built a fence and have learned some things in the process
(3) go to a skilled tradie who has built a lot of fences. You can visit their fences to see their work for yourself
(4) get a manual written by someone who knows a lot about fences and has also built a lot. They don’t just use their own fences as examples but refer to fences built by other people and fences built using a range of different materials and approaches.

Now (2-4) are all helpful, each one, by themselves. You might also very fruitfully combine them – so you could talk to some people who’ve built fences, talk to a tradie and buy a manual. 

You could choose however to only do (1) , that is, talk to someone who has built one fence for themselves. Now this is a potentially risky strategy.  The one-fence-maker’s version of how to build a fence might work really well for you. On the other hand it mightn’t. They were perhaps using different materials, or building a fence in a different style, or their fencing needs are just very different from yours.  You could, if you go with the one-fence-maker, end up with a costly and time wasting experiment. Or not. Of course, you might get lucky and/or you might have the all the knowledge you need to make up for what the one-fence-maker didn’t tell you.

Now, humour me. Please change the words building a fence to any of these – writing the thesis, writing a journal article, doing a doctorate, doing the viva, writing a research proposal, getting a job … Of course the fence analogy doesn’t really hold for these situations, because doctoral researchers for example aren’t doing their doctorate by themselves. They have supervisors/committees/gradschools. They aren’t just dependent on the advice they get online and from books. But I reckon that some of my fence-building  analogy is pertinent.

The web has proliferated advice about every aspect of doctoral education, academic writing and scholarly career development. In general, I think that’s a Very Good Thing. Learning and knowledge is shared. It is not kept in tiny journals, closed offices and people’s heads.

Some of this knowledge is offered free and some costs money. And there is both less helpful and more reliable advice and support around. But this is not a simple binary. It’s not that free=good, and for sale=bad. Not at all. There is the best to the worst advice and support in both free and for sale services.

This kind of advice “market” both interests and worries many of us. Julia Molinari wrote about dubious proof reading services not long ago in the Guardian, and Doctoral Writing SIG scholars Claire Aitchison and Susan Mowbray have been studying the doctoral support field, as have @ThesisWhisperer, Inger Mewburn and I.

And we’ve found some pretty interesting things – for instance I’ve recently seen:
* a book about how to write your PhD by someone who is only half way through their own,
* an advice service set up on the basis of n=1, I wrote my thesis this way so this is how you should write yours,
* a writing tips website that basically re-publishes other people’s advice as its own,
* a self published book that brings together bits and pieces from other people’s work and twitter chats, largely unacknowledged,
* a book on how to turn your thesis into a book but this is the author’s first book, they haven’t actually turned their thesis into a book at all, they just want to …

And so on. I can’t help but compare this kind of advice to: the carefully constructed posts and books by highly experienced scholars; the sharing of personal stories and experiences; and the pedagogical writings of those whose work is academic and researcher development or writing, language and linguistics.

I’m not arguing for some kind of peer review system here, or a bizarre quality kite mark scheme. Not at all. It is just a caveat emptor situation out there/in here. The fence analogy is probably the most helpful for anyone wanting to make sense of the proliferation of what’s on offer. You have to shop around and consult multiple sources.

So to that end, here’s a couple of questions that I think might be useful in making sense of advice.

First off – determine whether whether what you are looking at is sharing of experience or advice. 


Sharing experiences is generous, and a gift. Learning in public is brave, and readers need to recognise and value the offer of some vicarious education. The reader can take what they want, compare sets of experiences with one another, and see how their own experience checks out. Building up a sense of your own experience by engaging with other people’s is part of the way we live our lives and construct our repertoire of understanding and possible actions.

However if what’s on offer is advice, then I think something different is warranted. 


What’s their track record? what’s the basis on which they are offering advice to you? What has the writer done? Are they n=1? Or are they experienced writers, supervisors, researchers in the topic that they are addressing, academic developers, teachers of methods or writing? Can you read their work – are there samples available for you to see? Can you see what people they have worked with have done as a result of their support and advice? Do they have good references from people who’ve used them? Can you try something free before you buy?

So given this, what actually is my advice about the proliferation of advice? Should doctoral researchers and early career academics just leave it all alone? NO. Not at all. Take my view with a big pinch of salt of course, as I’m one of the people in the mix. But I’d carefully check what’s out there and then plunge in. I’m sure it’s much better to be informed than just squirrel away on your lonesome.

But I’d look at several sources of advice rather than just one or a few, take the books out of the library rather than buy them, find out what works for others, and then see what you think will work for you. And, as Howard Rheingold says, have your crap detectors at the ready.

And now, just for a laugh, a bit of vintage Australian comedy about the ultimate not-to-be-trusted salesmen, the Dodgy Brothers.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, advice, crap detection and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to have I got “advice” for you… 

  1. Haitham Al-Sheeshany says:

    Advice OR sharing. A very good acid test! Thanks Pat.


  2. Hi Pat
    I was just this morning thinking of you and Inger and your DIY thesis ideas.
    Someone had engaged with me about one of my thesis-process-sharing blog posts, saying that it was helpful for them and I was thinking about how both online expert advice/theorising (like yours, Inger’s and others) and story-sharing (like the blog posts of doctoral candidates and early career researchers) have been a part of my doctoral experience.
    Experts (highly experienced scholars with a track record) who are willing to share their expertise online have meant that I’ve accessed just-in-time advice, often written in an accessible way. Sometimes I have revisited posts at different times and gleaned new levels of understanding as my own perspective has changed.
    Personal stories, Twitter conversations and blogging have helped me to feel less isolated in my PhD experiences, even if the experiences shared by others are quite different from my own.
    This online interaction is on top, of course, of the traditional parts of the doctoral experience like academic reading, supervisor meetings and writing writing writing!
    Luckily I haven’t been building my thesis on the basis of a one-hit-wonder’s thesis-building advice!


  3. j partridge says:

    Thanks Pat for this great post.
    It leaves me pondering an ongoing concern. That is, the challenge of dealing with supervisors who, whilst being prolific publishers and successful grant recipients over many years, are gradually revealing themselves to be “n=1.” I mean this in the sense that they continue to draw upon their own, long past, thesis experience as the singular tool for advice and guidance. The resultant view of what a thesis is, should be, or could be within their disciplinary scope becomes extremely limited and formulaic (adding to the PhD challenge I am not from the same disciplinary background as either of my supervisors).
    So whilst your post provides a critical reminder to question the integrity of on-line materials and products I wonder about your thoughts on n=1 supervisors and how to manage them from a student perspective.


    • pat thomson says:

      V important question. Short answer is that this is where advice is useful – but not long answer as this doesn’t deal with how you manage situations where combined advice is not that of supervisors. Nor does it really account for what you’re not getting access to. I’ll ponder and check research, and maybe there are some shared stories here too that are useful.


  4. Tseen Khoo says:

    Loved this post, Pat, and the fence-building analogy is v. apt.

    Blogging and Research Whisperer has freed me up in many ways, and allowed me to recognise the value of ‘in process’ experience sharing. My perspective previously was ‘why would anyone bother listening – and no-one should share or advise – until they’ve proven that they can be successful at X, Y, or Z…’. I definitely look for track-record and credibility when it comes to those who dish out advice, particularly if they are presenting it as ‘commonsense’.

    I was reading a ‘thinking about post-PhD options’ booklet a while back, one that the author declared would let you in on the secrets of career success rhubarbrhubarb, and it asserted that lack of industry partnerships and engagement would sink your chances of a post-PhD career cold. HMM.


  5. Associate Professor Susanne Gannon says:

    Great advice and what a pleasure to see the old dodgy bros – i’d like some dodgy motivational tapes though i suppose it would be a podcast now!


  6. Marion Nao says:

    I agree with you that experience is important. At the same time the idea of provenance may be a little simplistic, as someone’s experience may have been shaped by places and circumstances you might not expect. (There are also plenty of people who have lots of experience of doing the same thing from exactly the right ‘provenance’, and yet they are unable to explain or demonstrate how to go about doing it effectively to other people. This is partly why people seek out alternative support in the first place.)

    I have only participated in one viva (for my own PhD, which I passed without any corrections), but I help other PhD students to prepare for theirs through practice sessions. What I believe qualifies me to do so, among other things, is more than 23 years of experience of teaching oral communication skills and 11 years of developing my own discourse analytic ones. So, I am able to give advice to PhD students, for example, on structuring their responses in a way that is more coherent, because I’m able to identify where the problem lies in our practice sessions. Having said that, I would never make claims to expertise in other areas, such as examining PhD theses, nor would I presume to give out a priori advice about what works and what doesn’t.

    Although this blog post makes many incisive points about selecting alternative support, it does rather assume that relevant experience and expertise only falls within two areas: an academic faculty career path or an alt-ac one of academic skills’ development. In other words, it seems to only take seriously those people with well established institutional roles (either now or in the past). It’s worth bearing in mind that there are, in fact, a lot of good people ‘out there’ who have (had) neither.


    • pat thomson says:

      Sure. But I think you probably fall into my loose category of people with language and linguistic experience. And provenance also includes things like recommendations, seeing people’s work etc. And these two questions are simply a start…
      There is a lot of viva advice and shared viva stories out there too… And research. And I assume you are up to speed with all of that “insider” material.
      But ultimately the viva IS an insiders game, it’s the big gate keeping exercise where the doc researcher has to say particular things in particular ways, and this IS “insider” knowledge.


      • Marion Nao says:

        I really appreciate the insider insights you contribute through your blog. (You may have noticed I’m an avid retweeter.) Of course, you are right that it is an insider game. At the same time, being an insider doesn’t necessarily make one the best analytic observer either. People make a lot of assumptions about language use without ever having recorded and analysed it in depth (and if they tried, they wouldn’t necessarily be in a position to do so).

        It’s also easy for people to conflate institutional status with expertise (and unfortunately faculty staff can be woefully ignorant about transferable skills). Sometimes the ability to actually ‘hear’ people seems to diminish with increased authority. In the worst cases, insider faculty staff read their own political manoevres into every naive comment a PhD student makes. They also brand them a certain ‘type’ in disregard of any counter-evidence, because they know it all already. There’s a sense of not being able to get through to them, which is ironic, since they view themselves as having rational minds (which is probably part of the problem).

        In qualitative research, you might advise your students to move in and out of their data, while being reflexively aware of the role they themselves are playing in constructing their own analytic outlook. In other words, you might advise them to shift between being an insider and an outsider. So, perhaps outsiders have a role to play which might be a valuable part of the process of becoming an insider. (Of course, if they do not then go into academia, you might consider them an outsider, such as myself, which then presents a bit of a paradox.)


      • pat thomson says:

        The best advice combines inside and outside perspectives, just like research, and I think, as you suggest.


  7. It’s a difficult territory isn’t it? I always say, no one finishes high school and says “Now I want to be a research educator!!” – it’s almost always an ‘accidental career’. Therefore we all bring a range of experiences to our work with doctoral candidates and everyone has limited or partial knowledge, which is more true at the beginning of course. Some of us begin with very little. I started working with candidates before I finished my masters degree. Desperately under-qualified was I! I quickly realised I could not teach from a position of authority, as I had been doing in my architecture teaching career. This was very good for me actually. I spent a lot of time absorbing all the literature – from Lee, Green – and yourself and Kamler Pat – and so many others. All I could do was to assist students into this literature and make it accessible, through my teaching and the materials I made. I didn’t start the blog until after I finished as I felt this would not be right. I needed the N=1 experience too. I still stand on the shoulders of giants today and always acknowledge my sources. That’s what bothers me about some of the advice out there at the moment, particularly the ebooks (some of them are even more expensive than mine is!). Some of them ignore this huge body of work and just regurgitate what is circulating out there uncritically. Others speak from the N=1 experience with too much authority. My worry is that this material potentially misleads people into thinking these books have all the answers – or worse, that if the advice doesn’t work that there is something wrong with them personally – that they are defective in some way.


    • pat thomson says:

      I think the point is not that we don’t know anything from our other lives, but that the Phd is a specific game with its own peculiarities and insider rules. I taught writing for 27 years before coming into higher education and, like you Inger,I had to do a lot of additional work before I was in a position to start running workshops – which I firstly did with a much more experienced linguistic researcher, my colleague Barbara.


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