Let me give you some advice….

on advice

If I were to offer a new academic advice it would be to not be afraid to take advice from your colleagues; especially with respect to writing. I was talking to one of my collaborators the other day and they told me ‘I never let anyone in the Department read my grants before I submit them; I am too scared‘. I can definitely understand this point of view. It is scary to be critiqued and expose your writing style to the world. Also, if you are working on something that is a hot topic then you may not want the rest of the world to see your creative ideas just yet.

But that grant/paper/cover letter is going to get read, by somebody, and I would rather have one of my colleagues (that I trust) give me advice than just simply leave that to an unknown committee.

My view is quite the opposite of my collaborator’s, I actively try to get people to have a look over of my grant, my publications, my cover letters – everything and anything. I would much rather have a friendly colleague tell me when my ideas don’t make any sense on paper, than a less friendly review panel. A bit of advice helps improve your writing style and conveyance of tricky topics. It also helps with clarity, sometimes when you have read something over and over again it says to you what you think it should say not what it actually does say. Someone else might read it and think – WTF? This is something you need to know.

The other good thing about soliciting advice, is you don’t have to take it. You can ask people for a read, but just because they suggest that you do something doesn’t mean you have to. Even bad advice allows you to think about exactly why you don’t want to change something and again improves your ability to express yourself.

Unsolicited advice, on the other hand, can be really annoying. As often as not, I find unsolicited advice rather useless as it seems to be given by a deliverer who just wants to tell you about how well they think and how well written they are rather than providing anything helpful. Still there is some honesty and helpfulness even in unsolicited assertions – such as on blog post comments; I have had all manner of useful advice through this venue – who says the internet isn’t useful?

About Sylvia McLain

Girl, Interrupting aka Dr. Sylvia McLain is a bio-physicist in the Department of Biochemistry, University of Oxford (UK), but she blogs in a personal capacity. She is also a proto-science writer, armchair philosopher, amateur plumber and wanna-be film-critic. You can follow her on Twitter @girlinterruptin
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5 Responses to Let me give you some advice….

  1. Nigel Brown says:

    You should always get two colleagues to read grant applications. One who knows the area sufficiently well to criticise the detail and the other who is not in the same specialism. If both understand and approve it, it is more likely to find favour with both the specialist referees and that 90%+ of the grants committee who are outside your specialism or discipline.

  2. cromercrox says:

    Sylvia – was that you I saw in your lab on TV with David Cameron?

  3. aeon says:

    I find it rather difficult to give ‘unfinished’ stuff to my colleagues, and since something written is never finished until submitted…

    Another problem I’ve got with colleagues advice is that they tend to forget what they said last time they had a look at my manuscript. I have a hard time not going postal every time one of my co-authors suggests we should write something in a manuscript because it would be important for the reviewers to know we thought about this – while in the last feedback iteration, it was crystal clear I should not mention it because it would rather distress the reviewers and could deliver a leaver to reject the paper.

    Both problems boil down to this: I care too much.
    I like the stuff I wrote. At least sometimes. I did think about it. A lot. In fact, if I’m the first author, I am usually the one who really, really thought about how to put the results in words. Unambiguously. My colleagues have a lot of other stuff on their mind, and they simply don’t care.
    If I would not care so much, it would be easier to let go and not be annoyed by the third time someone comments on my wording or phrasing which I chose for a particular reason.

    My advice for successfully integrate advice into your work, therefore, would be: don’t care to much. Neither about people changing your stuff (just accept it, if it’s not really appalling or outrageously wrong) nor about the stuff itself. If you care too much about your science, you will never get published. And it’s getting published what counts, at least in most faculties.

    • @aeon – thanks for your comment … Maybe it’s good to not take it personally? I will admit I have gotten bad advice, or advice I don’t agree with and end the end as corresponding author it is down to me …. Which is the good bit, you don’t have to take advice …