Advice on taking advice

Last week I pontificated wrote about my views on the traits that are necessary for a scientist to survive and indeed thrive in today’s world. And while there seems to be agreement that “luck” “fate” and “opportunity” are certainly useful for scientists, I sensed a lot of support for my premise that resilience and resurgence play a far greater role in the success of a scientist.

I would like to now address another trait that I reckon is also of great value to scientists (and other professionals as well)–the ability to properly handle criticism.

Sounds easy, right? But I can tell that it isn’t–certainly not for a lot of budding scientists that I’ve met and counseled.

What kind of advice can I proffer on taking advice?

First, it depends on who/what is giving the advice. Perhaps that should be lesson number one: Career advice should be seriously considered proportionally to the seeker’s respect for the advice giver. So if you are searching for an experienced faculty member to delve out personal advice, if this person strikes you as someone fair and honest, you would be wise to carefully consider her/his opinions. Particularly when the advice-giver in question has not sought you out, and doesn’t really have anything to gain or lose whether you take the advice or not.

This all sounds trivial, but I have watched over and over as students, post-docs and early stage faculty members ask for advice and then willfully ignore it, because they know better–or think they do. Perhaps this is true, but based on the outcomes of most of these cases, it sure doesn’t seem that this is so. Why bother courting advice if one plans to ignore it anyway? This is not resilience, but usually a form of egocentric behavior (that perhaps might be self-serving somewhere later along the career ladder, but not at this stage).

Learning to take advice or listen and learn from others is an essential part of being a scientist. Scientists need to be open to learning new things–technical science tricks, better ways to manage and motivate co-workers, better ways to delegate responsibility and manage budgets. There is always new learning going on. And a good scientist needs to be open to learn from her/his juniors as well as seniors. I may learn different things from senior scientists and pre-doctoral students rotating in my lab, but it is all part of the same process. Picking someone else’s brain–whether it’s to save time because a student can show me some computer tricks, or a senior investigator who has scientific ideas for me–in either case is crucial to my development as a scientist.

Second, I would suggest distancing oneself from the advice for a short time. I am not a procrastinator, but for decisions that don’t need to be made instantaneously, a short period of waiting to remove residual emotional involvement can prove useful. As an example, take a common situation for scientists–the rejection of a manuscript by a journal. At first read of the critiques, there is often frustration mingled with disappointment (Dare I say dismay? Disgust? Disillusionment? Disenchantment? Detachment? Dismissal?). However, shoving the critiques into a desk drawer for 48 hours, at least in my case (until my prescription for valium can be renewed) sometimes has the effect of focusing me and allowing me to sift through the critiques to identify the really useful and helpful comments and separate them from the spiteful ones that were made to utterly destroy my career and any future propoects and drag me down to the bottom of the….  Excuse me (*as he fills his paranoia-pill-prescription*), let me get back to the point.

Third, while I noted earlier the importance of learning to be able to “take advice,” it is also important to know when not to take advice–or at least to be wary of taking advice. Mentors who have shown that they do not hold the best interests of their students and post-docs at heart already warrant a wariness with regards to advice. Particularly if that advice goes against that of other less involved persons. Always question the motive of the individual giving the advice (warning: not to her/his face, of course).

And then there are lessons learned from experience. Years ago when starting out as a relatively green PI, I had a paper rejected from a scientific journal. The advice given in the critiques was that the paper was too narrowly focused, and that a broader perspective was needed. Rather than carefully examine the criticisms, I decided that the reviewers must be correct, and embarked on a radical plan to satisfy their concerns. But upon submission to another journal (after 6 months of hard work), the new paper was rejected for being too diffuse–of course by different reviewers. The paper that was eventually published was very similar to the original submission (albeit in a higher impact journal). So the moral of this little story is that one shouldn’t take advice blindly, either.

I have rambled on enough with this blog, so I will conclude in saying that if you don’t take my advice, don’t blame me if your careers crash like the Dow Jones Index.

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery. "Saving One" is my most recent novel set at the National Institutes of Health. Now IN PRESS: Today's Curiosity is Tomorrow's Cure: The Case for Basic Biomedical Research (CRC PRESS, 2021). All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising.
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