Some Thoughts on Reading Advice Online

As I’ve been brainstorming more “advice” posts for this blog, I thought it might be useful for me to write down some thoughts I have about how to read advice. I try to acknowledge on this blog that my perspective is only a subjective, individual one based on my experiences, but I thought I would elaborate a bit more on why that’s important for you to remember as the reader.

1. Knowing Yourself

For many major life decisions, there’s not a single “best” option that applies to everyone, e.g. there’s no such thing as the “best university” or the “best career.” But I think that the more you understand what you want, the better equipped you’re going to be at sifting through other people’s advice and figuring out what applies to you.

Having said that, I also realize that in many cases, you may not really know what you want, which is why you’re looking for advice in the first place. For example, I remember poring over college guides as a high school student, earnestly trying to figure out which colleges would be a “good fit” for me. But in the end, I don’t think it was all that important. There was a limit to how good of a choice I could make because there was still so much about myself I hadn’t figured out yet. I wasn’t even sure about things like what I wanted to major in, even though that would be one concrete way to differentiate between and compare colleges, since colleges tend to have strengths in different areas.

In such a scenario with limited self-knowledge, I think you just have to be content with making your best guess as to what you might want, while taking note of how much flexibility you’ll have to change your mind in the future.

2. Underestimating the Heterogeneity of Unfamiliar Things

I find that it’s very easy to underestimate the variability between experiences, especially for things that I’m unfamiliar with. Unfortunately, we’re also usually looking for advice on unfamiliar subjects.

For example, when I was an undergraduate student considering PhD programs, I would incorrectly assume that anyone with a PhD had something relevant to say about my potential future as a PhD student. Looking back, I would say that I severely underestimated how heterogeneous the PhD experience is. There are important differences between programs, institutions, and fields. Even for adjacent subjects like statistics and computer science, there are many significant differences in their respective academic cultures, career trajectories, etc. However, if you were to search for PhD advice online, you’ll find that many people talk about PhDs as if they were a homogeneous group.

I think the practical implications of this is that when you read someone’s advice online, you should know where they’re coming from and err on the side of overestimating the variability.

3. The Myopic Nature of Individual Perspectives

People are generally pretty good at talking about their own experiences, but they tend to be less good at talking about how that compares to the broader experience of the population. An example that comes to mind is when our department at Johns Hopkins hosts visitor’s day for prospective PhD students. We (the students) can talk a lot about what our experience at JHU is like, but we probably can’t tell you that much about how it compares to other programs, even though that’s what a prospective student would want to know. This is simply because we’ve only attended the one PhD program we’re in.

In general, this means that when you’re seeking advice, the burden is on you to collect experiences from multiple people who have had different experiences. Here on this blog, you can read what I have to say, but you can also check out this list of other bloggers I’ve compiled.