There’s a lot of free advice out there. I offer some of it myself! As I’ve written before (see this post from 2008 reacting to this advice from Dan Goldstein for business school students, and this post from 2010 reacting to some general advice from Nassim Taleb), what we see is typically presented as advice to individuals, but it’s also interesting to consider the possible total effects if the advice is taken.
It’s time to play the game again. This time it’s advice from sociologist Fabio Rojas for Ph.D. students. I’ll copy his eight points of advice, then, for each, evaluate whether I think it is positive or negative sum:
1. Show up. Even if you feel horrible, show up. No matter what. Period. Unless someone died in your family, show up.
2. Do your job. Grade the papers. Do the lab work. Unless the work is extreme, take it in stride.
3. Be completely realistic about how you will be evaluated from day #1 – acquire a teaching record and a record of publication. Don’t have the fantasy that you will magically get the job of your dreams sans publications. Time spent on other issues is “out of pocket” – do it because you care, not because it will help you.
4. Hang out with winners. These people are actually pretty easy to identify – they do well in teaching and publication and they have a track record of placement. Also, ask around to see if people are nice. Where there is smoke, there’s fire.
5. Be constructive. It is easy to criticize people, but it really doesn’t accomplish much. Instead, if you actually offer to help and present a solution, then you’ll make a difference and people will appreciate it.
6. Say yes (unless it is a crazy person). In other words, join teams and accept projects, and say yes to grad school buddies. Once you get a few projects going, then you can say no.
7. No excuses: the only thing that matters is task completion. It may be long or short, but everyday should involve a core task.
8. Submit, submit, submit. Got rejected? No problem – just resubmit tomorrow. If you thought the reviewers were right, take a week and then resubmit. The key to success isn’t submission – it’s resubmission.
OK, now the evaluation:
1. Probably positive sum. If you don’t show up, this inconveniences others; whereas if you’re distracted and show up and do a crappy job, this still is likely to be better than people having to cover for you or reschedule the meeting.
2. Positive sum. I’m assuming there are enough entry and exit points so you can modulate your effort to match the time and energy you have available.
3. Positive sum. Information is good. But I’d like to emphasize the last sentence of Rojas’s advice #3, and point out that, if you do something un-work-related because you care, that’s cool too.
4. At first this might sound negative-sum in that it would seem to promote a judgmental air (evaluating “winners” and thus, implicitly, “losers”), I actually think it’s positive sum, in that, to the extent more people follow this advice, it motivates potential collaborators and research supervisors to up their game.
Similarly, I generally recommend that students taking classes shop around and, to the extent possible, choose instructors with excellent teaching evaluations. The signal isn’t perfect but it’s there (in my impression), and it also has generally positive effects in the sense of encouraging instructors to try harder and take their teaching more seriously.
5. This advice could be positive or negative sum, depending on how it’s taken. If someone reads this advice and is encouraged to be constructive and help people, this is positive. But if someone reads this advice and is discouraged from offering frank criticism, I think it could be negative. Criticism can be useful, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who doesn’t get enough of it! I disagree with Rojas’s statement that criticism alone “really doesn’t accomplish much.” It might not seem to be accomplishing much, but if you can save someone a year of effort by pointing out they’re on the wrong track, that can be a big deal! Some of the biggest gains in life are the avoidances of big losses.
6. Positive sum. Collaboration is good, and if it doesn’t work, it typically dissipates anyway. I’ve seen so many students say they’re too busy to take on a new project, and what does it get them? They’re just sitting in some room getting stuck on page 34 of some thesis that nobody will ever read anyway.
7. Mix of positive and negative sum. On one hand, everyone benefits when a task is completed. On the other hand, we can all benefit from when we help each other understand things, so if people literally follow the advice that “the only thing that matters is task completion,” this could make like more difficult for everyone.
8. Negative sum, I’d say. If everyone submits and publishes everything to refereed journals, this just overwhelms the system. Yes, I realize that by publishing dozens of papers a year myself, I have an outsized “carbon footprint” myself, so maybe I’m not one to talk. . . .
Ok, in sum, that’s 6 points on the positive side and 2 on the negative side. Overall, the advice is positive sum. Excellent!
P.S. I emailed Rojas to let him know of this post, and he should feel free to respond to any of the comments below.