advice: pair off in threes and line up in a circle
what's the best advice you've ever received? for me, it came from larry wu during my latter years as a wizversity grad student. he said, "remember that not all advice is good advice."
this was wonderfully useful because it gave me permission to ignore certain advice that i couldn't reconcile with other advice, or my personal values, or my strong gut feelings. people usually try to offer helpful opinions and feedback, but advisees often find themselves pulled in too many disparate directions when they take it all seriously, especially when the disparate advisors all seem very sure of themselves.
i find that most of my advice is either too simplistic to be of much use (forget about everything but publishing your diss), or it is balanced and contradictory (you need to publish this year, but don't neglect your classes). that's why i love the title quote for this post, taken from the late bill peterson, who coached football at florida state university, rice university, and the nfl's houston oilers. whenever you face complicated new situations, it seems as though people are instructing you to pair off in threes and line up in a circle or to line up alphabetically by height. if we took all the advice seriously, our heads might explode.
as chair, of course, i must provide clear, consistent, and thoughtful advice, especially when speaking with graduate students and junior faculty. nevertheless, it is incumbent upon the advisor to admit when more information is needed to prescribe a clear line of action, or when multiple paths seem equally advantageous, or when there are others more expert in the matter at hand. when people need serious advice about a tough decision, i typically first seek advice about the proper advice to give them. or, i'll try out my proposed advice on someone with a different perspective, just to learn whether i've missed something important.
i can always pop off with an opinion, of course. if i'm not careful, this can lead to messages that are mixed or, more charitably, layered (e.g., ok, as chair i need to tell you to do X, but i can see how Y sounds really cool to you; i'd probably just do Z and regret it in a year). when people seek my advice today, i usually try to figure out what they really want to do and then try to discern whether there's anything terribly wrong with this preferred course of action. if so, i'll point out major pitfalls clearly (this could set you back another year) and then offer a personal opinion (you still haven't convinced me that the benefits outweigh the costs, so i wouldn't do it. am i missing something?). still, i'll try to leave a face-saving out for folks who choose to ignore my advice (i really hope you prove me wrong on this one...).
finally, i'll remind them of professor wu's admonition: not all advice is good advice, whether it comes from me or anywhere else.