You should do this and this and this
After five shots, this one guy had all the answers. He told me how to do research. How to network. How to submit a job application. How to do an interview. And who to put on my dissertation committee. Definitely not that one professor. Her career was going nowhere.
A few years later, we met up at a conference. He almost knocked himself out by walking into a glass door.
In his defense, it was a very clean door.
But he also didn’t know where his hotel was. Or which hotel he was staying at. A little harder to excuse.
Some of us had rooms with couches. Maybe a spare bed. But honestly, the guy had a rapey reputation. And the guys worried about him puking on their floor, and skipping out on the cleaning bill. Ever good Samaritans, we tossed his drunk ass into an Uber and hoped for the best.
Some people live to give advice. They want to help everyone. Except they define help in a specific way. Really, they just want to tell you what you should really be doing with your time.
These wannabe mentors feed off your energy and attention. They usually haven’t amassed a huge amount of success. Some of them are hiding from their own problems. They want to guide you to make them feel better about themselves. They give the strangest tips. Almost like they thought it up on purpose, just to try and fuck you up.
One wannabe tried to tell me to call department chairs after submitting job applications. Make yourself stand out. Tell them a funny story about your class that they’ll remember.
Some advice just sounds bad. Seriously, call every department chair and regale them with teaching stories? Somehow this would bump me to the top of the pile? No version of that seemed sane to me. So I asked around for a second opinion.
Yeah, you’re not supposed to do that.
Since then I’ve served on a handful of search committees. Some cowboys always try to jump the queue by harassing the chair. Those people wind up in the trash bin. Somehow, their bad advice lives on.
Woes of wannabe mentors
Every job has that one person. The one who wants to be your mentor. This never goes well. There’s a reason they want to mentor you.
Nobody else will listen to them.
Wannabe mentors volunteer to write letters of recommendation. They show up at your door with “opportunities.” They don’t have much else going for them. That’s why they have so much time on their hands.
This one professor led a workshop on publishing in journals. It quickly turned into a bitch session about The Paris Review losing his manuscript. Twice. OMG. Can you believe that? Don’t ever submit there, he said. Eventually, we found out that he hadn’t written or published anything in ten years. Mentoring the young and the innocent restored his self esteem.
Every time someone joined our program, he took them out for coffee and offered to write letters of recommendation. Or serve on their committees. Wow, such a nice — I thought. He cares.
Except he didn’t. He was using people and making promises he had no intention of keeping.
Think about that. Who actually enjoys writing recommendation letters? Not me, that’s for sure. Personally, I hate being asked. But it’s my job. And if I said no, I’d be screwing over my students.
Wannabe mentors don’t think this way. They don’t understand that writing a real recommendation, or serving on a thesis committee, takes actual brain power. I just read two thesis projects this semester. It was hard. I’d rather have been working on my own articles.
Or tweeting. Or watching cat videos.
Wannabes promise you the infinity gauntlet, but never follow through. They write shit recommendations that aren’t worth asking for. They read your thesis the night before the defense and blow smoke up your ass. They send you into the world with false confidence. And when you actually need them, they’re long gone. I mean, so I’ve heard.
One of my wannabes even withdrew her offer to write me a letter. She ran out of time. Another backed out of my thesis committee. These same people showed up later to congratulate me on this or that. “Use me as a reference,” they’d say. “Feel free to drop my name.”
Sure, I dropped their name. Like a hot pocket. See what I did there? You thought I was going to say potato, but I switched it up. Clearly, you should be taking life advice from me alone.
A van down by the river
There’s a reason why that SNL sketch makes everyone sneeze milk. It’s true. People who give advice all day don’t devote much attention to their own shit. Giving advice is easy. Anyone can do it.
A visiting professor once tried to give us new faculty all the advice. Never mind that I was tenure-track and already had mentors. He wanted to grab coffee and talk about advancement strategies.
Hey, I’m open minded. No, seriously. Maybe I sound like a know-it-all on my blog. But in real life I keep my ego in a trench coat. I’ve noticed that moderately successful people have a Clark Kent routine. That’s what I’m shooting for — moderate success, in a trench coat.
Anyway, we got coffee. The visiting professor brought a list of publishers to show me, along with a spam email from a predatory publisher.
“They want to publish my dissertation,” he said proudly. “Maybe I can get them to consider yours, too.”
I’ve never wanted to say, “Oh honey” before.
That day, I came close.
Instead, I tried to broach the subject of predatory publishers. He literally laughed and said, “Don’t worry, I know how to evaluate a press.” Since then, he’s decided to leave academia. Surprise.
How to spot bad advice
Bad advice can strike anywhere, anytime. One minute you’re telling a story, or making a joke. The next, someone’s telling you how to live. Or they’re explaining how “Actually, it’s not really like that.”
Prepare yourself. Learn these important warning signs to avoid awkward coffee talk:
The worst advice comes with a certain tone. Like they’re not just offering, they’re commanding. Or correcting. They’re making a pronouncement. Declaring what’s wrong with you.
Bad advice loves the phrase, “Here’s what you should do.”
And especially, “If you were smart…”
Let’s not forget, “You should have…”
My favorite bad advice happens when people try to predict how I’ll deal with a difficult situation. Listen for phrases like, “You’re going to be” or “You’re going to feel like…” Or “You’ll be tempted to…”
Some wannabe mentors enjoy describing my emotional state to me. They also like defining my job and my responsibilities. Just so we’re clear, these people aren’t my actual bosses.
Wannabes also tell you about the advice they’ve given other people. Seriously, it’s a thing. They actually keep track of advice they give different people. They have anecdotes about all the little lambs they’ve shepherded.
Never confront someone who offers bad advice. Just smile and say, “Interesting.” Then call your local authorities.
Everyone needs advice. I ask for it every week. But I’ve already got my teachers picked out. You know, role models. The ones whose footsteps I actually plan to follow. I come to them, not the other way around. Advice that I don’t ask for usually sucks. And that’s one to grow on.