Your online advice is rubbish if I can't read your CV!!!

Jul 29 2015 Published by under [Education&Careers]

As we have covered before (Here and Here) there are many reasons why people blog under a name that can't be directly tied to their professional life. You can check the links if you want my extended thoughts on that and links to posts elsewhere that are more eloquent, but it's why the following exchange bothers me:

Academia is a very hierarchical enterprise. Trainees slot in at different, defined, levels. PIs have defined structure to advancement. There's university rankings, journal rankings, h-index, and on and on. We really love to define people by a variety of metrics and context.

All of these pieces of information provide a matrix where we, consciously or unconsciously, can form an opinion on the authority or each individual. As reviewers of proposals and manuscripts and as humans interacting with, and through, the literature or at meetings - whether you are "known" caries significant weight.

And that's where social media goes and screws it all up.

Giving people the option to post comments and interact without those all important identifiers takes the context that many academics rely on IRL, away. And that has opened the door to provide a voice to those who might not be heard 10 or 20 years ago. Ironically, this gets to the point:

Though this was said tongue-in-cheek, the reality is that what is a social norm for some is another's shut door. Having people entrenched in the upper tier culture view voices they can't place in their social context as not worthy of attention only re-enforces the echo chamber and excludes the same people who have been excluded for decades. I'm not here to chastise anyone, but I think it's important that we recognize that this is exactly the attitude that has gotten us to the point of being a largely white and male dominated profession. In the vast majority of cases, good science flows more from having the opportunity ($$$) to do science, rather than the individual brilliance of those doing it. Recognition and opportunity are inextricably tied together, and systematic exclusion (conscious or unconscious) has consequences.

But advice abounds everywhere, good bad and otherwise. To pretend like there is a universal correlation between the source and the value of the advice is ridiculous. I have gotten both good and bad advice from people I respect. Same goes for those whom I would not normally seek out. If you want examples of well-established PIs doling out terrible advice, just pick up Science Careers at some point and flip through. Or maybe you have a senior colleague in your department who got a job out of grad school 30 years ago and has renewed the same R01 for all that time. I'm sure he's got valuable advice for the grant scene these days.

We all get loads of advice throughout our careers, and whether the source is someone you know or someone writing under a pseud online, you need to evaluate it and decide whether it works for you. No one is out there faking their status to try and feed out bad advice, but your situation might not suit what they have to sell. We do this all the time IRL, so making the arbitrary distinction online is something that is curious, at best.

29 responses so far

  • dr24hours says:

    I mostly agree here. However, I worry you underestimate the 'splainyness. Lots of people give advice about things they don't actually have any experience in, and advice for things like grantwriting is one of them. For example, me.

    I join in a lot of discussions about NIH grant strategy. But the reality of my experience is that I have never even applied for NIH funding as PI. I have applied for an gotten funding from the VA as PI and Co-I, which is modeled on a very similar but not identical process. I've applied to NIH as a Co-I, and to AHRQ (also similar but not identical to NIH) as PI. I've also applied for and won a few foundation grants.

    I try to make my status clear when I talk about it, and most of the people I talk with habitually know where I'm coming from because we've talked about it before. But newer followers or whatever might, by my tone and presentation, think I have more NIH experience than I do, in part because they never got the context. And I like to think I'm very open with that context.

    Some people are not so open. And some people think they know what they're talking about without much in the way of experience. Some people deliberately hide their lack of experience, not to give bad advice, but so that they can give what they think is good advice without being discounted for lack of experience. They may be right or wrong.

  • potnia theron says:

    Actually, I'd prefer my advice stands on its own, rather than being tied to a person. If you want to ignore me, because I'm a boomer who has had a job and funding for, what in your eyes, is a long time, fine. If you think there's value in my posts because of that, fine, too. .

    I'd rather it was about the content.

  • Whether their advice or candor is right or wrong, it's still just another piece of the tapestry. If you're depending on a single source for all your career advice, you're probably already screwed. Everyday we have a ton of information thrown at us and make decisions about what to think on and what to ignore. This isn't any different, whether you can find the person on RePORTER or not.

  • drugmonkey says:

    When you first web search someone's CV and grant history does that tell you everything, dr24hrs? Or does IRL cred develop gradually as well?

  • dr24hours says:

    Again, I mostly agree. But knowing if advice comes from someone with a history or success or failure, or no history at all, is generally relevant to how much weight people should put on the advice.

    Especially for someone new to the game, say submitting their first grant as PI. It's reasonable for them to seek advice from people who have successfully negotiated that gauntlet. But then, maybe don't do that among pseuds on twitter.

    The other thing I've noticed is that when you start seeking advice from pseuds on twitter, many of us will privately reveal our identity when we trust you.

  • dr24hours says:

    @DM, No of course it doesn't. It's just often (not always) useful to help frame the context of the advice. I like getting advice from people for whom it isn't their first rodeo. But I also judge the advice of those whom I can't tell for myself. Sometimes I think it's great. Sometimes not.

  • If someone random gave me advice on the internet that was not in line with what I believed to be true, I would take it with a huge boulder of salt. Surprisingly, that's true for IRL too. Credibility is gained in both places through a longer conversation.

  • dr24hours says:

    @PLS, absolutely. But I might reassess that salt if I find out that the person has a history of 10 R01s. Maybe instead of that advice being out of line, I'm being closed-minded.

  • Bashir says:

    I honestly do not get the thing some folks on science-twitter have about pseuds. I've been on many online spaces and this is the only one where it has come up. Some of the most thought out responses I've gotten have been online from people using long standing pseuds. Usually you have some idea what their context is, an R1 prof, a person in industry, etc. People usually love to tell you something about where they are professionally. I don't know why their specific identity matters. Is the idea that people with more prestigious jobs/papers give better advice? That's laughable.

  • Dr24 - I wouldn't reassess at all because everyone's situation is different. Someone with 10 R01s may not understand the situation I'm in. Their research might be dead center for NIH, whereas mine might not. Again, it's another piece of information to consider.

  • Bashir - I think if you follow anyone on twitter for a bit, assuming the post regularly, you get a feel for where they are at. If they blog it's even easier. I agree, the reasoning behind the need for exact ID seems to me to be deeply tied to the academic hierarchy.

  • dr24hours says:

    @PLS. Certainly, we're all in different situations. But that seems to be bordering on saying, "No one's advice is relevant to anyone else's situation, so fuck it."

  • Not at all. It's saying "ok, this worked for X, and that worked for Y. The common theme seems to be ____, so that might be a good thing to consider." I don't get why this is hard to understand, given that we do this all the time.

  • drugmonkey says:

    bashir-

    What perplexes me is that evaluation and synthesis of multiple (sometimes discordant) bits of information is supposed to be our professional behavior. These discussions, and the JIt ones, and the people-not-project ones, reveal what a sham that is in reality. Something is going wrong in our business

  • dr24hours says:

    It's not hard to understand and I about 95% agree with you. I'm just saying that knowing the history of an advice giver (do they come from success, failure, or no experience) is yet another piece of sometimes relevant information.

  • While I agree, we can also cite numerous examples of successful people who give crap advice. So, it is just another piece of information that is as optional as many others.

  • dr24hours says:

    Yes. Certainly. We shouldn't just accept what feels like crappy advice simply because it comes from a successful person. But as I said above, a very successful person giving what feels like well-intended crappy advice is likely to make me reassess my own position: Am I dismissing this too easily just because I'm predisposed against it? (Essentially, guarding against negative confirmation bias based on the introduction of new evidence.)

    I may come to the conclusion: "Nope. That's terrible advice after all." Or, "Wow, I had this wrong and was looking for cheerleading rather than advice."

  • drugmonkey says:

    At any rate, let's face it. Most of the time it isn't a discussion about quality of advice. It's about "I just wanna KNOW" first. Second, it is about "searching for ad hominems to attack with b/c I'm losing the argument and/or hate this guy"

  • iGrrrl says:

    With musicians, the best players are often the worst teachers. The person for whom it comes easy often can't identify what the student is doing wrong, nor can they articulate a way to help them fix it. When the student does it wrong (or without sufficient musicianship, or whatever), the response is often to play it the way it should be, saying, "No, like this." When my friend Walter threw away his television and took up the saxophone, he wanted to find a teacher for whom it hadn't come easy, who had made all the mistakes, and figured out how to fix them, and teach someone else.

    By Hahn's "shortcut", that kind of teacher wouldn't have a CV to make them worthy of even considering.

  • Again, in fairness, I believe Matt was mostly joking in that tweet, consistent with the tone of the rest of the conversation. I'm using this conversation as an example of some of what I have heard both online and IRL. I have talked to several scientist who real name tweet and have heard a similar response - that the pseud issue was initially a concern. How people approached it as the got into twitter varied, and said a lot about them, IMO.

  • Josh King says:

    PLS I'm afraid you (and others) are conflating "cv" with what I would say is more valuable info for the one getting said advice: evidence of success at something. The area I was thinking about with the original tweet was primarily grants. Advisees will tend to lend more credibility to advice given by those who have gotten grants, as opposed to those who have not. I strongly favor the positives that pseuds provide, especially for scientists from under-represented groups. It is my impression that some of the best online advice on grants and other aspects of academia has recently come from pseud bloggers, like yourself. However your s and other pseud's credibility benefits from evidence (although not confirmed for most readers) of your success, or support from others who "vouch" for you. Your recent track record at NSF, so much better than mine, compels me to weigh your advice heavily even though I have no real evidence to verify your success. This underlying assumption (by me) of your credibility struck me as very interesting, so I wrote the tweet because I wondered if anyone else ever considered it. I think advice from online pseuds that I follow has generally been great and more importantly, accessible to a broad audience, and thus really great. So I thought it was good that most people spoke in favor of seeking multiple sources of advice and not dismissing pseud advice.

  • Josh, I agree with you and took the subsequent discussion that way. I should say that I'm very much not here to point fingers, but rather encourage continued discussion.

    Yes, you have no basis other than my word on which to judge whether what I'm saying about my track record is correct. Certainly I would be an amazing a-hole to lie about it (especially given the number of people who have figured out who is behind the keyboard), but I concede that weird shit happens all the time. The flip side is that one would have to be amazingly dedicated to the facade to pull it off convincingly. That's why I can't get behind the idea that there are those who confidently give grant advice, who have not had success in that arena.

    All of that depends on some relationship between the person giving advice and the one reading it. A lot of the people that I read, who write about funding, have been at it a long time. There's a track record anyone new can go to and make a decision as to whether they want to trust the person. In a situation where both people are complete strangers, as I said above, I would certainly be wary of contradictory advice in that type of situation. At the same time, file it away.

  • geranium says:

    I find the valuation of IRL identity--and the initial question of whether advice from a pseud means anything--utterly baffling. No snark, I was genuinely mystified by this question and then by the way some people emphasized knowing CV/identity.

    I don't value *any* advice without thinking it over for myself. I mean, who does??!

    An anonymous stranger can suggest something and maybe it rings true because of your own experience... so you file that away as potentially brilliant.

    A pseud like PLS or DM or FSP throws out an opinion and you listen because they are not a stranger in this context, you are familiar with their history of excellent info and advice.

    Or a BSD tells you to do something dumb and you let it roll off like all the other useless nuggets they give you, and instead talk to them about the things they have real wisdom on.

    I think anybody who uses social media or twitter even a little bit does all this. I think this issue* is not about "can I trust this advice??" but about the much more divisive issue of pseudonymity.

  • Susan says:

    White pedigreed male says: "I prefer shortcut."

    quelle surprise.

  • I'll say once again that the tone of the conversation was only half serious and those tweets were meant to be slightly baiting, so let's not skewer anybody without context.

  • GFD says:

    Bashir - This is what happens when you let riffraff and internet noobs on twitter

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