Hundreds of academics give advice to their younger selves

If only they knew then what they know now about meetings, work-life balance and the importance of being kind

July 30, 2018
Source: iStock

Academics from around the world have responded to a tweet asking them what they would say to their younger selves.

Nathan C. Hall@prof_nch

If you could go back and tell your younger academic self one thing you’ve learned about academia, what would you say?


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The request attracted more than 900 comments. The sender, Nathan Hall, who is an associate professor of educational and counselling psychology at McGill University in Montreal, said that the post was inspired by previous tweets asking people to reflect on their youth or to recount embarrassing learning experiences from graduate school.

“Over the past five years on academic Twitter, I’ve learned a lot about the difficult lived experiences of individuals across the academic spectrum and was curious as to what, if anything, people wish they would have known before they started,” he told Times Higher Education.

Advice was given on everything from submitting a dissertation to how to handle university politics.

Steven L. Taylor@drsltaylor
Replying to @prof_nch

Its never perfect, so just submit the darn thing, already.


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Vaillancourt Lab@VaillancourtLab
Replying to @prof_nch

Most deadlines are soft deadlines, and people usually build in extra time under the assumption that you will be late.


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Replying to @prof_nch

The meetings suck.


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Knowing how to set boundaries early was frequently mentioned. 

Aaron Quinlan@aaronquinlan
Replying to @prof_nch

“No” is usually the right response to all requests from people outside your lab.


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Justin Schoof@justinschoof
Replying to @prof_nch

It really is important to learn to say no!


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Isabelle Bourgeois@eval_station
Replying to @prof_nch

You can say no sometimes when an opportunity or a new project comes along. In fact, choosing wisely who you work with and what you work on will help you achieve better balance and help you maintain your focus. Trust your instincts!


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As was advice to “stay true to yourself”.

Dr. Erin Williams@DrErinWill
Replying to @prof_nch

Don’t judge your success by others standards. Decide what *your* strengths & goals are & use that as your measure instead.

Say no to doing anything that won’t further your goals (where poss).

Work office hours and enjoy life outside work.


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Dr. Rebecca Burdine@rburdine1
Replying to @prof_nch

Things are not fair and it is not a meritocracy. Figure out early on who you are and what your principles are and stick to them. Define success by what you have control over- doing excellent work and treating others with kindness.


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Other comments discouraged anyone from even beginning an academic career in the first place.

Elizabeth R. Upton@erupton
Replying to @prof_nch

Run away.


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Replying to @prof_nch

Avoid, avoid, avoid. When you’re 32 and peers are a decade into careers, well-funded retirement plans, and happy, forgive the cynicism, but you’ll regret it all. Let your MA suffice.


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And some advised young academics to use their PhD to pursue a career outside academia.

L. Maren Wood, PhD@drmarenw
Replying to @prof_nch @BeyondProf

You’ll be just fine without the academic job. Smart people work everywhere.


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Jonathan Mathias Lassiter@matjl
Replying to @prof_nch

You can be an academic/intellectual without working in academia. Remember more people are impacted by James Baldwin’s words than most of the scientists in top-tier journals. Use your brilliance for the public not for a select few gatekeepers who don’t get it. Be your own boss.


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Responses also recognised the abuse, harassment and discrimination that takes place in higher education.  

Dr. Adria LeBoeuf@adriaexists
Replying to @prof_nch

You think the sexism you see is no big deal. You are wrong. It is embedded in everything and it will range from heinous misdeeds to the everyday subtleties that will wear you down and see you repeatedly passed over for opportunities and awards.


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Megan Kingery@megansarak

That I was in a physically abusive relationship and telling myself that it wasn’t so bad because he was a well regarded academic, and all the stories he told me about even more famous academics fucking their students still didn’t make it normal or okay and to get out now #MeToo

Nathan C. Hall@prof_nch

If you could go back and tell your younger academic self one thing you’ve learned about academia, what would you say?


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Very much connected to these comments was the overwhelming theme of self-care in the advice. 

Tom McIntosh@proftomuofr
Replying to @prof_nch

Don’t let anyone tell you that the only path to success is to consistently work 60 or 70 hr weeks. Make time for a life beyond your job.


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Mary Ellen Lane@MaryEllenLane29
Replying to @EdPsychMama @prof_nch

Pretty much everything is more important than tenure


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Kelly McShane@AcademicRealist
Replying to @prof_nch

Self-care matters more than tenure.


 · Toronto, Ontario
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Kendra Chritz@kl13c
Replying to @prof_nch

Don’t wait for a stable job to start living your life. Do it now. Have hobbies. Learn to cook. Go camping. Make friends. Get a pet. Buy furniture you want to move around with you. Live in a place you like. Be you.

You never get those years back.

Kendra Chritz@kl13c

and also: GO TO THERAPY.


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Hall, who manages several accounts with large followings, said that he wasn’t prepared for the overwhelming response to the tweet from his personal account. “I am humbled by the remarkably candid, helpful, and courageous responses about various facets of academic life,” he said. 

Notably, though, a voice missing from the flood of advice is Hall’s own.

“Part of my reason for asking the question is that I was honestly not sure what advice I would give to my grad student self,” he said adding that responses that underscored the importance of kindness and viewing academic employment not as “a calling” but “a job” particularly resonated with him.

Dr. Rebecca Pope-Ruark@RPR_Agile
Replying to @prof_nch

Academia is just another workplace, it’s just a job. A job that has all kinds of hidden agendas, invisible work, damaging mindsets you must learn to identify as such rather than use them to judge your personal worth. It’s just a job. You are more mobile than you think you are.


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David Malone@dwmal1
Replying to @prof_nch

I always liked: Best advice I got when I entered academia: “We’re all smart. Distinguish yourself by being kind.”


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But the comments that he most closely identified with pertained to mental health and self-care, he said. 

“Beyond all the specific advice I might give myself about post-doctoral work, research topics, job applications, or politics, at the top of my list would be to remind myself to make my mental health a priority and to seek support sooner,” he said.

“I now realise the importance of being honest about these realities, understanding that I am not alone in these experiences, and that seeking mental health support is not as much a sign of weakness as it is a useful strategy for navigating academic life.”


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