“Be Like Me” might be bad advice to students

by Casey terHorst


Academics should question whether advising students to do as we do, or follow in our footsteps, is really the best advice for students.

A recent article in Science highlights a new column in which faculty dole out advice in “Letters to Young Scientists”. Like most people, these folks are best qualified to give advice about how to get to where they are today. So, where are these five faculty members today? Univ. Toronto, Univ. Colorado, Cornell, Harvard, and NYU. Those are all major research universities, where jobs are VERY difficult to come by. These scientists hold a tiny minority of the jobs that most young scientists will eventually hold. So, is their advice relevant?

When anybody gives advice, it’s typically based off of the advice they were given, modified by their own life experiences. But does that qualify us to give the best advice to young scientists? We should question whether we (and by “we”, I mean academics, though I think this probably applies to most versions of “we”) can or are giving the best advice to our students. I encounter this most weeks when students ask me how to get a non-academic job in ecology, to which I often reply, “please let me know when you find out”.

Rather than discussing how we give career advice, I want to address a few social issues about which we regularly advise students. More importantly, I want to address this because I think I, as a white-cis-hetero man, in a field dominated by the same, I have given bad advice to those who aren’t in the same demographic. My bad advice has probably had an especially negative effect on women, people of color, and queer folks. Here are a couple of examples of bad advice and ways that I can be better:


Potentially bad advice #1:
“Make bold declarative statements, rather than posing questions”.
“Speak confidently”.

I used to sit through practice talks by graduate students and comment that they shouldn’t use upspeak…you know, when you end your statement with an increase in pitch, making a statement sound like a question? If you don’t know what I’m talking about, check out this comedy bit about upspeak (or uptalk). Warning: I generally find the guy in this video to be annoying and offensive. I used to advise grad students not to use upspeak because it implied a lack of confidence in what they’re saying. “Speak confidently!”

For an early career graduate student who isn’t brimming with confidence, upspeak can be symptomatic of a perceived (often real) power dynamic in the world, in which one feels the need to lower themselves to their perceived position in a hierarchy. Even if we, as advisors, are conscious about combatting power dynamics, it doesn’t mean that dynamic is not still perceived by the student. Those power dynamics and hierarchies are often most obvious at scientific conferences. When we tell students to stop using upspeak, we’re saying “Act like me”, rather than thinking about the student’s needs or motivations. Moreover, men are rarely criticized for upspeak, but women receive this feedback often. If you don’t believe me, read the comments section of women’s speeches online. (Actually, never read the comments section.)

However, after reading more about upspeak (see, for example, this article in Bloombergthis one in the NYT, and this one in The Atlantic) I no longer think that it’s necessarily reflective of a lack of confidence, but rather, it’s a manner of speaking that initiates conversation and invites a connection with another person. It’s a mechanism by which one starts a dialogue, rather than a monologue. It’s a way of having a conversation, rather than presenting an authoritarian view. It’s a strategy employed more often by women than men. And it’s a strategy that men criticize more than women.

There are both benefits and detriments to upspeak, just as there are to speaking authoritatively, but we too often tell people to behave like us because that’s the way it’s always been done. The status quo in science was established by straight white men and any behavior that contradicts the status quo, even if it is a behavior broadly employed by half of the population in the non-science world, is often viewed as bad and wrong. Often when we’re telling students to avoid upspeak, what we’re ultimately saying is “Act like a man”. That’s probably not a phrase that most of us would employ in advising students, so a veiled statement should be viewed with similar contempt.

In many cases, advising students to avoid upspeak is not only prejudicial, it’s also plain wrong. For example, I find that upspeak is a really good strategy for teaching. It makes it easier to relate to students, and it fosters more of a dialogue during lecture, in which students feel more comfortable asking questions. That being said, my white/male privilege means I’m typically viewed as being confident (if you think that’s true, read this old post about imposter syndrome). I can use upspeak and still be perceived as confident at the end of the day, whereas many others won’t get the same benefit of the doubt. The misconception that upspeak represents a lack of confidence might partly explain why some marginalized groups have been traditionally excluded from the scientific community. Maybe it’s time we realized the value of upspeak and consider that our authoritative voice is one reason we’ve been so bad at communicating our science.

Criticism and Rejection

Potentially bad advice #2:
“Science is about criticism and rejection. Get used to it”
“You’re going to have to develop a thicker skin”

As professional academics, we’ve dealt with rejection and harsh criticism. Perhaps academia has selected for those who are capable of dealing with rejection, without ever questioning whether that’s a good thing, or worrying about what great scientific minds we’ve lost because they were “weeded out”.

Consider this NYT article, which covers a review of 28 companies to reveal that in performance reviews, women are more likely to receive feedback on their personality. Not just a little more likely: 76% of negative feedback to women included comments on personality, but only 2% of negative feedback to men involved personality. Though I don’t have data for academia specifically, I would be willing to bet that those from marginalized groups are told to develop a thicker skin more frequently. So, those who are criticized the most are also told that they need to get over it more frequently. See a problem there?

Again, when we tell students to be less sensitive to criticism, we’re saying “Be more like me”. It’s easy to blame somebody else for an institutional problem. If I’m successful and you’re not, then I must have done something right, right? Yet, who is to say that what our patriarchal system decided is “right” is really what’s best. Imagine an academy in which harsh criticism and rejection were not the norm. Then imagine how the demographic composition of the academy might look different from what it looks like today.

Rather than telling people to develop a thicker skin, maybe we can change the way we give criticism to others. Rather than providing harsh criticism and telling students to let it roll off their backs, we can accomplish our goal in a better way. Is all of our criticism really as constructive as we think it is? I know when I re-read the supposed constructive criticism I give in reviews, it’s often just passive-aggressive. Maybe we can change the norms of feedback in a way that’s better for both of us? (question mark intended to indicate upspeak)

What’s next?

Rather then telling young scientists to be more like us, we could consider whether there’s something fundamental that we might learn from them. Let’s think about why we’re NOT acting like them. Is it for a good reason, or just the reason we were told when we were students? By watching and learning from others, we can make science more inclusive.

Like me, a lot of people with privilege or power want to incorporate marginalized groups in science. However, our general approach is to slightly tweak the system to allow slightly more participation. Rarely do we consider whether our whole approach is wrong. Big problems require big changes. Maybe instead of scientific conferences structured as 15 minute talks in which somebody talks AT you, we should have hour long sessions with a dialogue on a topic, in which each person brings their own experiments and data to bear on the issue. Instead of telling women to avoid upspeak, maybe we should be telling men to use it more. If we’re really serious about increasing participation in science, it should be less about telling folks “act like me”, and more about changing the system into one that’s less dominated by patriarchal values.

Author biography: Casey terHorst is an associate professor at California State University, Northridge. He is a community ecologist and evolutionary biologist focused on what affects diversity, both in nature and in STEM fields. You can find him on Twitter (@ecoevolab).

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