Advice on Advice (The PhD Process, and More)

Tadayoshi Kohno (Yoshi Kohno)
4 min readJul 5, 2023

All advice that is given is probably true and great advice from the perspective of the person giving it. That doesn’t mean that it is the right advice for the recipient. That doesn’t mean that it is the wrong advice, either. It just means that it is what the giver of the advice thought was the right advice to give.

Context for this post.

I recently made the above observations in a conversation. After reflecting on the above comments some more, I realized that it might be helpful to include an expansion of my thinking in my sequence of posts on the PhD process. Of course, anything I write here about interpreting advice also applies to any advice that I might give about the PhD process :) .

PhD students (and likely everyone) will undoubtedly receive a significant amount of advice from many people over the course of their careers, including advice from mentors, students at the same institution, students at other institutions, junior students that they advise, and others.

The context of advice.

An underlying assumption in this post: All advice that one hears is true and great advice from the perspective of the person that gave it.

The advice that someone gives usually reflects:

  • Their perspectives and experiences on the topic at hand;
  • Their thoughts on advice that they received and that worked for them;
  • Their thoughts on advice that they wish they received but didn’t;
  • Their thoughts on advice that they received but that didn’t work for them;
  • Their thoughts after sharing or discussing advice with others, including learning what those others did with the advice and then possibly discussing the advice with them again after.
This illustration captures, in a picture, how one’s life experiences and the advice they receive can influence the advice they give others. In the center of the image is an icon of a person. One large arrow, labeled “life experiences” is flowing into the person icon. Smaller arrows, labeled “advice received”, flow into the larger “life experiences” arrow. From the person icon are arrows labeled “advice given”.
This illustration captures, in a picture, how one’s life experiences and the advice they receive can influence the advice they give others.

How to interpret advice.

The above does not mean that the advice that the giver gave is the right or best advice for the recipient. That does not mean that it is the wrong advice, either. Rather, it simply is what the giver of the advice thought was good advice to give.

To me, the fact that someone took the time to give that advice means that it is probably good advice to reflect upon. When reflecting upon advice, I try not to reflect only upon the words and details of the advice itself but also on the broader context of my life and my situation.

On sharing advice.

When giving advice, it is valuable to acknowledge that the advice one gives may not be the best advice for the person who is receiving it. Even if all parties in the exchange know this observation to be true, sometimes it is valuable to mention this observation explicitly.

Also, before sharing advice, it can be valuable to assess whether the other person actually wants to hear advice.

Assuming the recipient wishes to hear advice, it can be helpful to not just share the advice itself but to discuss the underlying reasoning behind the advice as well as any caveats one might have, including any thoughts one might have about when or when not to follow the advice. Even if the advice itself is not useful to the recipient, hearing and reflecting upon the underlying reasoning may be valuable.

Additionally, advice is sometimes not generic but rather tailored to the individual — the advice I might give one person in a given situation might be different than the advice I would give another person in a similar (though not exactly identical) situation. There are many reasons for giving tailored advice, even in seemingly similar situations. Most fundamentally: everyone’s life and past experiences are different, so there are never actually two completely identical situations, even if they might seem similar from a distance. For example, I might have in the past already given different bits of advice to two different people (because they were working on different projects in the past), and this makes their situations different. Or, I might have observed each of them experiencing different challenges in the past, even if they are facing roughly the same challenge now. As part of these considerations, it is also important to realize that there may be important aspects of one’s life that the giver of advice does not know about, does not realize, or does not fully understand.

Back to the perspective of a person receiving advice.

When receiving advice, if there is the opportunity, I encourage the recipient to ask questions about the advice. For example, why does the person who shared this advice think that it is good advice? When do they think I should follow this advice? When do they think that I should not follow the advice? Are there times when they themselves would not follow this advice? What do they think are the benefits of following this advice? And what do they consider the risks of not doing so? And, are there risks with following this advice? And, are they giving me generic, generally applicable advice that they might give to anyone, or is there something specific about my situation that makes them think that this advice is particularly useful for me?

There are often not clear and decisive answers to questions like the above. Rather, the discussion around these questions can be part of a dialog to help better understand the advice itself.


I learned so much about the PhD process from my own advisor, Mihir Bellare. After obtaining a faculty position, I continued to develop my own philosophy on advising and the PhD process through the advising my own PhD students. Much of my thoughts on advising and the PhD process have also been shaped through the co-advising PhD students with UW Security Lab co-director Franziska Roesner. Thank you to all the students and postdocs that I have advised, past and present!



Tadayoshi Kohno (Yoshi Kohno)

Tadayoshi (Yoshi) Kohno is a professor in the UW Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering. His homepage: