There is a lot of questions asking for life advice, e.g. describing a problem with their PhD advisor (or the head of the department). It's very common that there is a list of possible decisions and the asking person wants to pool what do people advise?

On one hand side, they are not good questions in the SE sense - as they are subjective, mixing a lot of questions in one, and somewhat localized.

On the other hand - very often they raise important problems, or contain questions that could be extracted.

More than often such questions remain open.


My main point is not to set criteria for closing questions, but to ask what should we do is a question is "asking for a general life advice, given the described situation"?

  • Close first, ask later?
  • Suggest to focus on one topic or split into subquestions?
  • Leave it as it is, because it captures important issues?

Bear in mind that such question come mostly for people who are not yet familiar with SE, and may be not aware that open-ended subjective questions (and even worse - invitations to discussions) are not welcome here.

But at the same time they might be eager to rephrase the question.

  • This is a good question, and it has been raised before in a number of different contexts (e.g., here, here, and here). I don't think we've yet arrived at a consensus on dealing with these questions.
    – eykanal
    Commented Mar 14, 2013 at 15:11
  • @eykanal I know that it is an ongoing problem; however, the linked (meta) questions were about answers. Here my main point is "what to do?" (not exactly on closing criteria, but rather whether to suggest reformulation, or leave is it is, etc). Commented Mar 14, 2013 at 15:14
  • Yeah, I see that. I upvoted gerrit's answer, as I think that's closest to both what we should do and what we currently do, but I'd love to hear from the community if they have other ideas.
    – eykanal
    Commented Mar 14, 2013 at 15:18
  • @eykanal My main concern is not which close or not, but whether "first close, then ask" or do it in a more civilized manner (especially as most of askers (of such questions) are newcomers to the SE universe and, once instructed, may be able and willing to rephrase questions). Commented Mar 14, 2013 at 15:33
  • Ah, I didn't get that from your question. Can you edit that in to make it more explicit? I can answer that one below.
    – eykanal
    Commented Mar 14, 2013 at 15:38
  • @eykanal Thanks, done. Commented Mar 14, 2013 at 21:22

5 Answers 5


I think an important aspect for such questions is: is the answer likely to ever help a 3rd party? For example, Sex worker/student offering her (legal) services is a good what-should-I-do question; it's quite possible that other people — now or in the future — face the same problem. On the other hand, many what-should-I-do questions should simply be closed as too localised.

  • 1
    This question is subjective, but also well abstracted, so for me it is OK (even if not 70+ votes OK ;)). My main concern are questions asking for life advice, instead on an advice to a particular problem. Commented Mar 14, 2013 at 14:52

Questions on this board will necessarily be more subjective than on other SE boards, but I think that the topic that we're covering is by definition more subjective, since most of what we're dealing with is interpersonal relationships.

So, I think the standard is to ask, as gerrit suggests, if the question can help someone else. I don't really get the sense that that many questions are very localized. However, whenever I see one that is, I try to "abstract" the question and make the answer of greater general validity.


I'm strongly in favor of using comments to suggest improvements (option 2 above). Premature closing will necessarily lead to alienating new users, as that conveys a very mod-heavy community culture, which we don't want. Leaving the question open leads to a cluttered forum. Following the "teach a man to fish" idea, if we subtly convey via comments that a given question could be improved by splitting it up/clarifying the question/removing ad hominem or other inappropriate content, we can not only enlarge the community, but we can gain positively contributing community members, which are the best kind.


I would not try to judge such questions on their "objective" merit. I rather see this site as a place for providing useful answers to relevant questions people have. We can't say what people find useful over time (perhaps it can be measured by view count over time, links how did they arrive here, etc.). My concern rather is to ensure that even when we have a speculative question, we should make sure that

  1. the question is broad enough to possibly help 3rd parties;
  2. the question is worded, tagged and answered in such a way that it will be likely found by people having a similar problem in the future.

My stance derives from observing myself often typing into a search engine a vague question in the hope to get something what either a) speaks about my problem and provides a useful perspective; or b) advances my search for my own answer further. Clearly, if a question is speculative, answers to it often can advance somebody's search for help and I would say that is good enough achievement for a Q&A site like ours is.


I've just browsed the recent questions and they are very heavy on the "what should I do"/life advice side of things. While I don't see localization as a big issue, many of the questions only apply to the very specific situation of the person who asks the question and aren't of particular interest to anyone else - and they're not even necessarily "academic" questions. E.g. "shall I move away to a good university or shall I stay here and go to a not so good university" (edit: especially given the answers this type of question seems to attact) is life advice and has not much to do with academia.

I was hoping that academia SE would be of general interest to researchers/academics, but it seems to become more of a place for confused grad students to ask for life advice. (Disclaimer: I'm a grad student.)

So I would prefer a stricter policy of closing questions that are very specific and personal, in favour of quality.

  • 1
    Even in that very specific question though, the answers elucidate general principles ("don't make decisions out of fear", "don't listen to Imposter syndrome") that apply across many situations in academics and in life. Doesn't that mitigate the specific nature of the question ?
    – Suresh
    Commented Mar 21, 2013 at 21:29
  • Hm maybe I'm just missing the point of this SE category then - I thought it would be about less personal questions relating to academia (publishing, career progress, ...) rather than life advice. I suppose the FAQ say "Life as a graduate student, postdoctoral researcher, university professor" which could be interpreted as life advice as well.
    – spbail
    Commented Mar 23, 2013 at 15:37
  • 2
    general interest to researchers/academics, but it seems to become more of a place for confused grad students to ask for life advice — I'm sorry, but I honestly don't understand the difference. Academic life is simultaneously procedural, political, and intensely personal. We cannot ignore personal issues if we want to be useful.
    – JeffE
    Commented Mar 30, 2013 at 20:12

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