I have a fear of coming across at times as a demented fan-girl of people whose work I admire. I am a naturally passionate person with my emotions happily tattooed on my sleeve. I’m the one who messages friends because I’m reading the most incredible book, listening to a fantastic band, loving a new recipe, and sharing the happiness seems an obvious and easy thing to do. I also use all the adjectives.
My natural setting is usually at ‘Hooray!’
However, this is not the natural setting for everyone, and it is not the natural setting at times for academia. Universities are painted as these deeply serious places, and they do tend to take themselves fairly seriously. And so they should – amazing work is being done – we are all doing amazing work.
Yet, at some point, as we begin our careers as researchers, we need to actually speak to the professors whose contribution to knowledge has been properly important. The people whose work shaped our field, or changed our perspective, or who discovered something entirely unknown before. The people whose work is recognized to matter. And speaking to them can be a slightly scary thing to do when you feel that your contribution to knowledge is more along the lines of ‘I really am trying my best’.
Jenny Delasalle wrote a brilliantly practical piece on how to reach out to someone you’d like to start a conversation with, and it really is as simple as she described. You take a breath and try one.
The thing is though, professors – even the ones who make world-changing discoveries – are just people. Honestly. I’ve been lucky enough now to have met a few of my research idols – the names of whom are protected here because they may read this and bang their heads against the screen in embarrassment thinking anyone put them on such a pedestal. They are brilliantly clever people without question, curious and well-read and analytical. Their brains astound me. But what astounds me more still is how excited about the work they are as well, just slightly more used to its brilliance. How generous they are with their time in talking with me about the ideas that had sprung from my reading; one even read drafts of a grant application. I am always inspired in their presence because they’re constantly trying to figure out how to make their work better – just like all of us. Plus they can turn out to have incredible fashion sense, or use just as many adjectives as I do.
Research idols don’t hatch fully-formed from some academic ether. They were once PhD students and early-career researchers who had their own academic crushes (a purely intellectual pursuit) and wondered how their work would fit in the world. They asked questions, just like you are, and hoped the response would be a positive one, just as you do. If they remember all this – and the vast majority do – they’ll react to you in the same way they wanted to be treated when they first started. And often, they’re just as excited that you’re interested in their work as you are talking to them about it.
This is the beautiful collegiality of the academic world – of a site like piirus.ac.uk. All of us are in our fields trying to make a difference – to contribute to knowledge. All of us stand on the shoulders of giants. It’s just that sometimes we get to meet those giants and create something inspiring together.