Who do you need?
It is not always easy to get by in the academic world, especially when you are just starting out. I’m not one to normally question Simon and Garfunkel but, in truth, no one can be an island for the long-term. At some point, all of us need somebody, if not to love, then to work with – which I’m sure is also badly paraphrasing another classic song.
But the question then becomes: who do you need?
Do you need a mentor? A collaborator?
Or do you need a Guardian Angel?
Sometimes you need a mentor.
When you’re first starting out, it can be hard to know what steps to take first on the journey of academic wisdom. Dr Seuss and ‘Oh the Places You Go’ is a marvellous ode to academic mentorship: “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes”. A mentor is your guide to making sure your brains are used in the best way possible as your feet take you to the right destination. If you’re wondering which journals are the most strategic – which grants are the best fit – which position to work towards after your PhD or Postdoc – then a Mentor is the person you need.
Ideally, your PhD supervisor will be a mentor during your candidature. But your mentor can also change as you grow. They can be your Postdoc supervisor, a Professor you meet at a conference – anyone who can look at your work, understand the potential you have, and guide you in a way that ensures that your potential is brought out in all its glory.
Sometimes you need a collaborator.
Just as no academic is an island, no academic will necessarily be able to do all things on one project, particularly given that many funding bodies now ask for demonstrations of successful research partnerships which can take time to build. Mentors can guide you to potential collaborators as they know your work, and your goals. If your quantitative project would be enhanced by a qualitative component – if you’re trying for a big-time grant – if you want to write a paper and know that someone else is also good at this work – then a Collaborator is who you need. Think Roland and Maud in ‘Possession’, or – for a far easier pop culture reference – Harry Potter, Hermione, and Ron.
Collaborators don’t have to be people on a higher academic rung to you: they can be your peers. A mentor can also double as a collaborator and are often the best people to start working with. With academics interacting on social media more and more, there is also vast opportunity to find collaborators outside your normal doorstep and conferences. This is where piirus.ac.uk can help you to identify collaborators: our Let’s Collaborate campaign was one example.
Sometimes though you need a Guardian Angel.
During those moments of intense imposter syndrome. Two minutes before a job interview. When you didn’t get the grant or the job. The times when academia feels far too cold and hard and unkind.
In those moments, you don’t need a collaborator or mentor – you don’t need to be told what to do or have solutions made. In those moments, in the dark, you need a Guardian Angel who you can talk to at 2am and who will tell you that everything will be alright. You need a cheerleader who tells you that, even though this particular group didn’t say yes, it doesn’t mean you will never get a yes again. It might not feel alright at all just now, but they remind you that it will be. Guardian Angels sit in the rubble with you when you need them, so the next day you can get up and figure out what to do and make solutions. Guardian Angels help you breathe.
And the best thing is – Guardian Angels don’t have to be academics. Or even human. They’re the people (and animals) that are often already in your life and have been cheering you on from the sidelines ever since you made that mad decision to keep on studying. You know who these people are without any pop-culture reference but – should you need one – read the original Cinderella tale. Rather than a Fairy Godmother, a white bird that flies above a tree planted on the grave of Cinderella’s mother gives her the beautiful gowns for the ball. Cinderella’s mother watches over her with every helpful gesture provided by the animals that eventually lead Cinderella to her happily-ever-after – and the grisly punishments meted out to her stepmother and stepsisters.
These people may all appear when you least expect it
– in fields and disciplines light years from your own. They will change at times as you do, and sometimes take on one or more of these personas throughout your career – and throughout your life.
And you will be one or more of these things to others as well. The Academic Circle of Niceness will always keep on turning.
So don’t be an island, keep your eyes open and your feet in your shoes – there are Mentors and Collaborators and Guardian Angels just waiting to be found.