To Ask or not to Ask?

In the last few weeks, I’ve been coaching late-stage and newly minted PhDs in my PhD2Postdoc program.  As we prepare a plan for getting them a research/academic position, one of the recurring themes is the fear to reach out and ask established names in their field to talk to them about opportunities to collaborate on a grant or for research positions in their Centre/School (which in many cases is at another University, if not in another country!).


I know how scary it is to do this. I’ve done it myself. In fact, I continue to do it. In essence, you’re asking for a stranger’s time and attention, and these days, both tend to be in scarce supply.


I do, however, want to dig a little more deeply into the reticence to ask, because getting comfortable with inviting another academic in your field to talk to you is so critical to success in landing a University-based academic/research job. But getting comfortable with this requires getting clear on what’s holding you back from doing so. And in the many coaching conversations I’ve had, it tends to be one of three issues:


1. I don’t have permission to ask that big name about research funding and academic job opportunities

I have two responses to this. One is, I don’t advise you walk up to a complete stranger and tell them your punch line. You would be put off too if someone did that to you. So, back up a few steps. Reaching out to them in the first instance means inviting them to have a chat to you, finding out about what they’re working on and planning to work on, who they’re collaborating with, let them know their area or their work has helped shape your own thinking and then ‘see where the conversation goes’. Keep initial introductions light and brief, but your starting point is just to ask for time to chat to learn more about their current research and points of overlap/synergy with your work.

My second response is that asking for this kind of conversation of a more established academic isn’t an imposition. Rather, it’s part of an academic’s job to lead their field, which involves building and maintaining a network or team of colleagues in their field, creating opportunities for collaboration and so on. This is an ongoing role, so if they’re leadership material, they’ll be open to conversations and building bridges. Indeed, part of the reason Universities seek to attract and retain esteemed scholars in a discipline is that they will, in turn, attract other researchers in the field to want to work with them.

So, the permission you need in order to reach out to more established researchers in your field is from you – and in doing so you’ll be helping them do their job.


2. I’m too scared to contact them

I once read that fear stands for ‘False Experiences Appearing Real’.  What we fear is really a role play happening in our head about the thing we’re unfamiliar with. If you seldom contact people to meet and learn about their work or talk about possible collaborations, this will be a really unfamiliar territory.  But the fear we feel about stepping into that unfamiliar territory isn’t actually real, or a given, it’s going on upstairs. And it’s on the basis of that fear that we tend to act (or NOT act, as is more often the case). There’s a brilliant TED talk by Tim Ferriss on this very issue – the power of fear-setting, rather than goal-setting, to achieve personally meaningful things in our lives. By clarifying the worst case scenario, accepting that possibility and how you’d repair things – we can take the action that frightens us most, and in doing so moves ourselves closer to who and where we want to be in life.  So if fear is paralysing you in your post-PhD job search, I urge you to check out Ferriss’ TED Talk.  


3. What if they don’t reply to me, or get annoyed that I’ve emailed them?

If you’ve emailed them, there can be any number of reasons why they’ve not replied. Maybe they’re sick, focused on another project, travelling, or perhaps your email has gone to a junk/spam folder. Don’t take it personally, but do be methodical. Email them and make a note of the date you do so. If you’ve not heard back within 3 months, follow up and check in that they received your initial email and say politely that you’re hopeful that the two of you can have a chat.

You’ve also got options when it comes to reaching out to them. You can write to them, fax them, or give them a call. I wouldn’t suggest you do all those things at once (!) but instead, try an initial email introduction and see what response you get. Alternatively, contact their Departmental administrator and ask for their help to put you in contact with so-and-so.

How a senior academic feels about receiving your email is really none of your business. As I pointed out with question 1, part of their job is to respond to enquiries from other academics who are interested in their work and who want to explore collaboration or scholarly discussion. If they are going to feel upset or irritated or angry about the responsibility of responding to your invitation to connect, that’s their personal choice, and not of your making.


So, go on. Take the plunge and ask. Get clear about what’s holding you back, and hopefully one of the above strategies and mindsets can help you follow through. And please share with us! Are you struggling to build a broader network to help you with your academic/research job search? What approaches have you tried? What’s been holding you back?


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