As a student it is not infrequent to be advised to remember that “professors are people too” and they want you to approach them when you need assistance. Although I certainly understood this intellectually, for someone shy as me, emotionally this advice was difficult to put in motion. During my freshman year, I was always nervous to approach them to ask for homework help, or talk about research, or really anything, in a way I had never felt around my high school teachers.
It’s not hard to see what makes professors intimidating. They’re experts in their fields, with years’ worth of experience and knowledge. In class the professors are lecturing in front of a hall full of students they don’t know, and to students who don’t know them. It can be the recipe for nothing but an impersonal experience. I was terrified that if I messed up or misspoke the professor would think I wasn’t worth their time. However, it didn’t take long for that perception to change.
I think that doing research and working under the guidance of postdocs and professors was the only way I was going to overcome those fears. It is difficult to be too intimidated by the people you discuss movies and exchange funny stories with over lunch. Slowly, but surely I grew more comfortable around my coworkers. Coworkers! – How weird it is to work in the same place as people who are normally your mentors, teachers, a part of a different world.
Now that I’m not quite so fear-filled at the very thought of interacting with them, the grad students, post-docs, and professors I’ve worked with this summer have taught me so much, merely by sharing their experiences. I’ve learned about the process of getting published and all its intricacies and difficulties. I’ve learned about why coding is important and how much we can learn from other disciplines. I’ve also learned about how important it is to stay focused on the big picture and not get lost in the little details.
Now, that is a lot to learn in one summer, let alone cover in one post, so I’ll focus on the last point. It’s easy to get bogged down in the details you deal with daily when you’ve been working on a project all summer. You get focused on the problem that you are currently working on and forget the end-goal, the purpose of the project overall. This can be dangerous. It makes it difficult to stay mentally engaged in the project and it makes it easy to go down the wrong path.
First you need to actually understand the big picture in order to remember it. When I first started I just had vague idea and set about accomplishing my goal one step at a time. That quickly went downhill as I consistently got stuck on problems with no idea how to move forward, and spent time on the wrong things with no good understanding of what I was trying to accomplish. Going back and reading papers and talking to my mentors helped solidify what they were looking for from my project.
I’ve found the best way to keep the big picture in mind is to talk to people who know nothing about my research. From the advice of my mentors and the reactions of friends and the people I meet at my internship events, I’ve realized that people aren’t all that interested in the simulations I work on daily. They’re not interested in hearing about the bug I solved today in my code. They want to hear the cool stuff about stars exploding and black holes. The things that can excite really anyone about space. What you tell them may only be 5% of what you actually spend time on, but it often illustrates the overarching goals of your research.
Overall, I’ve found that there is a lot to be learned from those with more experience. You’ll find many who are willing to teach you, not just about the subject you’re researching, but all the other knowledge they gained in getting where they are today.