My friend has a comical take on the saying “Burn your idols.”
It’s “Sh** on your Buddha.”
It has absolutely nothing to do with the real Buddha, of course. She means, take the people you admire off their pedestals and recognize them for what they actually are: people.
The original saying suggests that no one is beyond criticism and reminds us that no one is perfect. What my friend conveys through her slightly more satirical version is that holding a person so far above you that they seem unreachable doesn’t serve anyone (and usually leaves you feeling like garbage). It can be detrimental to your perception of your field, your place within it, or worse, your self-worth. Instead, by toppling your Buddha statue or shrinking it to a manageable, garden-sized figure, you can recognize the person who inspires you as a person not that unlike yourself.
Despite its importance, this advice isn’t often shared in academia (which isn’t surprising if you think about it). Universities draw their authority from the esteemed scholarly reputations of its finest (productive) professors. It’s unlikely that many will go out of their way to show you that the scholars that seem infallible and downright omniscient weren’t born like this (kind of like Buddha!). They started out just like you—untenured, anxious, and exhausted.
The problem with not sharing this advice is that it inhibits the formation of networks—a crucial tool for any early-career scholar to have. The biggest advantage that these symbols of academic success have is that they all know each other. Think about all the Buddha statues across the world, then imagine if they all went to grad school at the same time. Their professional networks are ginormous.
The best way to get into these networks is to make yourself known to them through conferences, publications, and personal correspondence. The more you increase your visibility to others in your field, particularly the big players, the more connections you’ll make and the easier it will be to expand your own network (because then you can start to tap into their network).
Email Your Idol Template
It starts with a polite, honest email introduction. Here is one that I’ve used multiple times with delightful results:
Dear Professor ___,
My name is ___, I am [your title—post doc, PhD candidate/student] at [your current institution] working with [name a committee member they might know of].
I wanted to reach out to you because your book/work, [title of a text of theirs that has helped your research], is a significant inspiration to my own evolving [dissertation/book] project. In particular, I am pursuing a line of thought directly indebted to your [a 10-word summary of what it is about their work that you find fascinating, broadly].
[Two sentences to say what you’re hoping to do with this line of questioning and where you are in the research process. Let them know how they’re going to help you by responding to this email].
I was wondering if you might have further reading suggestions around ___ or ___. Your references in the text are already very useful, but I thought perhaps if you had continued working on these questions that maybe you’ve found other useful texts or primary materials that might be of interest.
In any case, I hope you are doing well and that our paths may cross in the future.
[Whatever closing you prefer, just keep it professional. When in doubt go with: Warm regards, Best wishes]
This does three things:
- Opens a line of communication
- Allows you to present yourself and your research interests in a concise, relevant way
- Sets the stage for future correspondence or meetings
This article suggests that it might even make you feel better to reach out to someone you admire! A quick email that takes no time at all for a Buddha might be just the thing to reinvigorate your interest in a particular chapter or project.
I should note that this email is meant for a professor whose native language is English and who is working in the United States. The professor’s location and cultural or educational background might change the tone you take with this kind of email. For example, if I were writing an Italian professor whose first language is Italian but is working in the U.S., I would write the email in Italian and be significantly more formal just to err on the side of caution. You can see the original email that I wrote using this template in another on this website.
A dedicated post on networking in academia will arrive shortly but in the meantime, you can see the Further Reading section for strategies on building professional networks. These are primarily geared toward the private sector but are just as relevant for academia (makes you think, doesn’t it?).