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How to best worship the gods that be?
September 14, 2011 12:28 PM   Subscribe

Getting up close and personal with someone who could greatly improve my future?

I've been put in this situation before.

By some rare lucky chance, I happen to work with a top mind in a field I am interested in pursuing. I literally sit 5 feet away from that current idol everyday as he or she fulfills their daily work, totally oblivious to me, though I might be the only one in the room. They tend to have personalities that are abrasive and brusque as well, so they're definitely not going to be the ones who start conversation, nor seem likely to appreciate being stuck in a conversation with a lowly student as myself.

I don't do anything to help the situation either, being an introverted student star-struck from the immense exceptional aura shimmering from my esteemed superior. So I bury my nose in my work, and do my best to be as silent as possible to not bother the higher-being sitting a mere table-width away.

Generally, though we're are in close proximity to eachother, they don't generally work directly with me, and there are 4 or 5 people in the heirarchy that are above me that mitigate the commands from the idol to myself. I just happened to land in the same geophysical area.

I know that getting into the good graces of such a person would be greatly beneficial to my future prospects of getting into the grad school program of my choice, however, attempting to begin a relationship with this in mind seems petty and shallow, and I assume my attempts will be easily seen through.

The person in question never really has the benefit of seeing the proficiency of my work or how dependable I am, because as I stated, I report to those below him or her, and while they may laud me and shower me with affection, they see no need to pass the applause higher up the ladder. They're too busy trying to impress the person in question themselves.

So I don't feel I can appeal to the person with small-talk and conversation, and I don't feel that I can woo them over with my work (which is my real strong point). The person is also extremely busy and will not be receptive to my attempts either.

Though forcing a relationship for recommendation purposes seems cheap and shallow as I stated before, I still kind of really need a letter from them. How would I go about bettering my relationship with the untouchable personages that I work with and obtain that glowing recommendation?
posted by Peregrin5 to Human Relations (23 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
 
I think first and foremost you should get this person off of the pedestal you've put them on, in order to have any chance at having some sort of normal interaction with them.
posted by Grither at 12:33 PM on September 14, 2011 [24 favorites]


Though forcing a relationship for recommendation purposes seems cheap and shallow as I stated before, I still kind of really need a letter from them. How would I go about bettering my relationship with the untouchable personages that I work with and obtain that glowing recommendation?

You know, if there is no connection, there is no connection here. Let's put it another way - consider asking the same person if you could borrow ten dollars. How likely is that? No, not likely, because there is little to no connection here.

Still, there is an opportunity. Why not arrange a time to interview them over coffee about their career path. State your goal (getting into a good grad school) and ask them for advice.

Keep the meeting short.

Sometimes words of wisdom and advice from a brief meeting can stick with you forever and change your life.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:34 PM on September 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


Ask them to lunch? Explain that you're very interested in their field, have read X, Y, and Z that they've written, and would love to talk to them about it.

If this is too intimidating, maybe ask to work for/with the person. If you're physically close to them, you may have an idea of what they're working on. Can you help them in some way?
posted by chickenmagazine at 12:34 PM on September 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Ask questions! Start small....

About your work: "I've nearly finished the __TPS reports___ and so far Jane has offered really great insight into where it needs improvement. Do you have some time to talk about it with me?"

About their work: "I was reading your __Treatise on Wombats___ and it made me wonder __Do they really only mate at the full moon and the half moon?__."

Or about someone else's related but different: "I'm taking a class in underwater basket weaving, and the ___society of weavers___ seems to ___suggest that wombat urine is better than saltwater for the xyz method__" what do you think of that?

In general, people like to talk about their work, or themselves.

With that in mind, you can ask how they got into the field, what advice they have for someone hoping to __breed wombats for urine collection___ within the field, or what they wish they knew before they went to __the arctic____ in search of __previously undiscovered wombat populations____.

Many folks had a mentor and may be willing to, even for a short time, "pay it forward." Even if you don't get a long term relationship out of it, asking questions is a perfect way to showcase your critical thinking skills.

Once you've had two or three brief chats about something relevant, and the person has become less godlike in your eyes, ask for "an informational interview," basically, offer to take them to lunch or coffee in exchange for some advice and tips about getting into the field you're most interested in. Or for advice about how their field might overlap with your field. Be specific with them about what you want, how long it will take, and how much you appreciate their taking the time to even consider. But don't gush.

yes, I should be studying for an exam. However did you guess?
posted by bilabial at 12:39 PM on September 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


Do they drink tea/coffee? Do you? If they're busy and a brusque person, they probably wont appreciate attempts at small talk but they still need food and drink. Assuming you're not working in a lab-type situation where no food or drink is allowed, next time you go for a drink or a snack, offer to fetch him/her something.

How long are you working in this situation, given your description of the person it will likely take a long time to go from doesn't even know you're there to glowing recommendation.
posted by missmagenta at 12:46 PM on September 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think aside from raving egomaniacs, most people are annoyed or made self-conscious by someone who is overly obsequious. So, don't worry about whether or not you're being adoring enough and properly acknowledging the huge gulf between your statures or whatever. I think the WAYYYYY better bet would be just good ol' courteous, pleasant and normal.

They tend to have personalities that are abrasive and brusque as well, so they're definitely not going to be the ones who start conversation, nor seem likely to appreciate being stuck in a conversation with a lowly student as myself.

You're probably right, so don't trap them into a conversation with you. But it would be fine to do something like this:

Glorious person X enters the room
You, working at desk: "Good morning, X." *you continue working and don't try to prolong the interaction*

Just start with normalcy like that.
posted by Ashley801 at 12:47 PM on September 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Glorious person X enters the room
You, working at desk: "Good morning, X." *you continue working and don't try to prolong the interaction*

Just start with normalcy like that.


I've done that before. Everyday for 3 quarters, I would say "Hello Mr. ____", and he would say "Hello *personwhosenameIforgot*".

And it never escalated past that.
posted by Peregrin5 at 12:57 PM on September 14, 2011


Hang on, every day for three quarters you would say hello to him and he would reply "Hello *personwhosenameIforgot*," like he would actually address you as personwhosenameIforgot?

Tell him hi again and this time when he replies, tell him your name and smile!
posted by Ashley801 at 1:00 PM on September 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


And it never escalated past that.

It cannot escalate past that unless you say something else.

At the risk of sounding like a snot, I have to tell you, Mr. ____ is not a mind reader and does not know you have questions, much less what they are.

Once they say "Oh...hi....I can't remember your name" they might very well be sinking into the ground with shame over their inability to remember your name! They might be feeling any number of things! You cannot assume that what they are feeling is disdain for you, or annoyance at your existance.

Be alert. Be mindful. Don't overstep boundaries, but do keep the conversation going more than just "hi." Ask if they've read the newest trade/academic journal. Ask if they've seen the newest widget. Ask if they heard the relevant interview on the radio this morning. (NPR might be good for this, but it's hit or miss. Though you do learn about lots of other things too!)

Or mention that you read the latest journal and had a question about the writings of someone you know him to be chummy with, or theoretically at odds with. Marvel at the newest widget and express curiosity about it's invention or complexity. Mention that you heard this interview and were really impressed at how it portrayed your field/dismayed that it took a particular tack rather than another.

At this point, it doesn't matter so much what you say, as that you say more than "hi."
posted by bilabial at 1:11 PM on September 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'd just flash a smile now and then. Let it grow from there.
posted by Ironmouth at 1:12 PM on September 14, 2011


I agree with the above suggestions about asking for a simple meeting. (However, I would avoid the lunch suggestion...I hate high-pressure lunches...worrying about what to order, do you have food stuck in your teeth, etc...)

When I was in college I recall doing simple "career interviews" in which I asked a fairly straightforward set of questions to some folks who were actually making a living in the field I was interested in. It's a really cool exercise that you can do with multiple people, asking the same set of questions each time.

So just ask this guy if you can schedule an hour-long meeting somewhere, bring your written questions, and just do the interview, taking notes. Behave as if this is just "something you like to do" to prepare for your future career. During the interview ask a mix of personal (what was your first job in this field?) and professional questions. Try to find commonalities that you can comment on. ("Oh, that's the same town my mother is from!") That way, you have something besides work that you can talk about, if the situation ever arises.

Another thought: if there are 4 or 5 people in the middle hierarchy, think about the "political" aspects of the situation. If it's really that hard to get into this guy's inner circle, there may be a long line of people already in front of you! Perhaps you could do a career interview or whatever with one of those intermediate-level folks first, and just try to glean information about the whole interpersonal/political dynamic which no doubt exists.

Try not to step on toes, but on the other hand, don't be afraid to move forward towards your goals with small steps.

And that's just the networking side of things...it should go without saying that you must continue to do the highest-quality work you can. : )

Hope that helps...
posted by see_change at 1:34 PM on September 14, 2011


I don't do anything to help the situation either, being an introverted student star-struck from the immense exceptional aura shimmering from my esteemed superior.

Get over the worship, they're just people. This person might be a superstar in your field, but they're not better than you. They're just another person trying to get through their day. Maybe s/he is just a stuck up asshole or maybe s/he has had a lot of shit going on. You don't know. I would stick to "Good morning, Rock Star" and missmagenta's coffee/tea offer is good too. Those are gestures I would make to any coworker and other than that I would leave them alone.

Gotta say, though, in my former academic life, I knew of a lot of accomplished profs who treated their subordinates like crap (your description of "abrasive and brusque" fits well here), yet people were tripping over themselves to ride on their coattails. This may or may not be the case here.

The person is also extremely busy and will not be receptive to my attempts either.

I'm curious what you mean by this.
posted by futureisunwritten at 1:45 PM on September 14, 2011


I've recently discovered that people really love giving advice cos it makes us feel useful! In fact its probably why this website works ;) don't be afraid to tell this person that it's your goal to do x and ask for any advice re how to get there. Everyone started somewhere and most people remember what that was like.
Anecdote: when I was in a full entry level position in my previous industry, I gutsed up to ask someone who had my omg dream future position how they got there.. a few years later I was on my way (albeit at another company) and he is now one of my closest friends
posted by lifethatihavenotlivedyet at 1:52 PM on September 14, 2011


This person obviously does not have time for you if they can't be bothered to learn your name after a year. It's a waste of YOUR time to put in the effort to get some relationship out of this.

If you want to get into a good grad program, continue doing the absolute best you can for your immediate superiors. Make sure the people who will write your letters know your work first hand. This guy does not, so he won't be a good letter writer, so it's not worth your time to try.

However, if you are so exceptional that you have a research problem or question to bring to this person that might actually INTEREST him or her, do this: "Hi _____, I have been working with [grad student] on [project] and we've collected pilot data for blah blah. I know it's not part of the main project, but what if we collected data on blah blah? I would be very interested in that and I wanted to get your thoughts on it."

These are the only kinds of interactions this person is going to care about. Do your homework and have a really well thought out question or problem to bring to them. Otherwise, forget it.
posted by slow graffiti at 1:57 PM on September 14, 2011


This person obviously does not have time for you if they can't be bothered to learn your name after a year. It's a waste of YOUR time to put in the effort to get some relationship out of this.

This is not my experience with famous or successful people. A lot of them are just shy.

They aren't gods. They're normal people. Busy people, perhaps, but they put their pants on one leg at a time like everyone else. Just talk to them like a normal person -- with the appropriate amount of respect, obviously (no "hey dude!"), but you don't need to kow tow to them.

Generally the best way to approach them cold is to demonstrate familiarity with their work (but not like a stalkery amount of familiarity) and ask their opinion or advice, but don't ask for any favors, and don't burden them by asking them to spend to much of their time. Ie, "I've been thinking of writing my thesis on such-and-such, what do you think?" is okay, but not "Hey can you read my paper and give me feedback?"

This kind of approach has worked with every famous DJ or producer I've ever talked to and big tech industry names I've worked with, and I can't imagine it's any different for famous people in any other field.
posted by empath at 2:21 PM on September 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Ah, if you've already been working with him for 3 quarters and haven't got any further than good morning - I think anything you try now will seem weird
posted by missmagenta at 2:23 PM on September 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Have you heard about the Dunning-Kruger effect? I think it applies here.

Also I concur many bright people are just too busy to successfully remember the name of people they work with, even though they would sometimes love to get to know their colleagues better. They might not dare to ask out of shyness or even shame (that they should have remembered).

So indeed some collegial demonstration of interest with a bit of self-confidence would be the best way to go.
posted by knz at 2:50 PM on September 14, 2011


Ah, if you've already been working with him for 3 quarters and haven't got any further than good morning - I think anything you try now will seem weird

If you're willing to go to these lengths to get a letter of recommendation to grad school from a total stranger, maybe you ought to re-examine your priorities.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:51 PM on September 14, 2011


I think the goal should be having a relationship with this person, rather than the letter. (Are you shy as well as introverted?) Personally, I would find a way to introduce myself, mention how much their work has meant to me, and let them know that I would be glad to assist them in any task that might be appropriate. And leave the ball in their court. If I'm going to run an errand at lunch, I might ask if they need anything.

If you don't ask, you don't get. Dr. BigBrain can't read your mind. But rather than have the objective of the letter, which frankly might be far-fetched, I think you should think about what you can learn from knowing this person.
posted by Ideefixe at 4:16 PM on September 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


This person obviously does not have time for you if they can't be bothered to learn your name after a year. It's a waste of YOUR time to put in the effort to get some relationship out of this.

To refute this again, in another way: What if you were the said high-level person and literally thousands of people met you each year? Sent you email, called you, shook your hand? You'd have a goddamned hard time remembering everyone's name. And what if you were in daily or weekly contact with dozens or hundreds of people? Unless you have a personal aide, as many politicians do, it's a damned hard task to remember everyone, all the time, especially if you don't work directly together.

The best way to meet someone at that high level of a career? Catch up professionally as fast as you can and then meet them later in your career when it will matter more to both of you.

It'll take years, but it does work. And in the catching up with him professionally, you'll be doing what he'll be advising you to do anyway (if he really is great). Master the field, read everything in the field, read the journals, work your ass off, be kind and generous to colleagues, volunteer for the boards, join all the committees, go to all the conferences, get published, and published again, and get known outside your field for the work you do in your field.

You wrote that he could be "greatly beneficial to my future prospects of getting into the grad school program of my choice." You've placed too much faith in the help and connections this guy might provide you and you're ignoring all the other people that you'll have to know along the way, anyway, who may also help you and who may have more time to help you.

Don't let the moon's light blind you to the galaxy.
posted by Mo Nickels at 5:08 PM on September 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


So, I am not an academic rockstar, but I'm a professor and I've dealt with students who seemed to feel the same way about me that you feel about your dude (for ease of writing I'll assume he's a guy), and here's a little advice from the other end:

1. Please, please, for the love of all that is holy, take him off the pedestal and do not act obsequious or lowly around him. When students do that it creeps me right out and nothing makes me want to get away faster. (I try not to for their sake but I definitely do not deal with extended interactions).

2. If he's brusque and busy, that's probably because he has shitloads to do, not because he's sitting there thinking how much better than you he is. If he forgot your name, it's probably because he meets a ton of people and you have never had much of an interaction to pin your name to. He probably has no idea you want to talk to him.

3. If you try to build a relationship with him with the sole aim of basking in his glory or getting a reference from him, he will see right through that (it probably happens a lot to him) and that will guarantee that you do not succeed. If you don't want to talk to him because you're interested in his ideas or interested in him, then seriously, don't bother -- he will be able to tell and it won't work.

4.The main thing: Remember that he is a person. He wipes his butt when he goes to the bathroom just like the rest of us. He has strengths and weaknesses just like the rest of us. If you're interested in getting to know him on that level, without a secret agenda, then just do with him what you would do with anyone: starting from your base of "hello" in the morning, occasionally make further small talk (when he doesn't look super busy). Surely he takes occasional breaks, wanders out to make tea, etc.? When he does (but not EVERY time he does) you can grab some tea as well and ask him what he thinks of X, or what he's working on, or if he does small talk, ask him about the weather. (Academics are generally much happier to talk about content though). Once you've gotten to know him somewhat through this technique, then you can start asking him advice, again starting small.

5. You can try asking him to coffee or something as others suggest, but be aware that might not work on everyone. It wouldn't work on me unless I sorta knew the person. It would be transparently obvious that they would want something from me, and unless they are my student or want to work with me or something I don't have the time to give every random person that level of attention. Also, if he is super busy, an hour out of a day for someone you hardly know is actually quite a lot, especially because of the switching cost.
posted by forza at 5:55 PM on September 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Do you technically work for this person, even if you don't report directly to him? That is, he's the Primary Investigator, the people in the middle are staff researchers or study coordinators, and you're a research assistant (or equivalents to those)?

If so, it's actually not unreasonable for you to want a letter of recommendation from him. In some academic labs (I'm not 100% clear if you're in academia, but it sounds like it), it's expected that the RAs will get letters that were drafted by the middle management but polished and signed by the PI. Have you talked to your direct supervisors about your plans for graduate school and who might be writing you a letter? If not, you should do that! (Assuming you're in a job where it's understood that you'll probably go on to graduate school, rather than one where they might be annoyed and maybe lay you off early.)
posted by synchronia at 6:11 PM on September 14, 2011


Thank you very much everyone! Your tips are greatly appreciated. I will do my best to remove her from my pedestal.

And to answer questions, it's not really an academia thing, though my past experiences have been. I'm more of an entry-level office worker at my College's administrative office, and the Dean of my campus happened to be one who excelled at my current field of study, and founded the only doctoral program in that field at my college as well.

Being a dean, she is actually only around a few days out of the week, and rarely when I'm there, and when she is there, she's usually shut up in her office which is right next to my desk (receptionists desk). I've so far simply greeted her with hi's and smiles but I've been reading up on her accomplishments, and I will have to clarify my interests and do a bit more soul-searching before I can bring up a topic of conversation that will be of interest to both of us. =]
posted by Peregrin5 at 12:40 AM on September 15, 2011


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