DISCLAIMER: Although the featured image for this article shows two people shaking hands, please do not shake anyone’s hand while COVID-19 is so prevalent!
For some people, particularly those who identify as more introverted than not, the prospect of randomly asking questions to people you don’t know is not an exciting one. Thus, I had some reservation when we were asked to connect with Brackenridge alumni on Pitt Commons. Nonetheless, I scanned through the list of former fellows looking for someone who might have something in common with me. Jesse Thomason’s profile was brief, but he seemed like who I was looking for: a Computer Science/Mathematics double major and an incoming Assistant Professor. Seeing as how I either am majoring or am considering majoring in both of those fields, and education has been lurking in the back of my mind for a while, I hoped he could lend some insight. It turned out that my shot in the dark was highly effective: he shared more about his Brackenridge project and how his college career twisted and turned, and it was apparent that he made many of the same decisions I will have to make as well.
Meeting Paul Cohen, my research mentor, was in fact similarly spontaneous. I knew his name, partly from being the new/founding dean of the School of Computing and Information, and I looked him up and read some of his more recent work, which was on the development of PRAM (one of the modeling frameworks I have been investigating this summer). I had some minimal modeling experience from high school, so I figured I’d give it a shot. I emailed him (which was slightly terrifying, although he is a very nice person) and he was happy to meet with me to talk about his work in-person. He then introduced me to Tomek Loboda, my other research mentor, and I worked with the two of them to form the research project I am working on right now.
So, although there might be some understandable apprehension reaching out to someone you don’t know, it can often be the best way to step into a new academic sphere; thus the name of this article: Go for it! Certainly there are limitations to this philosophy; you might not want to start cold-calling CEOs or asking them to add you to their LinkedIn networks. However, if somebody really interests you, there’s no harm in a polite hello. A “sorry, but no” is about the worst that can happen, and (particularly in an academic context) I’ve found people are usually more often than not glad to talk with you. So, do your research, then go for it!