How to effectively ask for help as a student or junior employee
November 2013 (perspective of a postdoc)
This is an abbreviated version of a guest lecture that I gave at the MIT EECS department communications course (6.UAT):
Questions from students
Got lots of questions from students during my talk, some of which were hard to answer on the spot. Here are my notes that I jotted down afterward from memory:
Q: How do you appear highly competent when you REALLY don't know what they're saying to you, and you want to ask them to clarify?
A: You NEED to ask, and don't be afraid to look stupid. you will appear competent since you're engaged enough to ask questions [but some other cynical student retorted that, in academia, it seems like grad students NEED to appear like they know everything and don't want to appear stupid in front of their research advisor. they often have to "tip-toe" around their advisor. i acknowledged that this might be true, but there's no other way forward except to ask clarifying questions, since otherwise you will never learn. you just gotta tuck in your ego and ask. it's not easy, but it must be done if you want to make forward progress.]
Q: What if you forgot some important point that they made to you because you lacked the context back when they were talking to you, but now you really wanted to know what they said? How should you follow up?
A: it's okay to schedule a follow-up meeting by reminding them of the context and asking for more clarification; just show that you've done your homework in the meantime.
Q: Why send follow-up emails if they just clutter people's Inboxes even more?
A: because those emails don't require them to ACT or DECIDE ... they're "nice" little jolts of positivity throughout their otherwise busy day of processing emails that require them to do stuff.
Q: How do you politely brush off unsolicited advice and help from someone who clearly isn't going to be helpful?
A: That's a tough one; maybe just chalk that time up to lost unproductive time, in the worst case. Just humor them for a little bit and then get back to what you were doing before.
Q: How can you appear open and receptive to feedback while at the same time keeping your OWN strongly-set direction on your project?
A: Treat their feedback as SUGGESTIONS, not commands. So if they give you 10 suggestions and 9 of them stink, but 1 is somewhat in line with what you're feelin' for your project, then just ride off of that one suggestion and ignore the other nine.
Q: If somebody doesn't respond to your email, is it okay to send a follow-up reminder in a week or two?
A: Yeah, a single follow-up is fine, but more than one isn't.
Q: If someone doesn't respond to your cold email, when is it okay to call them on the phone, if their number is listed publicly?
A: Good question! In academia, I've never seen people cold-call, but in other industries (maybe more business or sales oriented professions), calling is more commonplace; it really depends on the conventions of your profession.
Q: If someone doesn't respond to your cold email, is it okay to find them at their office or before/after class?
A: Office is fine if they have designated office hours; otherwise it might be a bit intrusive. Talking to them BEFORE class is bad since they're thinking about teaching the class; AFTER class is fine ... if they need to run off to something else immediately, then they will let you know.
Q: What if the advice they gave you didn't work well, but you want a follow up meeting? What should you say?
A: Thank them for helping you out the first time, and say you tried some of what they suggested, but you'd like more advice.
Q: What if you really ARE desperate for help on something and really ARE clueless about that topic? How do you not appear too needy?
A: Demonstrate prior effort: that you've at least made some earnest attempts but are just stuck for one reason or another.
Q: What if the risk of TRYING is too high? e.g., you don't know what all of these 'sudo' commands are in some computer instructions, and running or modifying them might destroy the computer? You want to ask someone for help before trying something that might damage your computer.
A: Demonstrate that you at least thought through these issues and understand the risks, and want their help because you can't afford to take those risks. Demonstrate competence through prior understanding.
Q: How can you recover from making a bad first impression?
A: Wait a while and then demonstrate that you've made a genuine effort to improve; people will usually give you a second chance.
Q: As someone who is giving help, how do I calibrate the level of my explanations so that I'm not going over the person's head (thus wasting both of our time), but at the same time I'm not "talking down" to them either by dumbing down what I say? [This is especially tricky when you're explaining to, say, your parents, or other older folks.]
A: That's a hard skill to master, and I haven't done a great job at mastering this myself. One idea is to make them feel SUPER COMFORTABLE with asking clarifying questions, so that they don't feel stupid for asking you to slow down or clarify. Make it known that you're there to help them, and they need to let you know what they do and do not understand.