It is OK to ask for help

Over the past years I have found asking for help extremely difficult. Specially in my academic pursuits. I have had questions such as What is important to focus on? Am I doing the right thing? Back in my undergraduate years I felt I had to navigate it all by myself. I did survive my undergraduate education, so I took the same approach to my PhD. Reflecting in the 5 past years I really think one needs to ask for help – in my own case it would have been to gain some more confidence in capabilities to do the job. Even impressive personalities ask for help. Luis Alvarez, Nobel prize winner, asked for help to get his postdoctoral position, which led him into a journey of fascinating discoveries. I wanted to share the story with you.

Luis W. Alvarez studied physics at the University of Chicago, and later stayed on for his PhD. His thesis adviser was Arthur H. Compton. I read all of these details in his autobiography “Adventures of a physicist”. After his PhD he went on to work with Ernest Lawrence in the Radiation Lab at UC Berkeley. The first time I read about all of these details it struck me as amazing – having two Nobel Laureates as mentors must have make some magic in Alvarez training. Alvarez did not spend too much time writing about his PhD and undergraduate years, but focused in his years at Berkeley when tries to teach you how he became a physicist. Now to the meat of the story, Alvarez asked for help to his sister to become a postdoc for Lawrence, he was not getting it just by himself.

As Luis was wrapping up his PhD, he had plans to pursue more physics in Europe. Well it turns out that did not end up happening. Immediately after realizing that he would not be going to Europe, Luis applied for work at different universities and for different fellowships. By early April nothing turned up. Then, he recalls, “I swallowed my pride and asked my sister if she knew anyway I might get a job at the Radiation Laboratory”. A few days later, a telegram from Lawrence arrived saying that he can support him and that there is plenty of work to do.

As far as I can tell – Luis did good use of his network. His network was not as large as the current ones in LinkedIn but the core idea is the same. At the beginning he did write applications, and the results came null. I mean, I’m pretty sure he got discouraged or upset when things didn’t turn out as he had expected. Then he went to ask his sister for a personal introduction and recommendation. As a result, he joined Lawrence’s lab and the rest is history.

I did not write all of this to highlight how networking worked in the years of Luis Alvarez. What I wanted to highlight was that Alvarez asked for help. ASKED FOR HELP. Now that you know the story, Kevin. Please stop being so harsh to yourself and trying to figure it all by yourself. Even a Nobel prize recipient asked for help. So, go and get some help.

(photo by mixdisk)

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