One of the many privileges of my job is guiding student research. My role as a mentor is something that I do not take lightly—creating a safe space where young scholars can explore ideas, challenge existing beliefs and discover their passions. I am so grateful to my own mentors who listened patiently to my wild, barely formed ideas and gently nudged me to dive in or take a step back.
It is a messy business claiming one’s professional identity. In the early years, most of us crave acceptance and validation from our more experienced peers. We seek out those who inspire us and often try to emulate them. Somewhere along the way, we need to summon the courage to forge our own paths and declare our own values. At the heart of this process lies three basic things: love (passion for your work), curiosity (ability to step outside of your comfort zone and keep learning new things), and courage (willingness to put your work out there).
Love and passion are central to identifying areas of research. If you are invested in a topic, you will stick with it. Your energy will be renewed by discovering new things and gaining a deeper perspective. This is why there are zillions of pianists out there practicing Beethoven every single day. To figure out what you love, you have to claim your values. This requires self-knowledge and an honest look at your beliefs and interests. This means that you don’t choose a project just because it is popular or sexy at the moment. Some people are born innovators, always thinking outside the box and coming up with the next hot trend. That’s terrific and it challenges the rest of us to rethink our MO. But authenticity comes from following your bliss, knowing what excites you and resonates deep within. Research that comes from a place of love and wholeheartedness is often the most compelling (and you’ll be willing to put in the hours and break through inevitable plateaus).
Curiosity is inherently intertwined with openness. Openness requires vulnerability and more than a little self-compassion. Curiosity often leads to the exploration of the unknown. Welcoming the unknown means inviting failure. This willingness to fail is at the heart of growth. This is not for the risk averse.
I define courage as being willing to be yourself and own it. This demands an honest, thoughtful look at your strengths, weaknesses, as well as your own limitations. There’s something incredibly freeing about seeing yourself clearly and moving from that place of understanding. It is empowering, authentic and inspired. This is where the real stuff can emerge.
So the next time a student walks into my office and asks me what their research topic should be, I’ll ask the same questions: What do you love? What are your burning questions? What are you afraid of?