Recently I had a rather upset email from a younger colleague who was worried because she had publicly disagreed with me in a discussion and feared she had been ‘strident’. What made it worse, she said, was that I had been something of a scientific heroine for her and she clearly was bothered that this made it inappropriate for her to express any disagreement. Well, no, she was absolutely right to do so if I was wrong, and certainly in the case in point I had – at the very least – been sloppy and she was simply correcting my inaccuracy. She hadn’t been strident, or inappropriate in any way and it wasn’t a problem for me – nor should it have been. But I’m flattered she thought of me as a heroine, perhaps even more so than if she had described me as a role model.
Early in one’s life/career, having role models – possibly also heroines/heroes – matters to many people (though equally, plenty of people manage perfectly well without). Individuals whom you’d like to be like, succeeding in ways you’d like to succeed, doing things you aspire to do, or simply giving you a glimpse of possibilities even if they still seem unimaginably far away. Exactly who anyone selects for their role model is a combination of opportunity (whom you come across) and personality. But problems can arise later when, as is probably inevitable, you realise these role models have feet of clay. They may be succeeding in ways you’d like to succeed, but when you finally meet them you discover they are jerks. If they’re doing things you once aspired to do, it may turn out that your aspirations were hopelessly misplaced given your own skills. Perhaps it is easiest to retain them as role models – possibly long after you really need them – if they simply served the purpose of opening your eyes to options in your future life. You don’t have to like them as individuals, they only have to have expanded your horizons.
But in some instances, heroines (or indeed heroes) and role models can ultimately have a detrimental effect, not only or necessarily because of anything they do themselves, but because of the effect any pedestal-placing can have on those who place them on that pedestal. Thus, I have known individuals who feel unable ever to believe they are able to challenge a previous mentor, head of department or senior colleague even when they have reached a position of seniority themselves; in order to break this spell distance – geographical probably – is required. It is extremely hard to turn around a hierarchical relationship into one of equality. But ultimately it is necessary for one’s academic health.
There is also the possibility that the role model can actively be unhelpful, by smothering the individual’s opportunities if they come too close. In this category I would place those senior individuals (I’ll call this person, who could be male or female, Professor Uncaring, Prof U for short) who may be able to attract many bright youngsters to work with them but then, far from nurturing them or making sure their careers develop and flourish, simply use them. The commonest form in which I think this occurs is for them to be used as drudges to produce the results requisite for Professor Uncaring’s own greater glory. Prof U does this without giving credit where it is due by not ensuring the hardworking Dr Drudge is the first named author on the high profile papers which are produced or facilitating the person who did all the work presenting it at relevant conferences. If Dr Drudge’s career is to develop, they may find it is possible only if they continue to fit into whatever role Professor Uncaring thinks is appropriate: this may require continuing to work within Prof U’s ambit, merely picking up any crumbs tossed in their direction. They may find it impossible to do anything else, if Prof U’s arm is long enough to prevent the newly appointed lecturer/research fellow getting grants to continue to develop the work they themselves started, because the prof wants to keep it as if it were genuinely their own brainchild. Thus staying within the role permitted by Prof U may appear to be a fruitful strategy in the short term, indeed the only safe one to pursue, but if they have any guts and gumption at all, ultimately Dr Drudge must strike out on their own and not remain a drudge permanently, even if in a tenured post. This would be an extreme example, but one that I have seen more than once in different places. Sometimes it is less malicious/self-serving than this description implies, simply driven by the fact that Prof U is unseeing rather than uncaring, so convinced of their own rectitude and brilliance that they expect the lesser mortals around them to fall into their grand cosmic plan.
So, by all means choose a heroine/hero, find a role model to act as inspiration to guide you through early career stages. But do not be fooled these individuals should stay as a guide indefinitely or can never be contradicted. Success means many things, but one part of it is having the courage of your convictions. Welcoming help where it is genuine, rejecting it where it is tainted or too possessive, and never looking at senior individuals through rose-tinted glasses just because they are senior. Choose your role models, your heroines and your heroes wisely, and dispense with them – or better turn them into valued colleagues – once the time is ripe, which may be sooner than you think.