Supervisors: they’re our mentors, bosses, idols. Sometimes, they can seem almost super-human – they know everything, and find every single flaw in your work.
So it can be easy to forget that your supervisors and various other higher-ups are not necessarily a species of perfect, paper mass-producing, hyper-creative geniuses, but in reality just experienced people, who still make mistakes and have “brain-farts”. The following is a personal encounter I had which serves as proof.
The setting: we’re at the University of Copenhagen, the year is 2014. I was in the final stage of my Bachelor’s studies. In many countries, writing a Bachelor’s thesis is common practice, and it’s exactly like a Master’s thesis, just smaller. We thought of it a bit like a “practice round”, before the real deal. However, you’re still doing new science, and for many of us, it’s the first independent work we do in our careers.
At this point in my life, I was playing around with the thought of becoming a paleontologist, and therefore did my project within that topic. I did my thesis at the Geological Museum, and my mission was (at least from the outside) rather simple: I was handed a box with fossilized shark teeth, which had been collected in Angola in the 1980s. I was tasked with figuring out from what kinds of sharks they came from, and based on that, make some qualified guesses regarding the time period and the environment in which they had originated. Relatively straight-forward!
The box itself had been handed over to the museum by a private collector in the 80s. He had worked at a limestone quarry in western Angola, was hired by a Danish company, and had collected the teeth for fun as they popped out of the limestone during his employment. At a point, he had handed over the box to the Geological Museum, thinking that they might be interested. Since then, it had been lying in a corner somewhere, never analyzed, his name and address at the time meticulously handwritten in cursive on a piece of paper in the box.
Sounds like a pretty sweet, deal, right? I’m not going to lie: despite inevitable frustrations along the way, it was.
BUT! It turned out to be pretty darn difficult figuring out anything, given no one knew anything about the actual collection of the teeth. “Western Angola” is a relatively big area, and the exact position of an old limestone quarry on the other side of the world is surprisingly difficult to find.
I tried contacting the assumed company (which had, of course, changed name in the meantime) – nothing.
I tried prying my supervisor, hoping that some crucial piece of information resided in the back of his head – nothing. The box had been handed in before he was hired at the museum, and the collector was likely dead by now. My frustrations grew to the point of unbearable!
One day, a friend of mine, who did her project in the same department, stopped by, and I managed to vent my frustrations. Jokingly, she suggested that we could try Googling the name of the collector. I laughed it off, and declared that according to my supervisor, the man was long gone. Well, maybe he had some family, who knew something, she suggested – it couldn’t hurt looking, and it slightly better to procrastinate doing that, than stalking people on Facebook.
Lo and behold!
His name popped up in the online version of a phone book…
with a phone number…
and apparently at the same address as on the note.
I re-checked multiple times, as this could not possibly be – but then again, what would the odds be of another man with the exact same name, living on that exact address?
Baffled, I went to my supervisor to ask, if I could contact the collector and ask him about the teeth, or if there were any specific reasons, why he or others had not done that yet.
He looked at me with wide eyes, silent for a few seconds, then said (I might be paraphrasing slightly, it’s been a while):
“He is still alive? How did you find out!?”
“I googled his name. He’s in the phone book – same address as he gave back in the day. Can I call him? He can probably tell me some more details about the specimens.”
At this point, my supervisor stood up, crossed the room, and shook my hand. “Yes! Well done! Thank you! Why didn’t I think of that?”
So there you have it: the next time you’re intimidated by a professor or another superior, thinking that they are some kind of super-human knowledge-machines, remember:
Sometimes they forget to check the phone book.