Inappropriate to contact accidently found alumna?
May 7, 2009 12:17 PM   Subscribe

When doing a search on one of the grad school programs I'm interested in attending, I stumbled on an old article in my university's paper that profiled a woman from my current undergrad program who stated that she was considering entering the very same grad program I'm currently looking at. So, being curious, I googled her fairly unique name and sure enough, she attended the program and graduated from it in 2007 or so. So, is it weird/strange/inappropriate to email this person?

Now, it's hard to find much anecdotal information on this program on the various forums dedicated to the profession, although what little their is seems to be positive. However, I'd like a bit more information. From the article I know she was deciding between it and another program in the same area that I'm also interested in. The other program has a much higher profile, is at a semi-prestigious (at least expensive) university and is much more discussed with what seems to be a consensus that it's good, but perhaps not worth the exorbitant tuition.

So, is it weird/strange/inappropriate to email this person - not found in any sort of alumni directory - out of nowhere? Actually, it wouldn't even be email as I really only have her Facebook profile so it would be a message through that. It took me multiple steps to find this person so it feels kind of stalkerish (especially since I'm male, though gay), but I'm genuinely interested in her thoughts on the program. What says the hive mind?
posted by flamk to Human Relations (20 answers total)
Depends on the size of your undergraduate institution and the strength of the alumna network. I went to a small college, and I would be absolutely happy to help out any of the current students, even if it did take them a few internet stalking steps and a Facebook message to get in touch with me -- as long as they were polite, the message they sent was professionally written, and they expressed appreciation for any time I might be willing to give them.
posted by amelioration at 12:22 PM on May 7, 2009

I'm a graduate student and a couple of times I've been emailed out of the blue by people considering applying to the same department- they got my name off the departmental website.

It was a little unusual but I answered their questions and even met up with one of them for coffee. Sure, email her, but keep it polite and professional. You might want to mention an explanation of how you got her name.
posted by emd3737 at 12:30 PM on May 7, 2009

I get (a few, maybe 1-2/yr) emails from people interested in my grad program who find me on the department web page or my facebook profile. Doesn't weird me out. People typically want some information that isn't sugar coated.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 12:31 PM on May 7, 2009

Best answer: I agree with the above — as long as it's in a professional tone, and you don't send incessant follow-up e-mails if she chooses not to reply, I think it's fine. If you really want to avoid being stalker-y at all costs and don't mind being a little disingenuous, you can pretend that you don't know that she actually attended the program in question — "I found this old profile of you in the college paper — what did you end up deciding? I ask because I'm interested in University X myself, and if you ended up attending it I'd be interested in knowing your experience blah blah blah". But I personally don't think you have to worry about it.
posted by Johnny Assay at 12:34 PM on May 7, 2009

I get weird emails like this all the time! Ok, not all the time, but occasionally. As long as you're polite and not pushy I can't see what the problem would be.
posted by ob at 12:35 PM on May 7, 2009

Best answer: I think it would be perfectly appropriate to contact her. You've articulated your intentions in a sincere and non-creepy way in your post, and I assume the same professionalism would come across in any message you wrote to this woman.

And, in fact, facebook is probably a good venue for this contact precisely because it exists to facilitate these sorts of vague social connections. It's minimally intrusive for her and she can ignore your message if she chooses. If you had instead found her personal e-mail address through googling, that would demand a little more caution.
posted by miagaille at 12:35 PM on May 7, 2009

Best answer: I got random e-mails out of the blue like this while in grad school. It was a little weird, but I usually wrote back. I didn't when the e-mail was not professionally written or displayed other kinds of cluelessness.

Do your homework. Ask specific questions.
posted by grouse at 12:36 PM on May 7, 2009

I personally don't think it's weird at all. We live in the age of internet, and this is what happens when people need to find information on something. Just be polite, explain how you got her name, and ask her your questions. Tell her you really appreciate any time she has to spare on giving you opinions/advice.
posted by sickinthehead at 12:38 PM on May 7, 2009

It's totally fine. Something like that has happened to me once or twice, and I've always given the applicant an un-gilded, realistic view of the ups and downs of our program.
posted by NucleophilicAttack at 12:48 PM on May 7, 2009

I've had this happen to me a few times. Not a big deal at all, just be professional and don't expect a reply immediately. If you don't get a reply, don't keep sending emails.
posted by peacheater at 12:54 PM on May 7, 2009

Best answer: If you're looking for the shocking inside dirt!!!!!! on this program, don't count on her to help. Likewise, her own financial situation isn't really any of your business, and asking "Why did you turn down SCHOOL Y?" would be a little weird if money was part of the decision.

But if you want neutral facts that are unlikely to be officially advertised — things like "Where do the students hang out after class?" or "What's the best way to get to know the professors here?" or "Hey, are there any resources in CITY for people working on ISSUE YOU BOTH STUDY?" — then, yeah, get in touch. Worst case she ignores you, but she's not going to be horrified or outraged or anything.
posted by nebulawindphone at 12:54 PM on May 7, 2009

I've had a few undergrads in our department ask me about applying to the MA program, always in person, always someone I recognized from around school. Still, an e-mail to that effect wouldn't weird me out in the least; after all, our e-mail addresses are posted on the department's website and there are conference abstracts and the like out there with my name on it. Just fire off a short e-mail asking if she'd mind answering a few questions (obviously not "OMGFound u on teh interwebs!!!")

Our department has an unofficial Facebook group as well, and around this time of year we get posts from incoming students asking about all sorts of stuff. Maybe this department has one?
posted by futureisunwritten at 1:02 PM on May 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Seeing as she was profiled by the school paper, obviously she's not shy about publicity. So I don't see what the problem is. I wouldn't mention how you got her e-mail's not necessary, and this being the Internet age she would assume it was stuck in some Uni directory somewhere or another.

The best way to "cold call" in an e-mail, I find, is to introduce yourself and ask if the person has time to answer a few questions. Then, if the reply is positive, send the questions. This person might even want to meet up with you somewhere, if there's really keen on selling you on the program (something you'll want to be aware of, by the way - nobody is unbiased). And if you do get the green light to ask questions, I see nothing wrong with asking about this other program you're thinking about, with the above caveat in mind.
posted by hiteleven at 1:08 PM on May 7, 2009

The suggestion to do your homework first is good. It will be weird if it appears she is your primary source of information. If you have a question about some specific aspect of the program or school, lead with that.

It still makes me wonder: Would you be this concerned if it was a guy? If not, maybe don't write her. Instead contact people who ARE currently members of a Facebook group, or a listed group at the school website. They obviously are aware they are in the public eye and are likely willing to receive and answer questions.

Also, check your spelling before you write her or the school itself. "Their" is not the same as "There", and someone who makes decisions will notice!
posted by steppe at 1:10 PM on May 7, 2009

Seconding grouse, peacheater.

Two additional notes: (1) don't go into huge amounts of detail about how you found this person, but (2) I would go into a little detail, especially insofar as it uniquely connects you to the person (e.g., you went to the same school).

Graduate students seem happy to reply to these e-mails. But periodically someone violates the social norms and e-mails the whole department with seemingly personalised e-mails, which leads students to reply a bit less often to people who don't seem to have a close connection to them or their research (for fear of their effort going to waste).
posted by pbh at 1:19 PM on May 7, 2009

Response by poster: Hm, hadn't occurred to me that I could come across like that, nebulawindphone. Thanks for the heads up. Not really looking for the "inside dirt" really. I would guess very few people would speak ill of their program to a complete stranger via a Facebook message/email unless it was an absolute nightmare (even then, though..). It would be nice, however, to get something approaching a realistic, ungilded view of the program from someone who's been on the inside, like NucleophilicAttack mentioned.

I guess the consensus is to go ahead and contact (while being polite, professional, etc.)!
posted by flamk at 1:36 PM on May 7, 2009

It would be nice, however, to get something approaching a realistic, ungilded view of the program from someone who's been on the inside, like NucleophilicAttack mentioned.

Some people may not want to put their true feelings about their program in writing for the benefit of a complete stranger, so beware that you might still get a rosier picture than is warranted.
posted by grouse at 1:46 PM on May 7, 2009

Yeah, this is totally OK, so long as it's polite and non-intrusive, i.e. a single e-mail, introducing yourself, explaining where you got the contact info, not demanding too mich or too detailed info, etc.
posted by paultopia at 2:16 PM on May 7, 2009

I went to a tiny, weird college where everybody studies the same thing. I'm in grad school studying something completely unrelated. People from the tiny college contact me fairly often to ask about that process, including some interested in the graduate programs I've attended. I did the same thing in the years following graduation when I was trying to figure out what to do with myself. I think it is a perfectly natural thing, and I rarely even ask "how did you find me?" anymore. I'm just glad to help.
posted by hydropsyche at 7:17 PM on May 7, 2009

I tell people they can really pursue their own interests in our department and that the faculty, staff, and students are great. I also tell them there might be many times when they'll feel bored, exhausted, incompetent, and frustrated. Don't forget to ask what sucks.

If you haven't already, make contact with the support staff in the department. They know everything, trust.
posted by futureisunwritten at 9:50 AM on May 8, 2009

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