How do I email an academic?
August 7, 2009 7:06 AM   Subscribe

What is the etiquette for young grad students emailing seniour researchers?

I've been doing graduate research in a scientific/economic area, and there's one very important topic in the area on which I've found virtually no studies done; this is a hindrance. I'm watching an online talk by a seniour researcher in the area, a guy whose research I'm citing a lot, he refers to the above-mentioned topic knowingly, it occurs to me to email him to ask him about it.

What kind of tone should I strike in this email to get this (presumably busy) guy to respond? Grovelly? Blunt/to the point? Is it the 'done thing' for young grad students to email seniour people in their field out of the blue?
posted by hannahlambda to Education (20 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Don't grovel. Most academics really appreciate to-the-point emails, since they have to read long-winded emails, papers, and books all the time. Since you're already a grad student researching this topic, you have a totally legitimate reason to talk to this researcher. Act like it. Do something like,

Dear Professor/Dr./Whatever so-and-so,

My name is ___ and I'm a graduate student at ____ University researching _____ with ___[advisor]___. I've watched your ___ talk, and I would really love to talk to you one-on-one about ____ if you have the time. Thanks,

Your name
Contact info
posted by oinopaponton at 7:15 AM on August 7, 2009 [4 favorites]

Keep it short and sweet, but don't be hurt if he doesn't reply. If you can be specific, do so. ("I'm working on the Flummergarb theory, and am interested in the work you've done refuting it.") Not only is he probably busy, but I suspect he gets a lot of email from students he doesn't know. (I do, and I'm certainly not famous, even in my tiny subarea.) Many "famous" academics have a policy of not replying to email from students not at their institution.
posted by chbrooks at 7:24 AM on August 7, 2009

I've had lots of success with this kind of thing. I always go for polite and to the point:

Dear Dr. X,

I am a grad student at (University) in (department), and I am studying (topic) for my (project). Recently I saw your presentation (title) on (website), and I noticed that you reference (sub-topic). I am currently reviewing (sub-topic), and have not found many published studies on it. I am wondering if you could point me to some of the resources that you've used for (sub-topic). I appreciate any tips you can give me.

Thank you,


(on preview: in person is certainly preferable if they are nearby, but I have emailed profs in other countries to ask about their research, where meeting is not feasible. I've always had polite and helpful responses.)
posted by carmen at 7:25 AM on August 7, 2009 [3 favorites]

Seconding oinopaponton. Professors/researchers are just people, too. Keep it professional, but don't go overboard with formalities.
posted by bengarland at 7:26 AM on August 7, 2009

Seconding oinopaponton's advice to be direct. Additional advice: Make "talk to you about ____" as specific as you can, to demonstrate that you're up on the field. Perhaps ask for the name of a student of his who is best-versed in the topic that you could contact if he is too busy. And, if you hear nothing back in a week or two, don't be shy about following up with a phone call.
posted by drdanger at 7:28 AM on August 7, 2009

Go for it. Keep it short. Whether you get a response will depend upon any number of things. They may simply be too busy to get back to you, but most will at least be pleased that young researchers are pursuing similar topics, and many will take pleasure in replying.
Friendly pointer - here is no 'u' in senior.
Good luck.
posted by tawny at 7:30 AM on August 7, 2009

Response by poster: All very helpful replies, thanks. My main problem is to strike the balance between formality, showing my professionalism, and gushing, showing enthusiasm, both email templates are good. Unfortunately I'm in Europe, he's in California, so not much chance of a meeting!

drdanger, good idea to ask for another contact, I'll do that.
posted by hannahlambda at 7:34 AM on August 7, 2009

Response by poster: tawny, note my location! :)
posted by hannahlambda at 7:36 AM on August 7, 2009

Certainly it is a done thing to email senior researchers in one's field. However, nebulous queries such as "I would like to talk about this subject with you" are probably not as effective for getting the ball rolling as a simple, direct question. This can be a request for clarification or an additional reference from his talk or other published work.
As far as tone goes, a sentence or two of formal introduction, of yourself and of your position and interests is good, as well as a few blandishments about the work of the senior researcher never hurts.
Finally, if you're going to be staying in this field, this will be your first impression moment with this guy. spell check, grammar check and make sure there are no "seniour moments" in your missive.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 7:39 AM on August 7, 2009

Be sure to prove that you're not just asking for a copy of all his research, or for him to do an annotated bibliography, etc; I've had professor friends complain about those requests a lot. Make it clear you've done your research (read his papers on the subject, skimmed or read the relevant titles in his bibliographies) when you get in touch with him. Check for spelling and grammar mistakes before you send it, just in case. Do keep it short.

It's fairly common for students to get in touch with professors at other schools; it's certainly not presumptuous to do so.
posted by jeather at 7:42 AM on August 7, 2009

Response by poster: Upon reflection, 'senior' doesn't follow the same 'colour/color' rule, oops. I was never much of a speller...
posted by hannahlambda at 7:42 AM on August 7, 2009

Best answer: I turned this response upside-down, because the latter half proved more important than the first. Please bear with me.

I'm unclear about one part of your question. If topic x is so important, why aren't there more studies on it? Are you approaching the important topic in the right way, or did researchers abandon topic x at some point in the past because someone decided it was a dead-end?

If you're a junior grad student, you might not know the difference between the two possibilities I mention above. If topic x is very old, you can use the library to get on it. Rather than e-mail Professor Big Shot, I think you should ask the economics librarian or your advisor, or a post-doc where to find work on topic x. Chances are 100 to 1 it's either been "proven" a dead-end, or you don't know the right way to approach it the topic to find research on it. Either way, a librarian or your advisor will put you on the correct path. If you were an expert and you discovered a shared interest in topic x, then I can see the utility of e-mail Professor Big Shot. At this point, there are probably better ways to obtain the answer to your question, starting with the librarian in your field.

Second, ask yourself: is this an excuse to establish a relationship with Professor Big Shot? There's nothing wrong with that, but chances are high that he's an ass, or too busy to correspond, uninterested in mentoring a student who is not his own, or uninterested in your question because it is a naive one, if one of my suspicions is correct.

If you want to cultivate a relationship with him, that's another question for another time. If you're just starting out in your career, you'll have many opportunities to do so later on, when you know more about where you stand and the field itself.

As for the e-mail:
1) Introduce yourself in a sentence. (institution, department, advisor maybe, area of research)
2) Explain why you are contacting him. (You heard him talk about topic x in situation y.)
3) Ask a direct question.
a) Either ask for titles of works on topic x.
b) Or ask for contacts working on topic x who might be of assistance.
4) Thank him for his time. (No "thanks in advance." I don't know where that convention got started but it is a weird one.)

1) Write in an excessively obsequious tone
2) Demostrate your familiarity with his work.
3) Use phrases like "talk to you about" or "ask for your thoughts about topic x." I hate when students do that. Give him a question he can answer in a sentence or two.

In all your e-mail should be as brief as possible and polite, but nothing over the top. That is, if you really need to send this e-mail, and I suspect you don't. There are better ways of making yourself known to senior researchers in your field, and just stabbing in the dark here, I suspect that in this case you're better off solving the puzzle of topic x on your own.
posted by vincele at 8:13 AM on August 7, 2009 [14 favorites]

I think Cold Lurkey's got it. One important point to remember is to minimize the work he does in responding to you (while maximizing the output valuable to you).
posted by eebs at 8:25 AM on August 7, 2009

Just wanted to reiterate: people are much more likely to respond if you ask a direct question that requires very little work to answer. Try to avoid open endedness and ambiguity. If the person reads your email and asks "why is this person emailing me?" then you've lost.
posted by nomad at 9:31 AM on August 7, 2009

Don't mean to be rude, but use a spellchecker and if you're not sure of grammar, get someone else to check it. Your original question has a typo and your follow-up has a bunch of independent sentences connected by commas.
posted by unSane at 9:53 AM on August 7, 2009

I prefer to address professors as Professor X rather than Dr. X. It's much harder to get a faculty position than to get a PhD. As people have already said, make sure you give him/her the impression that you need special information that you can't get off the web or from someone else. Make it sound like you did your homework. Ask specific questions so it is clear that you have read his/her work.
posted by qmechanic at 1:04 PM on August 7, 2009

I've done exactly what oinopaponton suggests, to a well-known figure at Oxford, and he was very cordial and obliging.
posted by Beardman at 4:52 PM on August 7, 2009

Oh yeah, the one caveat: I agree that you should give the prof a question that can be answered in a sentence or two, as opposed to trying to wrangle a commitment for undefined pow-wowing in the future.
posted by Beardman at 4:54 PM on August 7, 2009

Vincele has excellent advice. If the answer to your question turns out to be obvious, you will feel humiliated -- even if Prof. Big Shot is gracious in responding. (Maybe not, you might be super-self-confident. But think honestly about how you'll feel in four years, when you meet this guy at a job interview, if your question turns out to be a more basic one than you realize.)

Thoroughly check your local sources (advisor, others in your dept, librarian, every search query you can possibly think of) before going this route. It's okay to email big shots, but to save your own self-respect, be sure your question is a well-defined one that really needs their input.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:52 PM on August 7, 2009

hannahlambda: there is a possibility I left out. You may have stumbled upon a neglected, fascinating area of research, abandoned in a certain time because someone "proved" it useless. By all means follow your instinct and see what's been published on it.

My MA project stemmed from a question my advisors dismissed as uninteresting and unimportant. But by archival research and creative thinking I figured out something unique to say about a topic that had been done to death. This could happen to you with topic x too.

*extended detail about topic done to death [In my case I wanted to research factory dormitories in 1900s Japan for my MA. They seemed to mark a major turning point from the premodern to modern era. The dorms were the first institution in history that housed thousands of young women together, away from home. These dorms dwarfed the Anglo-American factories. I had a hunch those huge dorms had some sort of social impact.

My Japanese advisors disagreed. I stuck to my guns. They gave me a deadline. Just in time, I discovered dozens of management handbooks that confirmed my thesis. Self-styled consultants described the "awesome sexual power" emanating from the factory dorms and the dangers factory women sexuality posed to the sanity of well-educated men. So there was an argument about sex and class in there after all! I was right, and my advisors were pleased... BUT, JUST AS EASILY, and more likely, my advisors could have been right. Fortunately I had time and stubbornness on my side.] *extended boring detail ends here

Ok, so my point is: graduate school sucks in many ways, but the one way it rocks is that it gives you time to pursue readings about topics of interest to you. Learn what you can about topic x to see if it leads you somewhere interesting.

Just because others don't engage the topic doesn't mean you shouldn't. You might be the one who earns accolades for bringing it into the limelight, and one day become Professor Big Shot II. But first do the legwork to make sure you're right.
posted by vincele at 8:54 AM on August 9, 2009

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