How to email strangers who work in your academic area?
May 29, 2012 12:31 PM   Subscribe

[Grad School Filter] “Hello more-established stranger who already did the academic research I wanted to do and my committee is making me email you…” Does anyone have any verbage that seems graceful and appropriate?

Immediately following my dissertation proposal defense, I discovered a research monograph that does exactly what I had wanted to do! The authors conducted qualitative interviews on exactly my topic of interest. At first I was a little threatened by this, but then I realized:
1. They are in the UK and I am in the US. My work will automatically be “original” because it is conducted in the U.S.
2. I could easily think of some extensions to their work that I would like to add on. In fact their foundational work helped me to think of these extensions. The extensions are probably going to be the real meat of the refocused dissertation, though I intend to replicate some of their stuff as well.
3. They use a really cool method of getting at some of the information I want. I have stolen their method and begun using it in interviews.

My dissertation committee has suggested I get in contact with them. This is probably a dumb question, but how should I word such an email? Partly I’m having trouble reaching out because I don’t know what the point of it is, I mean is it for:
Praising their previous work?
Soliciting feedback on my proposal, goals, hypotheses, methods?
Asking questions about their data?
Asking permission to borrow and cite their research method?
Asking for other literature I may not be aware of?

Am I missing anything? I guess it is for all these things, but maybe not all at once. Maybe over a year long correspondence? My question is how do I initiate contact without seeming insane or something.

Can anyone offer some “hello more established stranger who already did what I wanted to do (and my committee is making me email you)” verbage that seems graceful and appropriate?
posted by powerbumpkin to Education (11 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Networking- Yes, you will need to have a good relationship with them and they may start keeping you in mind for stuff like conference panels, journal special issues, etc.
Praising their previous work- Yes but within reason and based on substance.
Soliciting feedback etc- Wait until they offer. Likely they will offer this if you establish a good relationship but if these are established academics they already have too many demands on their time.
Permission to borrow and cite- you don't need permission for either of these things since their research is published. It would be useful to tell them that you will be applying their brilliant method to your further questions.
Asking for other literature- you should be able to find this on your own (look at whatever they cite), but if the networking goes well and if you are able to meet them, eg at a conference, then this may eventually happen organically.

If you know/suspect that you will be at a conference where they will be, or you will pass through their city, you could certainly suggest getting together in person.
posted by cushie at 12:37 PM on May 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

If their work is already published, there's no need to ask permission; just make sure that you cite them appropriately in the work that you are doing.

I'd take the complimentary-but-honest approach. In other words, don't go over the top with your praise, but tell them about the things you like that they did (for example, their well-designed interview method).

Depending on your feelings (and what you know about them), you might even want to consider collaborating with them. You should be careful here, though. Grad students can be a little slower to finish things than more established scientists, so you want to make sure that these people are decent people; talk to your committee and see if they know the "word on the street" about these folks.

Here's the email I would write:

"Dear Established Folks,

I am a grad student in XXX at YYY University just about to start my dissertation. I have proposed to do something very similar to what you do in [PAPER REFERENCE] for my thesis. As you can imagine, it was somewhat surprising to see your paper doing something very similar to my project, but it actually has been incredibly useful in helping me to develop some next-level questions to ask and to develop a richer research project."

Beyond this basic start, I would consider, depending on your thoughts about if they are reasonable folks (and unlikely to steal your work):

A. Asking for advice about your next-level questions.
B. Asking if they'd be interested in collaborating in some way.

Whether you move on to these questions will depend on what others have to say about these folks and exactly how "secret" you want to keep your methods.
posted by Betelgeuse at 12:47 PM on May 29, 2012

Could you tell us what field you are in? It may make a difference as to the advice that you receive.

Typically, when I email someone like this out of the blue, I try to keep it fairly brief to start. Give a quick intro of who you are, who your mentor is etc. (1-2 sentences). Next, a brief description of your research interests, and how they overlap with the person. If you have one important question overall, I might ask it here. You don't have to ask every single question all at once. It might be better to establish a relationship, and ask questions a few at a time, get a discussion going.

Don't mention that you are being required to email by your committee. You should make it seem like it was completely your idea, and are completely gung ho about contacting him. To imply anything else would be less than professional, and may cause this person to choose not to waste time by replying.

Also, are you sure that just because their research is in a different country, it would still be considered novel? I suppose this could depend on your field of research, but even then, I would make sure to find ways to make what you research more distinct from the other researcher.

"Dear. Dr. XXX,
I am powerbumpkin, a graduate student of Professor YYY at the University of School. My dissertation topic covers ZZZZ. I have read your work concerning AAA, and found it extremely useful for my own research. I could benefit from some advice on my choice of topics. In your research, I notice that you did BBB procedure for CCC reasons. /insert data question here/. In my own research, I would like to use some of your methods for my own research, and would welcome any potential feedback you may have. I look forward to hearing from you,
posted by nasayre at 12:47 PM on May 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

These are your future potential collaborators if you stay in academia. Your work will be more competitive and original if it includes international collaboration, so laying the foundation for a potential working relationship now is wise. Ideally, these are also your unofficial dissertation advisors - when you hit a rough spot, or your results are coming out 'wrong', or whatever, they can provide some mentoring if you've been able to build a good relationship (though as cushie says, this should only be after a good relationship is formed and they've offered to help.)

It is flattering to be contacted by someone who is passionate about your work, so you don't have to worry too much. Just say, "As a graduate student with a passionate interest in X, I was delighted to find your monograph. I thought it might be of interest to you to know that it will certainly influence my project in such and such a way. I will be watching for any additional publications by your team and would welcome a chance to speak with you in greater detail about your work if time permits."
posted by Ausamor at 12:51 PM on May 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Definitely take the opportunity to ask them about their methods specifically, like what challenges they encountered, or what they'd do differently if they used the methods again. Methods are never perfect. Tell them you like their work, are really keen on building on it, all that stuff that is true; things you want to say to the person/people who share your research passion.

Also, previously.
posted by k8lin at 12:53 PM on May 29, 2012

I think they are a resource for you, and of course you also don't want to step on their toes. Here's what I'd suggest:

Dear Established Person:

I am a graduate student working toward my dissertation. I had intended to [describe your research] when I found your monograph [name]. I was particularly impressed with the [ingenious method description] you employed.

I now propose to expand on your research work by doing the following. [describe.] I would be honored if you could provide your thoughts on my proposed additional work. I know you are [reason for saying they are very well established.] Of course I intend to credit you for your original work and any suggestions you may have for me.

Thanks so much in advance for your comments.

posted by bearwife at 12:53 PM on May 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

One other reason to contact them is to get yourself in synch with what sounds like a budding research niche. You don't want to spend years on your dissertation without contacting them, only to discover at the end that they have become the world's experts on your topic and they disagree fundamentally with some aspect of your work. Think of it as getting key stakeholders on board.

As for what to write, keep it simple. Explain that your proposed dissertation is similar to their work (with quick examples of the connections) and how you plan to build on it (but phrase this without it sounding like you are surpassing or overtaking them). If you have something cool to say about your methods or your research question, include that to give them some reason to respond to you. Then politely sign off. Keep an eye out for opportunities to make connections with them at conferences in the future.

When I was working on my dissertation, I was too shy to make these kinds of connections, and I ended up on the outside of a very small community, with little support for my academic job search, and no collaborative web to build on (several other people wrote dissertations on my topic in a 5-10 year span -- I could have joined this niche, but didn't out of shyness/discomfort/reserve/whatever). This was bad. Do not make my mistake. I left academia and am quite happy with my current career, so it turned out okay for me.
posted by OrangeDisk at 12:54 PM on May 29, 2012

I think ausamor got the tone just right -- confident, complimentary, not overtly asking for anything. You are reaching out to these people because you share a specific interest, and because you could one day be a colleague/collaborator -- which may well thrill them, people in obscure fields often dig a little company. But you don't want to immediately be asking them for anything. I'd send ausamor's friendly letter and let them take the lead from there.
posted by feets at 1:09 PM on May 29, 2012

I suggest not acting too much like a grad student.
Be a colleague.

I'd do this:

Dear Dr. Smith,

My name is Bob Miller and I'm a doctoral candidate at Whatever U. I'm working on something similar to but not the exact same and I came across your article 'Why Monkeys Jump on Beds' in the fall issue of Cool Journal.
As I'm working on fairly similar work I'd love to chat with you.
Would it be possible to meet at Big Conference or perhaps Skype or have a phone call?
Thanks so much,
Bob Miller

I find that talking about this stuff is much more productive and less time consuming than email. You also will have a better shot at not offending.
posted by k8t at 1:39 PM on May 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, and FOR SURE you want to see if this person can be your external member.
posted by k8t at 1:41 PM on May 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

One great reason to talk with them is to find out if the next grad student is doing a project that's even more similar to yours, or has taken it in a different direction. Since you know this research group exists, it's good to know what they're currently prepping for publication so you won't be caught flat-footed if there's significant overlap, or you can consciously tweak some aspect of your project to make sure you're complementary rather than competing.

I understand why you'd be having trouble writing an email when you're not asking for anything in particular; having a question makes it much easier to imagine getting a response. It's not necessary, though. But if you wanted, some ideas:

- ask for more info. surely you've done a basic "other works by this author" search, and surely this group has a website, so you've probably got access to this information already. Are there any of their bibliography listings that sound really interesting but you don't have access to? "I found the [journal] monograph quite valuable, and I found the related article in [journal] from your website. Unfortunately I don't have access to the 2011 conference proceedings you cite; is that talk discussing the same data, or is there additional information I might find helpful? Would you be willing to send me a copy?"

- ask to talk with them further. Calling them is terrifying, but I've always found that talking to experts in my field is actually pretty easy once we get started. Or if you don't actually want to propose a phone call, ask what conferences they'll be attending this year. Or if you're attending a conference, tell them "I will be presenting in the Thursday session of ACRONYM conference; if you or one of your collaborators will be at ACRONYM, that might be a great opportunity to talk further."

- if you've got a technical question, that's an obvious route. It's polite to avoid "why didn't you" type questions until later in the dialogue; it can sound accusatory. Or you could phrase it as "I was planning to do X; I noticed you had chosen Y, and I was wondering if you'd found X unsuccessful, or if X may be a feasible route."

- Asking what they're working on next, or even if they're continuing this work. This dovetails with asking if they're going to any conferences/meetings where they might be talking about that, or if they've got any new papers coming up.

Or just introduce yourself, and thank them for an excellent monograph. Tell them your topic, and how valuable your found their data. Tell them you hope your paths will cross at upcoming conferences and you look forward to meeting in person someday.... surely they'll email you back, and you can have a real conversation from there.
posted by aimedwander at 3:07 PM on May 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

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