Can I cold-email a researcher?
November 20, 2012 10:41 AM   Subscribe

Would it be out of line to email a researcher asking how they got into their field?

I'm curious about an area of scientific research that's kind of non-standard/interdisciplinary. I haven't seen one standard term to describe it, but "complexity research" or "complex systems" seems to show up a lot. It's obviously not something you can major in, but it looks really interesting. I've found a couple of researchers doing work in this area. Would it be out of line to email and ask them how they got into their field, and if they have any advice for an undergraduate who might want to study it? What is the etiquette, and how should I frame my email? I don't know these people at all, and I'm considering applying for an internship at one of their institutions.
posted by vogon_poet to Science & Nature (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I don't think it's out of line. They got their start from somewhere and they, no doubt, were influenced by others so I think you might get a nice response by some of them.

Email them, express a brief sentence or two of admiration for and familiarity with their work, explain what you're looking for and ask them if they'd be willing to answer a few brief questions about how they got started in their field. Thank them and then wait for a green light.
posted by inturnaround at 10:45 AM on November 20, 2012

Speaking as an academic researcher: no, it wouldn't be out of line. Pace inturnaround, I think it would be OK to ask your questions in your initial e-mail, but keep it brief. Think two or three short paragraphs. Also: poke around on these researcher's websites. Some researchers will post their CVs, which will give you some basic biographical information (what did they major in? what was their doctoral dissertation on?) so you don't waste their time asking about things you could find out yourself.

Just bear in mind that your kind of request will probably be pretty low-priority; it's the kind of thing that might take a while to write, and wouldn't have noticeable consequences if it were pushed off. If you e-mailed me with something like this, it might end up slipping through the cracks, and I might never actually get around to replying to you. If this happens, don't take it personally.
posted by Johnny Assay at 10:50 AM on November 20, 2012

I've generally had good results cold-emailing scientists and researchers. Just be upfront about who you are. It helps a lot to send from a .edu email address (you look much less like a spammer or scammer), even if you're just an undergraduate.

Expect anywhere between a week and a month for a reply, though.
posted by theodolite at 10:50 AM on November 20, 2012

I have been told to contact people who are "you plus two" in their careers. That is, people who are two years ahead of where you are now. These people can still remember being in your situation and are more likely to be willing to help you.
posted by huckit at 11:19 AM on November 20, 2012

Not out of line. I answer cold emails all the time. I also ignore cold emails all the time.

Be brief, be direct and read their personal site first so you don't ask for something already there.

See if you can reach out through a friend of a friend. I work my own. edu address all the time.

Good luck, let me know if I can help with anyone at MIT.
posted by KevCed at 11:22 AM on November 20, 2012

Keep it really short and to the point. Send from your .edu address, make sure you have a properly capitalized subject from field. For example, Vogon Poet, and not vogon poet, vogon_poet,, or VOGON Q. POET.

I work in an emerging, interdisciplinary field and the steps for getting into it now are different than what they are in the past. So finding out their own career progression is less helpful than what they think yours should be.

Three paragraphs is too long. A sample email is below:
Subject: Advice for undergrad on how to get started in complex systems

Dear Dr. Einstein,

I am an undergraduate physics student at the University of Southern North Dakota. I recently found your research in complex systems, an area in which I would like to work. My university lacks a program in this area, so I was wondering if you would be willing to give me any advice on how to get into this area. I am trying to decide which classes to take and PhD programs to consider.

Thank you for reading my message. I would greatly appreciate any advice you could offer.

Best regards,
Vogon Poet
If you can find people with a blog they might be best as they could post their answers to their blog. If people are on Twitter you can ask there. Otherwise you're stuck with cold emailing. Don't follow up if they don't reply.
posted by grouse at 11:23 AM on November 20, 2012 [7 favorites]

Having a specific question will help. If your question is too vague, it would be easy to put off as something that required time, and once it's down in the email box who knows if it'll get seen. I forget things of this nature all the time and I'm only a postdoc; I can't imagine it'll be easier for profs who are even more busy. But that doesn't mean don't try-- it just means don't get too cut up if someone flakes, it's unlikely to be personal.

Also there are actual groups that do this sort of research; Michigan for example has the Center for the Study of Complex Systems. If you're going to physically be somewhere that has such a center, it might be worth asking someone there for an in-person meeting.
posted by nat at 11:24 AM on November 20, 2012

I should add: I also get these every so often. I ignore the ones that seem totally clueless or have major formatting problems. Other ones I am usually happy to respond to.
posted by grouse at 11:25 AM on November 20, 2012

I'm a biochem postdoc in an academic research lab and I've had both friends of friends and random strangers contact me about stuff like this, particularly through Nature Network and the like. I'm usually happy to spout off for a few paragraphs about myself and what I do, with some caveats.

I agree with that you should say upfront who you are, how you found the person's details, why you want to talk to them specifically (this is where the familiarity with their background comes in), and list your questions in the original email. Keep it brief and concise, if the initial contact goes well there may be scope to expand the dialogue in the future.

Don't be too ambitious with what you're asking because I also agree that this will be pretty low priority for the person you're contacting. One time I got an email framed as asking for advice but which was really asking for technical details about my research which would have entailed me looking up all kinds of details and handing over a bunch of stuff that took me months to figure out. I didn't end up sending any reply in the end, it's hard enough doing my own homework without doing someone else's (and fuck it, read the literature yourself). I realise you're not going to be asking those kinds of questions at this point, but figured I'd mention it as an extreme example of what to avoid. Basically, the easier it is for them to give you what you're looking for, the higher your chance of success.

Also, please please use proper formal English in your writing. The only other email I refused to answer came riddled with text speak and lack of capitalisation. I figured that if the person couldn't be bothered typing all three letters of the word "you" then I couldn't be bothered typing any reply. I was actually very unimpressed by the casual lazy language in that case, it felt disrespectful. Keep in mind that you're contacting these people in a professional capacity (treat it like a job interview essentially) and you should be good.

You may not get a reply at all. Don't take it personally, even my own mother doesn't get a reply every time these days. Scientists are bombarded with email and stuff all the time. But it's totally worth having a go.
posted by shelleycat at 11:36 AM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

No, go for it. If I was the recipient it would be a "best efforts" reply and I might not get round to it if it came at a bad time.
posted by cromagnon at 5:49 PM on November 20, 2012

I get and reply (yes, sometimes slowly) to this type of cold email. The best emails contain very specific questions. (If you write and ask whether I'm "willing to give [you] any advice," my response will be to ask you what specific issues or questions you want help with.)
posted by kalapierson at 4:20 AM on November 21, 2012

« Older What Options Exist for Keyless Entry for Front...   |   FISH IN SPAAAAAACE! Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.