How to get experts to answer my questions?
August 20, 2006 11:04 AM   Subscribe

How can I get experts in a particular field of research to answer my questions?

I am a college student doing summer research in the life sciences. In the course of my reading I often need to ask a question to someone knowledgeable in order to clarify something. My adviser is extremely helpful, but my questions are sometimes beyond his field of expertise. I have found several faculty members at other universities who are experts in my field of interest, and who could make my life a lot easier by answering a couple of simple questions for me once in a while. But how can I, as a lowly college student, get them motivated to answer me and not just blow me off? (My boss does not know them, unfortunately.) Is there any strategy (e.g. offering to do something in return, giving a financial incentive, wording the email right), that would improve the chance of these experts being willing to help me out? This research is very valuable and interesting to me, so I'm willing to try different things.
posted by lunchbox to Education (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Just send them an email and ask. They'll answer. They love what they know, and they're happy to share.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 11:08 AM on August 20, 2006

I'm on the receiving end of these sorts of requests a lot. Do send your questions, but be aware that the person on the other end is doing you a favour. Be polite, but don't gush. Keep your communications short and to the point and try not to ask more than a couple questions. Make it easy for them to answer relatively quickly. Email will almost certainly be the best method of contact.

Good luck. Most researchers are very receptive to occasional questions from an interested undergrad. You will meet the occasional bear, but don't let that discourage you.
posted by bonehead at 11:16 AM on August 20, 2006

I agree with NotMyselfRightNow. Send a polite email explaining who you are (ie who you work for), what your question is, and what resources you've exhausted to try and answer it. I'm sure most professors will be more than willing to help.

I've also found that emailing the authors of papers that I needed help understanding often led to helpful results.
posted by muddgirl at 11:18 AM on August 20, 2006

I have found that, if there is an online discussion (e.g. mailing list) for a specialized field, you will often find many of the key practitioners participating. You might ask questions there or, after you have been participating (positively) in the discussion for a while, these people will "know" you and be more inclined to help when you send them personal e-mail (which is not to say that they wouldn't otherwise help).
posted by winston at 11:42 AM on August 20, 2006

Seriously, just send them an e-mail. I do it all the time. My colleagues do it all the time. It may very well be one of the specific things e-mail was invented for.

Now, it's different if you're asking them something about something they've published on, rather than something that's just in their field of expertise (obviously, don't just send any old question about linguistics to someone just because they've got a Ph.D in linguistics. That's what languagehat is for). You'll get the most useful and most engaged responses if you address your questions to someone who has written about, but failed to answer specifically, the exact questions you're asking.

"Hello, I'm a student at $university, and I'm interested in $extremelynarrowsubdiscipline. I've been trying to catch up on the state of the art in this field, and have found your papers (especially $paperthatdoesntquiteansweryourquestion) extremely valuable in this regard, but I still have a couple of very basic questions that I was wondering if you could help me with."

And, by all means, it's okay to exaggerate how interested you are in the field, and how useful you think the author is.
posted by Hildago at 11:44 AM on August 20, 2006

Oh, and another obvious thing: don't ask questions that are going to require them to go look something up for you, or write 1000 word response.
posted by Hildago at 11:49 AM on August 20, 2006

I'd allow for a 10-20% non-response rate on the email thing. Give it two or three weeks if no answer, allowing for stuffed mailboxes and vacations, before asking a second time. But definitely do it.

If the topic's obscure enough, the recipient might just be grateful for an interested audience.
posted by IndigoJones at 12:49 PM on August 20, 2006

In my experience you will find lots of people willing to sit down and talk to you, but nobody willing to do anything else. They might talk to you about a project for a couple of hours, but if you needed them to look up a citation, or a part, it probably wouldn't ever happen. Hell, your thesis advisor might not even do that for you..

Why? Inexplicable.. The two hour conversation obviously takes longer than the two minute lookup.
posted by Chuckles at 1:28 PM on August 20, 2006

Yeah, go ahead and email the researchers. They'll either reply to your email, agree to meet, or blow you off. If they agree to meet, have your questions all lined up (and do a little background search so you can ask them some specific questions about their work that might interest you). When you write them, give them some context, too (ie., what you're trying to figure out and what experiments you're running to do that).

Of course, search pubmed/teh intarwebs first to see if the answers to your question are simple and already answered.

Most of the time, I personally just go through the literature or peruse a textbook that some other grad student has lying around.

When going through the literature, you'll oftentimes stumble upon something else interesting or find out more about your field and prompt you to ask other questions, leading to more literature review, &c&c. Literature review is an important important skill if you want to continue in life sciences.

The kind of thing you're stating ("...clarify something") sounds like there's something (relatively) basic that you don't know. One aspect of lit review is figuring out stuff for yourself. Sometimes there are more than one school of thought on a subject and some researchers may view their views as the only correct one when that may or may not be the case.

If you're cute, you might have a lot of/more luck getting grad students to answer your questions.
posted by porpoise at 1:59 PM on August 20, 2006

of course, you could always ask ask.metafilter
posted by porpoise at 2:00 PM on August 20, 2006

Emailing the professor's graduate students may be useful, and may increase your chances of getting a useful response. In many cases, the grad students are more in touch with the details of research methodologies than the professors. They are also often thrilled that someone else is actually interested in their extremelynarrowsubdisciplinetheirgirlfrienddoesn'twantanythingtodowith.

Good luck!
posted by copperbleu at 3:28 PM on August 20, 2006

Email would be fine, so long as it is not a question you easily could have answered with a trip to the library.
posted by LarryC at 4:50 PM on August 20, 2006

Make it very easy for them. Send email from a university account (Not, make your questions as clear and concise as possible, put your return email address in the body of the email. Make sure the reply won't get bounced because your mailbox is full.

When you get answers, send a short thank you note. When you are an expert, remember to help people who send you emails.
posted by theora55 at 8:01 PM on August 20, 2006

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