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More than once, I have had (graduate school admissions) orientation sessions where the faculty of the institute introduce their fields, their research and what they expect from potential students (Among other things).

At places I am interested in, this is a useful exercise. However, there are often places which I don't wish to study at but have a few good professors doing some really good work with great knowledge of the field and awesome intuition.

How does one fully exploit an opportunity to interact with good professors from institutes you are not interested in attending?

This is very different from a research conference for obvious reasons.

Further,

  • If I am not interested in that institute but wanted the opinion of one of the professors about another institute/lab (the ones I am interested in attending), is that a taboo?
  • How does one stay in touch with such contacts where your only excuse to mail is to ask a question? I really want to be on email terms. I have read and understood their work but what is it that should be the content of mails written to them? It doesn't make sense to simply send them emails saying that I read your paper or I attended your talk.

(Please feel free to edit this question in any amount if necessary)

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4 Answers

up vote 6 down vote accepted
  1. I don't think you can expect to get the opinion of a professor about another institute/lab. You can probably get some facts (like this other institute has more/less money, they are more/less active in this area), but nothing subjective. Academia is pretty small world, and people try as much as possible not to say anything negative publicly (and since everything said is positive, it can be hard to distinguish the real positive from the fake one).

  2. You need to have a real interest in their work. As mentioned here, it's already pretty hard to maintain collaboration between people interested, so if there is no clear interest, it will very hard to be on email terms. But, the question is: why do you want to be on email terms?

  3. See the previous point. You need to really interested, meaning you've read and understood their papers, and are able to ask questions that go beyond "what are the possible usage of your approach?".

As a general remark, professors are usually already very busy dealing with their own research/teaching/students. Of course, they usually are open to new collaborations, but they might lack the time to work with a student who is not theirs. A good solution could to try to visit them, academically speaking, for a month or so, to work on a very specific topic.

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From your stated question, you need to tread carefully. The nature of the environment at those presentations is one where the professors are looking for potential graduate students, not collaborators. Even more so, if you're a potential graduate student, you likely haven't done any real research yet, so you can't work out "collaborations" or anything.

That being said, it's perfectly acceptable to simply walk over to them and ask to hear more about their research and interests. They know that you're looking at many labs and many not choose theirs. Just make sure your request to remain in contact comes across as a "Do you mind if I contact you later to discuss your research?" and not "Can we talk later even though I have no interest in joining your lab?" Now is not the setting for that; wait until after having joined a lab to initiate that conversation.

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Take the long view. Don't try to go fishing for collaborations for now, or even in the near future. Faculty-student sessions, meet-and-greets, etc. aren't completely a waste of time in places you don't think you want to attend however. A few reasons:

  1. You will have met them. Yes, by the time you're actually something resembling a peer it will have been some time, but being able to say "We spoke once when I was looking at University X" is never a bad thing.
  2. You get a feel for them as people. This isn't just "would I like to collaborate with this person?" The academic landscape is made up of people, and if this is your field, these people will come up. Paper reviewers, journal editors, session chairs at conferences. All of those things are impacted by personality - something you can start to get a feel for while you're there.
  3. You get the birds-eye-view of some of the cutting edge research in your field. That can suggest things like where the field is headed.

It's essentially an excuse to meet some people years before you need to meet them. I also had some of the best shrimp-and-grits I've ever eaten at one, so there's that.

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Why are you visiting programs that you know you don't want to attend? (I want to go further and ask, why even apply to programs you know you don't want to attend?)

If I am not interested in that institute but wanted the opinion of one of the professors about another institute/lab (the ones I am interested in attending), is that a taboo?

Yes. For a handful of reasons - the most critical being that you are basically telling the professor that the department wasted their money bringing you out there. You are also wasting that professor's time by talking about another university when she's there to talk about her lab and her institution.

And it's also worth saying that most professors don't bother to get to know or remember most students who actually enter the program! This is not the time to get on "email terms," she's not going to remember you. The time to do that is once you are established in a lab and have your own project to talk about.

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"..Why are you visiting programs that you know you don't want to attend? (I want to go further and ask, why even apply to programs you know you don't want to attend?).." Its more like getting accepted by your top choice and hence all others are places you don't want to attend. –  user107 Feb 29 '12 at 2:31
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