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I'm trying to convince a professor about my research idea, but when I would start writing that email, I get stuck: should I be optimistic, for example, If we apply my idea, then X, Y and Z could happen (Z could refer to "change the world") but I am not sure enough about X, Y and Z. Or to be realistic, for example, I would say: "Okay, that idea, presumably will lead to x. Thank you".

What I was thinking is if my idea really can lead to X, Y and Z then I will impress that professor, but if my idea cannot (at least in that professor's opinion) lead to anything of what I'm supposing, then he will delete my email immediately. I read a book on how to sell any of your idea or product to people by being optimistic not realistic, but I want to ask if you share the same view.

As a professor who reads/receives tons of such emails, what is the most thing that impress you, a realistic talk or an ambitious/optimistic talk?

As a side note: I'm holding a bachelor degree, and I'm presenting my idea as a working subject in my master study

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Why not being honest? – Sathyam Feb 13 at 21:23
up vote 5 down vote accepted

If the professor is in the area, after reading a possible direction/problem, he/she will immediately know its significance, difficulties/challenges/issues. They key here is to show you have done your homework. I am impress if an email sounds 'intelligent' as opposed to some random stab in the dark or clearly shows the writer hasn't done his/her homework. In your case, follow your logic and present evidences.

If you have done your homework, then you can 'modulate' your optimism based on facts as opposed to trying to make an empty vessel sound like a piece from Mozart.

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By "modulate," do you mean something along the lines of "It is possible this will lead to X, Y, and Z, but due to risk factors A, B, and C, it is also possible that none of those things will materialize"? – Kevin Feb 14 at 4:41

Be realistic. A seasoned professor has (by necessity) developed a keen BS detector (required to wade through teaching, at very least). A (prospective) student who doesn't know how far they can realistically go will either turn out reckless (and dangerous to the project) or get frustrated when things don't work out, perhaps dropping all (and thus being dangerous to the project). As the professor in turn stands of falls with his successes (and "my PhD student failed me" is no excuse, really), it would make you a risk not worth taking.

Yes, it is nice to show that you know where success in the first step(s) could take you, but they might fail, or turn out unexpected results leading elsewhere.

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It's possible to talk about the unrealistic Y and Z, but you have to say clearly that you're not expecting them to happen, and that you're fine with pursuing the project to X. – Turion Feb 14 at 7:39

It obviously varies by individual, but one of my mentors taught me a great strategy: Show that whether it's right or wrong, your idea is going to produce interesting, publishable results. One great way to do this is to make a strong argument that at least one existing, accepted idea implies that your idea must be correct. That way, if your idea turns out to be wrong, you've pointed out a new complication or a potential error in something everyone thought was true. This is still an important discovery, and can lead to publications and inspire future work.

Even if your idea is only moderately plausible, you can make a case that there would be something interesting to learn from the specific ways that it's wrong.

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