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I work as assistant professor in a STEM field. I have been receiving a large number of emails from professionals, usually from government organisations and companies, asking for various advices and information. One example is about asking me which software product is currently best at accomplishing the task X in the Y setting. These are usually short emails which take no more than 10 minutes to process (reading, searching, and replying).

I think I have responded to over 100-200 such emails so far, and now I am at a point of asking myself whether it is worth to continue. Academics do a lot of uncredited and unapreciated work, but I feel that this is especially pointless and even harmful. Initially it felt good to be an internationally recognized expert in academia and industry, which is very encouraging and important for an early career researcher, but now I am evaluating whether I should start ignoring them.

I am here to ask opinions and experiences of fellow academics on this matter. When I think about disadvantages and advantages of replying to enquiries, these are…

Disadvantages:

  • They take time. Each may take less than 10 minutes, but accumulating a large number of emails means lots of time that could be spent on something else.
  • They entail responsibility: I don’t think that I get anything by giving a correct answer, but once I give a wrong answer leading to a bad decision my reputation can be put at risk.
  • They don’t seem appreciated in industry. I never got any follow-up or feedback on what happened later. Replying never led to anything for me. Also, I don’t think I learned much (only in 10% cases I learn things like “Oh these people are working on that, cool”, but that’s usually it)
  • These things don’t go on your CV (let’s be frank).

Advantages:

  • They can help building one’s reputation as an expert outside academia
  • They can extend one’s network
  • They can lead to a relationship bringing new projects (never happened to me personally)

Alternatively I was thinking about starting a part-time consulting service, but it doesn’t look viable.

So the question is it worth responding to emails from non-academic strangers asking you advices?

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    Straight to the spam folder. This is not your job. – JeffE Jan 4 '18 at 15:33
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    Since you are getting so many of these requests, you might want to consider adding a note to your webpage about what types of questions you can help with and what you expect the outcome of such Q&A interactions would be. – Mad Jack Jan 4 '18 at 15:42
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    @JeffE Many things that one does are not one's job, this cannot be the only factor involved... For example, you will receive a notification from this comment, should it go "straight to the spam folder" because academia.SE is "not your job"? – user9646 Jan 4 '18 at 17:32
  • Perhaps I should have said: This is not your responsibility. (And I have notification emails turned off.) – JeffE Jan 5 '18 at 13:56
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    I would second @MadJack : the question is not if you should do this or not, but what are your better options. Making a good q&a website can be something you are more recognized for with the same effort – Greg Jan 6 '18 at 18:34
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Why don't you start a blog? An FAQ and a few posts might be enough to address the vast majority of questions without costing you a ton of time. You can then refer any inquiries to the blog. In time its popularity will grow and people might go directly to it instead of sending you emails.

You can highlight you research, grow your professional network, lead to collaborations AND save time by not having to answer the same question a million times.

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As someone who has written a few such emails while working in industry I really appreciate what you are doing. That said, you cannot be expected to answer each and every email you get. I would try to answer those emails that you think are worth your time or interest you. For the others, a simple canned email that you are receiving way too many such requests to answer them, with a list of books relevant to your field would IMHO be the polite thing to do.

As for getting feedback from industry: Keep in mind that most engineers would love to talk with you about all the details of their work and how to make the product better. But unfortunately, the company does not pay for this. They are pressured to make a product that can be sold and make it fast. Hence they are pressured to spend as little time with you as possible, once they get the answer. Maybe adding a line that you would like to get some feedback would make it more likely for someone to send you an email later, but I wouldn't hold my breath if they don't.

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I suggest approaching this question from the point of view of “selfish altruism”, which is the philosophy (whose name I just invented, although I’m guessing it‘s already known in one form or another) of a person who wants to do good in the world but also understands that caring for oneself and putting a high priority on one’s own self-interest are important and are part of what makes it possible to make the most impact on the world in the long term.

In practice, what this means is that before spending significant amounts of time helping someone for free, you should not be ashamed to ask yourself, what’s in it for me? If you cannot give a satisfactory answer to this question, then it’s likely that answering the emails is not a good use of your time - it may feel like you’re doing something good by helping someone who asked you for advice, but when the opportunity cost (the things that you could have been doing with your time instead of answering the email, but didn’t) is taken into account, probably the net effect is negative. In essence, by answering an email that takes away your time without giving you anything in return, you are sacrificing your long term career success and happiness (which are important both for maximizing your own self-interest and your future ability to help others) for a short-lived emotional satisfaction of helping someone who asked for your help; or worse, it may not even give you much satisfaction but would simply allow you to avoid the feelings of discomfort and awkwardness that come from refusing someone’s request for help.

I should emphasize that when I talk about asking what’s in it for me?, I’m not talking about money. Money is good and useful and if you have opportunities to supplement your income with a bit of consulting, certainly that is a perfectly good reason to help people from industry. But there could be other good and valid reasons to answer these sorts of emails (e.g., as you mentioned in the question: networking, learning useful things about what people in industry are doing, etc). The point is that as long as you can articulate a rational reason why answering the emails will bring you some tangible benefit that matches or outweighs the opportunity cost of the time you will be spending, it should be fine answering the email. Otherwise, you should be wary of acting based on purely emotional motives that ultimately will not serve either you or the world well.

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    maybe, Dan, if you're looking for a label for your "selfish altruism" concept, a similar to a term in wider use is "Enlightened self-interest". seems to me to be similar concepts. – robert bristow-johnson Jan 5 '18 at 4:50
  • This seems a slightly surprising perspective from someone who has answered over 350 questions on academia.SE! Is it really a waste of time to do something just for the satisfaction of helping someone? – user2390246 Jan 5 '18 at 19:34
  • @robertbristow-johnson yes, that seems somewhat similar to what I was describing - thanks! – Dan Romik Jan 5 '18 at 22:23
  • @user2390246 haha, you got me there... I guess I am full of contradictions. But really, I do think I get some things out of posting here other than emotional satisfaction. And to the extent that I may not always be following my own advice, I should! – Dan Romik Jan 5 '18 at 22:31
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    @user2390246 There is subtle difference between the two activities: with online communities, you choose what to answer and when; with emails you're invited to answer questions of any kind, even those you would totally ignore online. Emails are more invasive. Between here and other communities, I posted online around 8k+ messages, mostly answers to technical questions, but I'd find annoying receiving questions by email and I wouldn't answer, unless they come from someone I know or is connected to me in some way. – Massimo Ortolano Jan 6 '18 at 17:31
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Unless the email is from a person or organization that you strongly support and don't mind giving free advice to, then you should delete these emails on sight. Otherwise, they are trying to mooch free advice off of you to avoid paying a fee to a consultant, and I can almost guarantee that they care nothing about adding you to a network or expanding the contribution into a paid gig (because why should they, when they can just email you for free?).

In my experience, 99% of these emails have nothing to do with getting answers to questions but are rather attempts to open a conversation that ends with the other party trying to sell me something. Again, delete on sight.

You could alternatively make up a form letter to send back to those who are making these requests that clearly states your hourly fees for consulting, and invite them to connect with you if they are interested in hiring you to get your advice.

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    -1; i must really disagree. it is certainly not obvious that one will always be acting in their best interests (Mr. Talbert doesn't even know what the OP's interests are) by deleting emails on sight (presumably unread). use your spam filter. tune your spam filter (if you can) to weed out egregiously bad solicitations. but if some organization does not appear, at first glance, to not fall into the set of those you strongly support and you summarily delete that email unread, you may very well be acting not in your own best interest. – robert bristow-johnson Jan 5 '18 at 4:46
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I would write an FAQ. No, not as bad as http://www.dourish.com/goodies/see-figure-1.html, but still good enough to direct the non-academics to an appropriate place (away from you). In particular, the FAQ should state which questions you are likely to ignore and why the person should not wonder when they get no answer. According to https://pty.pe/bad-ux-faqs/, FAQs "unleash a user experience you don’t want on your current or potential customers". They "tell people who don’t like to read to read more." That's exactly what you want to do with your non-customers (outside academia) who prefer to ask you!

If you are impudent enough, take a different, perhaps an even better approach: direct the people with all the really useless questions to your worst academic enemy. ;-)

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