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For the past few weeks, I have been struggling to understand something and answer a very specific research question. I asked my advisor the same question and he couldn't give me a satisfactory answer.

  1. Is it socially acceptable to bypass my advisor and ask a senior academic the same question?
  2. Does it reflect negatively on my advisor if I bother other academics with my research?

I am an Asian international student studying in the United States and not sure what is the most prudent way to do this. In my country, bypassing ones advisor to ask a senior academic reflects poorly on the advisor and group in general and is implicitly frowned upon.

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    I would say you haven't "bypassed" your advisor at all here. It might be frowned upon to go directly to senior researchers when you have an immediate supervisor, but you've done your due diligence in starting through the appropriate channels. – Nuclear Wang Feb 12 '18 at 19:26
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    "he couldn't give me a satisfactory answer" - it isn't at all clear to me what you mean by this, and the meaning is very important. There's a big difference between your advisor not having the knowledge, and you not understanding the explanation. I would also question whether this is something you should be asking people about versus reading about in the literature. – Bryan Krause Feb 12 '18 at 23:06
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    "Is it politically correct..." "Politically correct" is typically a strongly negative term nowadays, at least in American English. See Wikipedia ("The contemporary usage of the term emerged from conservative criticism of the New Left in the late 20th century."). – jpmc26 Feb 13 '18 at 0:17
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At the heart of this is a interpersonal social question. When a student comes to me with a question I don't know the answer to, I rarely just say sorry I don't know. As an advisor, our goal is to help students learn what they need. When I don't know something, I try and point my students in a direction (textbook, articles, person) where they might be able to find the answer. While I would not be upset if a student "bypassed" me to talk to someone after finding out I did not know the answer, I can imagine some advisors would be.

I suggest you identify the researcher(s) who might know the answer and tell your advisor that you were thinking of contacting this individual. Your advisor might have some valuable insight and tell you not to contact Dr Jones, but instead contact Dr Smith. Your advisor might also give you an introduction or want to be included in any email correspondence so they can learn the answer too. Your advisor might simply say sounds good and leave you to it.

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    I suggest you identify the researcher(s) who might know the answer and tell your advisor that you were thinking of contacting this individual. - This approach would save both the student and the advisor from a lot of potential social pitfalls. It also changes the dynamic from a student asking other professors for help to a conversation between labs. "Dr. StrongBad and I were having a conversation about reproductive behavior in The Cheat and he suggested I ask whether you had experience with the molting behavior." – Bryan Krause Feb 12 '18 at 23:15
  • I would add that even if I know the answer, I would still "try and point my students in a direction (textbook, articles, person) where they might be able to find the answer" – aaaaa says reinstate Monica Feb 13 '18 at 19:30
  • Good answer but I'd like to add one more thing. If you don't check with your advisor first (as StrongBad suggested), you run the additional risk that the person you go to for the second opinion (Prof. Second) might feel uncomfortable as well. Prof. Second might feel squeamish, imagining that your advisor might suspect him/her of trying to poach you. So, all in all, better to be an open book to all concerned. – aparente001 Feb 14 '18 at 4:31
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Research is (often) about cooperation/collaboration. If your advisor doesn't know an answer for a question important for your research, but you have a strong feeling that some other researcher will be able to help you, then you shouldn't hesitate to ask him. As a scientist, you can only benefit from such interaction.

Eventually, the other researcher might be interested in your work, and share with you some (useful for you) ideas. In the future, if you keep in touch with them, you might have a chance to work with them on some other problems that will positively impact your career.


About US specifically, I don't think your advisor would have any objections. But as people are different, if you still feel hesitant, consider asking some colleague (an older PhD student, or a post doc) if this is ok. But I doubt you'll hear not to ask questions anyone other than your advisor.

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    In contrast to this answer, it's unclear from the OP what sort of question this is. If an advisor's students are going around asking elementary questions of other professors, that might reflect poorly on both the advisor and the student. ("Why are Corey's students asking me about the trapezoid rule?") This is different from discussing an open research question in the field, though an unsolicited email to a professor merely because they are senior to your advisor may not make any sense. I think the other answers better capture the potential pitfalls. – Bryan Krause Feb 12 '18 at 23:16
  • @BryanKrause I get your point. I assumed that the OP's question was not about sth like the trapezoid rule, but about a real research problem, e.g. methodology or so. If it's really about sth elementary, then I guess aaaaaa's answer is better suited for such a situation. – user68958 Feb 13 '18 at 5:37
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At the core, that is a question that you are facing. There are many ways to figure something out:

  • google
  • go to library
  • ask colleagues / lab mates
  • ask advisor
  • ask on StackExchange
  • ask someone you have never talked to before

You shouldn't hesitate to use any of these, as long as you show due diligence when asking people. That is, don't jump to emailing professors (or your advisor) until you spend some time figuring problem on your own.

  • as long as you show due diligence when asking people - this is really important, in my opinion. From the OP all we know is OP asked their advisor, did not get the answer they wanted, and now they want to ask other academics based on their seniority. That's not really exercising due diligence (of course there may be detail left out of the OP, I don't mean to be accusatory). – Bryan Krause Feb 12 '18 at 23:10

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