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From Is it appropriate (as a PhD student) to email other researchers asking about some details in their papers?, I get that generally you will get answer if you ask question on their work. But what if your question is tangent to their work, and requires some space to elaborate?

The draft is below:

Dear Prof X

To introduce myself, my name is Y, from country Z. I have read some pages in your book about the connection between [concept A in field 1] and [concept B in field 2]. I wonder what do you think about the connection between [concept C in field 1] and [concept D in field 2]?

[16 lines and 184 words to elaborate the connection. I don't consider this as a wall of text]

I also have a blog article explaining all my observations about the connection between field 1 and field 2. It may take only 5 minutes to read.

Thank you for your reading. Hope you enjoy it.

Some notes:

  • I haven't read his book enough to say that I know a large portion of it (just skimming it), but I can say that I understand A, B, C, D at least in introductory level.
  • I don't have any institute, but I think my culture is relevant to field 1, so perhaps it can be a kind of expertise/institute?
  • I may apply to his school in the future


Related: How do researchers send unsolicited emails asking for feedback on their works?

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    No one that doesn't know you personally would read such a long email. Most probably won't even get to the not-a-wall-of-text before deleting it. – Andrés E. Caicedo Mar 30 at 16:49
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    Why not write that you've been reading some papers that they have authored and have thought of some questions, so you're wondering if they'd be willing to discuss some of your ideas with you. – Clayton Mar 30 at 18:11
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    Your email appears to be quite lengthy, however, I do not really see the PURPOSE of it. So, you ask a question, but what do you except from the receiver? Are you looking for collaboration, for new ideas, ...? If you want to get an answer, be precise and state the purpose of your email clearly. – J-Kun Mar 30 at 20:40
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    This comes across as the kind of question that people ask not because they are interested in the answer, but because they want people to listen to their point of view which they explain in a very long premise that comes before the question. – Federico Poloni Mar 30 at 21:24
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    Since you haven't read the whole book, how certain are you that it doesn't describe (or deny) a connection between C and D? – Andreas Blass Mar 31 at 22:41
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As a busy person who receives these sorts of emails, my response to email tends to fall into two categories:

  1. I can respond to this right now, and get it out of my queue.
  2. I'm going to need to think about this some, I guess I'll put it off for later... and later turns out to be days, weeks, or months before it surfaces again, if ever.

Unfortunately, your draft email above will most definitely fall into category #2.

  • "What do you think about..." is an open-ended request for an essay. Is one sentence enough, or a page, or a full scientific paper?
  • You want the reader to digest 16 lines of technical discussion with an unclear goal of evaluation.
  • You also want the reader to go read your blog post, which makes me wonder if that's the real point of this.

You've thus got 3 different things you're asking of the reader, none of which actually says what you really want to get out of the interaction.

And that's the real problem: why are you writing to this person?

  • Do you have an answerable question they can help you with? (i.e., not "what do you think..." but "Does Concept A actually mean that Red Ones Go Faster?")
  • Do you want to show them your work and see if they think it makes sense?
  • Do you just want them to be aware that you exist?
  • Something else?

When you figure out what you most want, focus the email on precisely one thing that can be addressed quickly, and try to keep the whole thing to only 3-4 sentences. If you can do that, you also will have forced yourself to be clear enough about what you want that a useful answer is much more likely.

  • If my purpose is to ask them an answerable question, then would they have time to answer? The question does not relate to his direct work (or which I'm aware of), but does relate to his field in general. I'm still not sure how to ask the question without explanation. It's like asking a question on Stack Exchange only in the title and leave the question body empty. – Ooker Apr 1 at 13:21
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    @Ooker Again: what is the underlying purpose behind writing to this person? I'm certain that "to ask an answerable question" isn't it, because you can ask answerable questions in many other places too. – jakebeal Apr 1 at 14:37
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If you write to a senior person the chances to get an answer are low. In order to improve your chances I can recommend:

  1. Keep it as short as possible. You need to catch interest within the first 3-5 seconds in your email. The chances for an answer decrease with the length of your email. In connection with this:
  2. Don't waste their time ("To introduce myself, my name is Y, from country Z")
  3. Start with something very positive e.g. "I was very excited to read your XYZ - especially how you described the connection between A and B" (researcher really like to hear this - but again: keep it short and do not overdo it with the honey here)
  4. Quote a mutual connection e.g. "Prof X (whom he knows personally) suggested to get in contact with you" (but only write this if it is true!)
  5. If the professor needs to open a link or can not answer the email within 2-3 min (sometimes on his phone during a boring meeting) then your chances are pretty slim if your cause for contacting him is not groundbreaking.
  6. Give him an easy way to answer. Instead of asking him to explain give a yes/no option. For example instead of "I wonder what do you think about the connection between [concept C in field 1] and [concept D in field 2]" write "I was wondering if the connection between [concept C in field 1] and [concept D in field 2] could be interpretedin way A or do you think B might be more appropriate?

The PhD comics nicely summarize this here.

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