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With networks like ResearchGate and Academia.edu, it's easy to connect with and follow researchers from a variety of different nations and backgrounds. I personally think this is great, and I hope such networks can help reduce redundancy in research.

Every now and then, though, I get a request from someone whose English is poor enough that it obscures meaning, and they are usually from a non-Western country with limited access to research materials. Recently, I received an e-mail from a PhD student wanting me to suggest a thesis topic.

I'm all for helping people, especially if they are bright and eager and trying to work their way out of a crappy situation. But I honestly have no idea how to respond to such an e-mail. I intend to ask for more information about who the student's advisor is, what people in their group work on, etc. But are there are other things I should keep in mind? Is there anything I should be wary of?

P.S. I'm trying to choose my words carefully-- I don't want to play "Western savior," but I also acknowledge I have a real advantage as a Westerner and don't want to lightly dismiss a request for help when it could have a real impact on the student.

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I would suggest, unfortunately, that you refrain from giving students research topics. That is, unless you are able to continue to guide them through their degrees remotely. I doubt that you are able to do that, hence my recommendation.

It would be different, of course, if the request were coming from the advisor of such a student. In that case, you can examine what it might be that the advisor is most capable of doing for the student.

As a positive response to the student, and a general one that requires minimal tailoring in each case, is to ask the student to connect with a local advisor and, if the advisor is unable to come up with something, to have that advisor contact you.

But I think that local advice will be needed for nearly every student. In the very rare exceptions, the initial letter will probably make that clear.

1

I would answer that I am active on Academia StackExchange where there is, for very good reason, a rule:

“Shopping” questions, which seek recommendations or lists of individual universities, academic programs, publishers, journals, research topics, or similar as an answer or seek an assessment or comparison of such, are off-topic here.

Developing a research topic is a key part of the academic process. Asking an academic to pick a research topic for you is like asking a teacher to do your homework. Even though they may not have intended it, it is really quite rude to expect someone to provide you a research topic.

Then I would wish them luck and move on.

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    Isn't it possible the student just doesn't know any better, due to the censorship or paywall he's behind? Perhaps he didn't intend to ask that point-blank, but without access to the greater community simply has no idea? – artificial_moonlet May 21 at 16:26
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    @artificial_moonlet That's partly why I'd let them know it's a bit rude. It's another thing if they want to discuss research topics and have come somewhat prepared. – Bryan Krause May 21 at 16:28
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If you want to interact with them, just suggest some literature to read. But honestly, I wouldn't even do that. You don't need to be "in the West" to fire up a Google search. There are a lot of resources available for someone with a curious mind to develop ideas from. I suspect the issue with your lack of topic people is much more a lack of initiative (expecting canned answers) versus lack of resources.

P.s. This site (not telling questioners to "do the Google search") is really the wrong model for how you help young people in real life. That's fine for this site. It can be whatever it wants to be. But don't assume that this is right mode for real life.

P.s.s. No paywall whining either. I have zero academic access now, myself. But you can still find a bevy of things on the Web for free. If you are just trying to develop ideas, there is no need for a specific journal article. And libraries hold the major journals, even overseas. If kids are too lazy to get to the library...let them sink.

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