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Sometimes, I feel to contact some of the eminent researchers in my field for any of the following reasons:

  1. Appreciating their research publication (recent times). They publish in top conferences, which are usually not hosted in my country or nearby.

  2. Requesting comments on some of my research hypothesis

  3. Sometimes just because I am a die hard fan of them. For example, probably the only reason I continued with research in Computer Science was due to Don Knuth.

  4. Sometimes, to know what they think on some specific research area that has propagated due to there work. (Probably looks like some journalistic work)

  5. For knowing how did they tackle the pressures or certain situation during their PhD or research. (Yes, it's vague but these questions come to mind and probably should be answered by oneself or personal interaction, but adding it for the sake of completion)

Since, most of them are located outside my country, I can't visit or phone them. So, how are such emails perceived. Is it appropriate to send such emails, given that they are expected to have very busy schedule and it would probably waste their time?

Though I have mentioned my field as Computer Science, the question should be applicable to all the fields.

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    A polite e-mail can't hurt. Whether you get an answer probably depends on many factors. – gerrit Oct 29 '13 at 16:27
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    Of course, Knuth is a bad example, since he does not read email. Of course that page does note two resticted purpose email address that will be read, but there is zero chance he would reply to any of the above sent to them. – Kevin Cathcart Oct 29 '13 at 20:13
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    You may be interested in this blog post: fourhourworkweek.com/blog/2007/12/10/… – JoelFan Oct 30 '13 at 1:45
  • @KevinCathcart yeah, I knew that. Hence saving money and waiting for a good opportunity to meet him in person :) – krammer Oct 30 '13 at 5:53
  • Many of the criteria you list don't require a famous correspondent. You can learn also learn a great deal from the people in their area who are experts but non preeminent. – Zach H Oct 30 '13 at 15:08
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Here are some of my strayed thoughts.

Think from return of investments, of yours and your idol's

If you ever perceived that your e-mail would be a "waste of their time," then why send it? I feel that most eminent researchers have a trait of "ignore everyone and head for their goal;" getting acknowledgement and acceptance is probably not their primary concern. A specific e-mail describing how their work has inspired your study/project is probably fine, but I wouldn't go so far to expect they would reply and give specific comments on your hypotheses.

From your point of view, instead of using the energy and bandwidth to send the e-mails, there are a lot more you can do:

There are many ways to show your appreciation

First, they would probably like to see their work being formally cited and, more importantly, applied to the field or crossed into other fields. Each idea geminated from their work is an appreciation by itself, and in the mean time you can also enhance your publication and research paradigm. The plus is: if you have done enough of it, the big shot may actually contact you and give comments.

Second, you can help preaching the researcher's ideas and agenda. You can write blogs, answer other people questions, use their works in your journal clubs or lectures, etc. to subtly introduce the researcher's teaching to the public. Better yet, refine the researcher's ideas, and incorporate into yours. Become a spiritual successor with your own unique approach. And let your career be inspired by the researcher.

You can learn from someone without establishing communication

For some more senior researchers, look for their auto-biography, biography, interviews, and documentaries that feature them. I will probably never be able to talk to Itzhak Perlman, but I learned a lot about him through books, websites, documentaries, and musics that he plays. (And actually, he has a Youtube channel as well, but I am suffering from too much fanboy shyness to write any comment.)

For younger researchers, try look for their blogs, Youtube channels, open courses, or even biographies of their mentors. All these may help you become more familiar with them.

Another way is to indirectly know them. Most of these researchers would have a lot of students or proteges, who may be closer to your rank and more likely to communicate with you. You may build a relationship with them, and learn a thing or two about their interaction with their mentor.

Try technology

For their new publications... nowadays most online journals allow leaving comments online. You may try to say a nice thing or two there. If they write a blog, that's even easier. Some researchers maintain a LinkedIn page or a Twitter account, try connect with them and follow them. Hope for the best.

Use other famous people as leverage

If you really want to communicate with them, also try using other organizations. For instance, you can write to some online radio station and suggest an interview topic and some guests, which of course will include your idolized researcher. You can also write to some prominent podcast hosts and give them a couple reason to invite so and so for an interview. Make good use of crowdsourcing, invite your peers and friends to support your petition.

Some heroes/heroines are better left a bit mysterious

This is sad but occasionally painfully true. Some famous people are better left not known at personal level. They could be immensely arrogant, they may not have a nanogram of social skill, they may be a jerk... Unless I have reconstructed a pretty concrete and reliable image about the researcher from different sources, I would probably want to keep them as what they are in my mind, and as an inspiration for my work.

17

While many of these topics are excellent points to start a 1-1 conversation, I seriously doubt whether you'd get much of a response over email. This is not to say that they wouldn't appreciate your praise, but that there may not be anything to reply to in particular.

I suspect an email will get a better response if you have specific questions about research content: ideally, a question related to something in a recent paper that isn't entirely obvious. For example, in my field it's sometimes the case that someone sketches a proof idea in a conference paper without a full version, and fleshing this out requires some clarification from the authors.

Of course, you can always add in a question from your list as extra cargo. Then it's a little more likely that someone will reply.

More generally, think about it this way: if you never met someone before, and they came up to you and asked you questions that might be construed as personal (especially 5), or that require you to come up with opinions on the fly (2,4), you might hesitate to respond. The same thing, but without the pressure to say something, will happen over email.

4

In a nutshell: Sending a polite email on an appropriate topic is pretty much always acceptable. However, don’t automatically expect an answer.


The second part is important. The eminent researcher is probably a busy person, and you have no particular moral claim on their time and attention. Don’t make it sound like you feel entitled to their assistance — “Hey Mr. Tao! I need to understand the Green–Tao theorem for my masters thesis. Please can you explain it to me in simple terms? P.S. my thesis is due next Tuesday.” And don’t be disappointed if they don’t reply.

That said, don’t despair either — don’t feel “oh, it’s not worth writing because they’ll never reply to a nobody like me”! Some may well be too busy or dismissive, but many are also genuinely kind people, and very generous with their help. Others (I have a specific rather famous person in mind here) are simply incorrigible curiosity-hounds, and will happily get caught up for hours by an intriguing problem from a random stranger when they’re supposed to be grading final exams. So they may well reply — just don’t presume it.


On the other hand: what’s an appropriate topic?

  • Questions about their research can be fine, provided you’ve done your homework. For instance, I had a question on mathoverflow recently which looked like it might have been answered by a particular researcher, but nobody could find the specific paper, and it was possibly unpublished. Writing to ask e.g. “Do you recall which of your papers on $\tau$-categories might contain or imply a result something like […]?” is certainly OK.

  • Questions about practical matters that may be their responsibility are good — at worst they can always hand it off to someone else. “I’m applying to your department’s PhD programme, and it wasn’t clear to me from the website if students are expected to have a potential advisor in advance. If so, are you potentially accepting new students at the moment? I am very interested in your work because…”

  • Plain fan mail is OK, as long as it’s sincere and you’re not trying to get something for it! Nobody’s going to mind hearing “Please excuse my writing out of the blue; I just wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed your talk at such-and-such conference. As a non-specialist, I really appreciate the effort you put into making it accessible to a wide audience.” However, if this is followed up by “Incidentally, I am applying for a job at such-and-such department. Do you have any insider advice you can share?” then the initial compliments will look a lot less sincere. Don’t do this!

  • Possibly questions about your own research. The two big questions here are: again, have you done your homework; and is there a good reason why you’re asking them, not someone else? Asking “I read your paper, and had an idea of how to generalise Theorem 5.3, by such-and-such approach. Do you know if somebody is already working on this question, or is it open?” should be fine. Asking “I had such-and-such new idea in your field. Can you spare the time to give me feedback?” makes you sound a bit like a crank — for this, you should be running it by a colleague first, or a colleague-of-a-colleague, or if you don’t know anyone close to the field yet, try and find someone less famous and with at least some specific connection to you (e.g. geographically closer) that you can write to first.

What’s not appropriate:

  • Asking for significant favours (unless you have a personal connection of some sort).

  • Asking them to explain their research to you because you don’t want to read their papers. (That’s what helpful strangers in internet forums are for!)

  • Personal questions (unless you’re a serious journalist writing e.g. a book on drug use among academics; but in that case you should know about how to get in touch with sources appropriately already).

1

We can be exahustive here.

If they feel like writing that kind of things to strangers then they most likely have a blog that you can follow, that saves a lot of time for them, by broadcasting. If they do, you can write comments in the blog, that could be appropriate and extend posts and discussion, which is good for them (a chance to clarify something), for you (getting answers, yay!) and for anyone that reads the post and then the comments (and doesn't need to ask the same again...).

If they don't feel like writing that kind of things to strangers then most probably they won't reply. In that case you will be wasting their time (that's bad) and your time (that's worse; selfsteem, please :P ). Thus that's probably not very wise.

If you have questions not covered in the aforementioned blogs, you can ask here, to a crowd of anonymous people. There are many people giving great answers (really, I know my profile is the closest one in distance, but you should check somewhere else). I know we are not so famous and important and wise and everything, but we try to do our best and even if we can understand that you may prefer the advise of other people, we still have a little heart and that hurts. :(

:P Personally, I think it is normal to feel admiration for people that basically are, in some aspect or another, what you want to be and struggle to be in the future. It is probably useful and interesting to get some insight from them, and understand their perspective (personal and professional) on many questions, if you are going to idealize someone and have an idol, probably a rock star is a worse option than a researcher, but I'm not sure whether idealizing and idolizing researchers is any good anyway...

This answer may be biased because I tend to underestimate the relevance of mentoring and I consider more important talent and hard work. I'm also to some extent opposite to you, I admire and appreciate some people, but I'm more introverted, so my natural reaction is thinking to myself: "Stay quiet and don't bother them, you despicable maggot!" (This is clearly worse than idolizing them).

As a final advise, keep your extroversion, it's good for you. That means you will have plenty of things to speak about when you go to a conference and chances to do so. You will love conferences, so focus on publishing to go there (you should focus on publishing anyway). If you like visiting places then that's another big plus.

So work hard and remember, we (a bunch of anonymous people) will always be here whenever you need us, remember us when you get to be famous. Also, write a blog.

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