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Last year, I asked my physics professor a question that he did not know the answer to. This year, while doing a research paper, I also figured out the answer to the question I asked him. I want to send an email to my professor explaining the answer I found simply because he's a curious guy.

Typically, if I asked something that the professor didn't know, I'd email them a few days later saying:

Hi Dr. Professor, after some reading, I figured out the answer to why so-and-so happens. Here's what I learned.

But since it's been so long, he definitely doesn't remember what I asked him. So I'd like to remind him what my question was. However, writing:

"Hi Dr. Professor, last year I asked you a question that you did not know the answer to, and this year, I figured it out. Here's what the question was, and here's what I learned"

sounds a bit insulting to me, because I'm writing that he didn't know the answer. What is a good way to share an answer with a professor without being "insulting"? Am I just overthinking this?

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    Just a mini nitpick / quick heads up that "Hi Dr. Professor" would be a non-standard greeting. If in doubt, always stick to "Dear Professor X,". (Hello and hi usually work too but some professors would consider it too informal.) – user2705196 Oct 4 at 12:32
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    "Hi Dr. Professor" would definitely be unusual in North America. And most of Europe that I'm familiar with. – user2705196 Oct 4 at 14:08
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    @user2705196 I think there's a chance that the OP was just using the word Professor as a placeholder for the person's surname. – Brian R Oct 4 at 14:22
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    Don't obsess over it. Just. Do. It. – Buffy Oct 4 at 16:04
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    Use "we". "We did not know the answer to." – NDEthos Oct 4 at 20:43
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I think there is an easy way to phrase this to make it tactful, after all professors are often curious about learning new things too!

"Hello Professor X, I hope you've been well! Last year I asked you a question and we couldn't figure it out at the time but I've since come across an interesting answer and just wanted to pass along the info just in case you're curious. We were discussing Y ... "

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    I would suggest to replace 'last year I asked a question' with 'last year we discussed a question/[or problem]..' – lalala Oct 4 at 11:46
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    I would also open with a compliment. Something like "Dear Professor X, I really enjoyed your classes last year....", then go on to mention the question and answer. This will serve to positively frame your question. – Matthew Martin Oct 4 at 12:40
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    Depending on the professor, you might also say something like "You've probably already found the answer, but I only just discovered <article> that explains it and wanted to share it with you just in case." – aslum Oct 4 at 14:09
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    These comments are getting more and more hand wringy. I guess the next step would be "Professor, I'm sure even if you haven't found the answer, it's only because it's so easy for you that you consider even putting the question into your consciousness a waste of time, and I know I'm a piece of shit, but I wanted to share what is probably not even the correct answer to this problem." – Greg Schmit - Reinstate Monica Oct 4 at 22:01
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    Depending on the field and on the person, even a basic compliment like "I enjoyed your classes" would be too much and considered a waste of time. And "you've probably already found the answer" could even sound rude to some (as if your question was supposed to be important). I especially look the maths/CS and physics way :) – yo' Oct 4 at 22:38
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As an alternative to Juan's answer (roughly in the same spirit), I suggest that you can phrase the email regarding the issue itself--since presumably the professor would also be interested in knowing the answer to the problem. Something like the following should suffice.

Hi Professor XY, recently I learnt about [...], which seemed really interesting to me because [...]. If you recall, this is similar to what we discussed a while ago regarding ABC, which is what prompted me to look into this further. I thought I would send this to you in case you happened to be interested in it. Have a nice day!

The point is to focus on the part which the professor would also be curious about/interested in, and to not dwell on the fact that they weren't aware of the answer beforehand.

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    I find this answer more tactful than the chosen one. – Rui F Ribeiro Oct 4 at 17:19
  • @RuiFRibeiro While I agree, I think perhaps the professor would be more likely to dismiss this version because it starts with discussing the new information without indicating why this would be relevant to the professor, so it may only make sense if the information discussed is implicitly of interest to the professor. – Pharap Oct 7 at 7:36
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The polite way to do this in academia is to pose it as a question. This way, you show your humility. You acknowledge that the solution or answer you found might be flawed or incomplete. Also, you open yourself up to collaboration.

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    This is a great answer. I totally agree that it makes sense to phrase a solution as a question not just for politeness but for scientific reasons because there'll often be a discussion about whether the solution actually answers the question! – user2705196 Oct 4 at 12:36
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    I think this is unnecessary. The OP is saying that much later he/she discovered an answer to a question that both admitted not knowing at the time. There is no reason for humility. It would be different if the prof was put on the spot and the OP knew the answer. – Cell Oct 4 at 16:56
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    @Cell - Humility is a habit. The person I have dealt with who had the most humility was my advisor -- and one might have thought he had the least need for it. But it was inherent to his character and his whole outlook on life. – aparente001 Oct 4 at 17:00
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    I would say: pose it as a question if it is actually a question. If the OP is sure they've found the answer, and they are just sharing it to potentially satisfy the professor's curiosity, there's no reason to frame it as a question. Posing it as a question is the same as asking for a favor: to read through and verify the OP's solution. – Jair Taylor Oct 4 at 20:26
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"A few years (semesters?) ago we were discussing the issue of _____ and the specific problem that ______. I recently came across something that brought the topic back to me and discovered that ______. I wanted to share that with you and to see if you have heard of this as well."

This way you are making it something of mutual interest and still being respectful.

5

There are two risks here:

  • Sounding insulting (as you have noticed)
  • Being boring (by bringing up some trivial thing from a year ago)

You should avoid both, because there is nothing to gain from emphasizing them.

Dear [name], lately I've been working on my current [paper/research/assignment] and here's some updates on how that is going. We can talk in more detail in our next meeting.

Incidentally, I ended up learning [thing], which we had discussed in the past. It was interesting to find out that [implication].

I think this is a better answer than the accepted one because:

  • Doesn't remind the professor that he "didn't know" (if it's been a year since, you may even be remembering wrong and perhaps he did know)
  • Doesn't sound petty by referencing something from a year ago
  • Isn't wasting his time with some random thing that hasn't been relevant in a year
  • Sticks to relevant, pertinent things that matter to the work that's here and now, not ancient history

There is of course nothing wrong with discussing history. Sometimes there are unanswered questions that linger for decades or centuries before spurning great discoveries when their time comes. But a productive researcher should maintain focus on priorities. If this thing from a year ago was that important, a year ago wouldn't have been the last time you discussed it. So one has to wonder, if nobody's cared in a year, why should anyone start now? I think answering that question is the most constructive direction to go here.


I wrote the above assuming you have a relationship with the professor already. If you are talking about an undergraduate instructor, the same principles still hold, but a better example template could be:

I have decided to work on [problem], and I wanted to share my findings with you. I actually became interested in this problem due to a discussion we had during our [class]. I have found that [answer], which is [implications].

3

I would add a dimension:

The amount of time spending on the problem:

  • Your professor probably thought a few seconds / minutes about it
  • You probably spend minutes / hours and from your text

This year, while doing a research paper, I also figured out the answer to the question I asked him.

it even sounds that it wasnt your main purpose to answer the question, but you found it while working on a research paper.

So you could include that in your text:

Last year we discussed an interesting question to which we didnt find the answer "ad hoc". I just wanted to inform you that i stumbled upon a clue towards the answer while working on a research paper. In case you are curious,....

0

I am XXX. Last year, we couldn't figure out(state the problem that the professor did not know the asnwer). While reading (State the source of your answer so he can refer to) this year, I realised(state what you found). I just thought it would be nice to share with you.

Kind Regards XXX

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    Hi and welcome to Academia.SE! Could you please expand your answer to better explain your suggestion? As is, it may not meet the quality standards of the site. – Massimo Ortolano Oct 5 at 11:51

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