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This question is a followup to this previous question of mine. Let me quickly summarize. I'm a Physics PhD student interested in one particular subfield which appears to be very active and promising. I have studied some key papers about the subject and I do understand them, but I really don't know how to start doing research on the topic. I asked if I could remotely propose some kind of remote collaboration with some postdoc working in the subject to learn and gain experience and by the answer I get that it is indeed OK to do it.

This question is about how to do it so to maximize the chance of success. I know about one postdoc that has several important papers published in the subject. I watched one talk he gave online and he seems very approachable. Moreover in his talk he showed very clearly that there are lots of things to be done in the field.

That said, I would like to send him a message and ask if I could collaborate with him remotely. What I want is to get involved in the research in this fied, help and gain experience.

A first point is that he doesn't know me, nor do I know anyone who knows him. To be honest I don't know anyone who knows people working in the field.

In that scenario, what is the best way to propose such collaboration and how much information should I send with my message?

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    May I ask what does your advisor said? I think his advice might be more field-specific, comparing to the advices you are going to get here.
    – High GPA
    Nov 23 '20 at 0:10
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Decide on what this field means to you and act accordingly. From your post, you are a PhD student and therefore presumably already have a field of study. If this is your first semester it will be a simpler conversation than if this is your sixth. I'm going to assume that you don't want to change your current field of research, but would instead like to work in both fields to some capacity.

Whether your current field and this new one are related, and the extent to which they are related, is also important to consider. If they are basically unrelated, or only tangentially so, then you'd be asking this post-doc to train you to be a collaborator. If they are related well enough, then you'd be a useful collaborator to start with.

I personally would not begin a conversation around collaboration. You appear to be too new to the field to do that. Instead, I would begin by contacting the post-doc about his research, or potentially his talk, and discussing those open problems. Are there any open problems that interest you and the post-doc, and in which you feel you could meaningfully make a contribution? Start talking about your ideas, discuss it as though you are curious in a deeper way than someone who just watched a talk, but still not ready to jump ship and switch fields.

Through those conversations, you'll gain the insights you need to start proposing relevant questions for further research, and from there be able to ask this post-doc about collaboration opportunities. Remember, this person also has their own projects. They probably won't just bring you on to their own because you sent an email. If you can both work on a truly new contribution though that would further your mutual careers, and if this doesn't negatively impact either of your abilities to get done what you need to do already, then it's a better conversation.

So, TL;DR: don't ask to collaborate, just start talking about a mutual interest, and see where it goes.

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  • Hi, thanks for the advice ! I'm in the third semester and this field is the one I really want to work with since my masters, but back then there was no advisor available. For my PhD there was one advisor from a related field interested in the subject who said we could discuss and come up with a project. I dedicated one semestre and a month or two studying the subject, understood quite well, but then he asked what I would do and how I would do it. I had some ideas but he wanted something already concrete.
    – Aegon
    Nov 23 '20 at 17:27
  • My expectation was that we would spend a few meetings discussing these ideas, but it didn't happen. In the end the project became much more closer to his field than to what I wanted, although it is still related. This hasn't been a good thing at all, because I feel I have much more hability with the subject I started with than that of his interest. Finally, although I understand quite well what I studied about the field (in particular I'm able to rederive their results nicely), I still don't know how to propose relevant questions for further research (something I'm quite ashamed of TBH).
    – Aegon
    Nov 23 '20 at 17:27
  • So if I understand it, your advisor's field is not the one you really want, but it's close enough so you'll stick with the PhD? That's reasonable at this point, but it may be relevant to move advisors if that's possible and focus on what you love. Posing good research questions in general is very hard, so I wouldn't worry yet. Personal advice that I didn't take: read more literature first. Even if you think you understand whatthe open problems are. That will help you to refine your questions Nov 23 '20 at 18:59
  • Yes, I'm sticking with it because he seems the closest to the field. BTW, he'd allow me to change the project if I could come up with a well-posed research problem. TBH, while I understand the current results I don't fully understand the open problems, so probably I definitely need to read more. There are quite a few ones that the postdoc told about in his talk and basically said he's working in all of it. Saying that I'm getting started and interested in understanding better the open problems and requesting a few more references to do so would be a good idea to start discussing the subject?
    – Aegon
    Nov 23 '20 at 20:03

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