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I am an undergraduate student pursuing a double major in Computer Science B.S. and Mathematics B.S.

My dream career is to work in quant. finance. However, my school does not have a dedicated department to this field, resulting in lack of dedicated classes and opportunities for it. The page for "Mathematical Finance" is simply a white page with nothing but a list of three faculty members, linking to their page, two of which are Ph.D students.

I have found an associate professor who I believe can help answer a few of my questions and confusion about going down this path, but I have read a little here and generally, emails like this are frowned upon, and the last thing I want is for him to be offended by my request.

However, I don't really know any other professors or faculty members who would be able to give me insight on this.

My email would start off something like this

"I would just like to start off this email by saying please excuse me and forgive any informalities or unprofessionalism. I hope to not offend you with this sudden email from a student you do not know. I have found your email and page from MyCollege's "Mathematical Finance" page: mycollege.com/mathematical-finance"

Then I would say something along the lines of "given your expertise, what courses/concepts are important...what steps should I take now..."

And then finally I'd say something like "I know you are incredibly busy with research, school, among other things, so I hope you do not mind this email."

I will also make sure not to completely bombard him with questions, but ask general, non-pressuring questions.

Is this a bad idea? I am not quite sure where else to get in contact with someone in this field with such close proximity, and aside from LinkedIn with people I will probably never meet, this seems like my best bet.

EDIT: this might be a duplicate of OK to ask a professor at my institution with whom I have no previous relationship some questions relating to hobby-project? but this is about a community college professor who is not doing research, which may be different from my circumstances, also his is about a hobby, while mine is about career and industry.

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    I was a staff member at a US university for 20 years. Anytime I got an email that apologized for writing it, I tossed in the trash without reading any further.
    – NomadMaker
    Feb 8 at 22:14
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    @NomadMaker Why? Did you only want to correspond with a certain kind of person? Feb 9 at 0:54
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    @NomadMaker Perhaps it might be worth reflecting on whether a process that involves deliberately ignoring everybody who contacts you without a requisite amount of confidence and boldness could be outright discriminatory? I am thinking in particular of differences in communication styles that are often socialized through cultural and gender differences. Some people are taught from an early age to apologize frequently, and that manifests in their writing; they're just as worth listening to as anyone else. Feb 9 at 3:48
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    @NomadMaker Personally I immediately ignore anyone who doesn't approach me with the correct amount of groveling and apology. Anyone who assumes that what they have to say is worth my time is obviously over-inflating their own importance and thus clearly an unfit judge of how important something is. Someone who recognizes that they are unworthy of even being in my presence is at least likely to keep it to the absolute minimum necessary and only present the truly important things. Feb 9 at 14:49
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    @NomadMaker: Due to the Dunning-Kruger effect, many brilliant people might feel the need to apologize for the things they still don't know, while ignoramuses won't even care and write e-mails full of confidence. You're free to read the emails you want. Feb 9 at 16:35
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It is completely fine to send an email. Your request is totally reasonable. You are a student, at university to learn. The professor is at university to teach. If they get offended by a simple enquiry that shows interest in learning more about their favourite subject then you have a bigger problem on your hands.

It will not be the first or even the hundredth time this professor has received an email from a student they don't know and writing such an email is not going to cause offence in any way, shape or form. The worst that can happen is you get a polite "Sorry, I am too busy" or perhaps no reply. The professor will not be offended by you asking -- in fact, it's more likely they will be annoyed or frustrated that they don't have the time to help you, not at you for asking.

Finally, I would not start off with such a grovelling/self-deprecating tone. There's no need to apologise for sending a perfectly innocuous email. However, please bear in mind that academic cultures do differ, and I'm writing from a UK/Western European perspective, where the culture can be a little more blunt and far less deferential towards authority (i.e. professors) than in the USA (where I assume you are from). To me it would come across as more professional if you write to them as though you are a peer wanting to initiate a scientific discussion, rather than as a lowly student who isn't worthy to interact with an esteemed professor.

In summary, the best thing to do is make sure your email is short, polite and to the point. Briefly introduce yourself, ask your question and thank them in advance for their time.

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    Good advice here. An option I'd suggest that also keeps the first email short is to simply introduce yourself along with your field of interest and ask for a conversation about advice for your future. You don't need detail in the first email.
    – Buffy
    Feb 8 at 13:24
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    I would not start off with such a grovelling/self-deprecating tone --- To me (in the USA) this part was absolutely cringeworthy, but cultures do differ. Aside from the cringeworthy aspect, it also seems much too long of a preamble, and I can imagine someone really busy, who also gets a lot of these types of emails, not bothering to read far enough to get to the point of the email. Feb 8 at 13:26
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    Echoing Dave, the US is probably not the best counterexample to UK/Western Europe on expectations of grovelling. Far far better to cut that out and get to the meat of the message so the reader doesn't need to wade through it. Tell who you are and what you want as direct and succinctly as possible to increase the odds someone will reply.
    – Bryan Krause
    Feb 8 at 14:10
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    "Briefly introduce yourself" = " I am <name-family name>, B.Sc student in Computer Science & Mathematics" will suffice. @simonshampoo don't limit yourself, if in your school you have two Ph.D affiliated with MathFin, they may be doing a lot of interesting work (search them in Google Scholar or in Scopus) and your school webpage simply being neglected. I am not pushing you to send cold e-mail, but writing concise emails to "just" Ph.Ds may open up the door to talking directly with their professor. A today's PhD may be professor in 2-3 years.
    – EarlGrey
    Feb 8 at 14:10
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    Keep it short, simple, polite, and formal. “Dear Prof. X, I am an undergraduate at your school majoring in Y with an interest in Z as a career. I saw on the webpage for Z that you have some knowledge about that area. Would it be possible to meet with you about this? Thanks so much for your time, YourName” Feb 8 at 14:28
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This is coming from a US perspective, so take that as you will.

Professors are pretty busy and generally just want to cut to the chase. A good email is one that is written clearly and concisely enough that it can be scanned in a few seconds and the gist of what you want to say is clear. Often after a quick scan the professor will decide if they are interested and want to reread it more carefully.

That being said:

  • Introduce yourself briefly: Name, undergraduate, major, interested in X
  • State what you want clearly and briefly. One bite-size paragraph for each key idea (~3 sentences each) has worked well for me in the past.
  • If you want you can close with something like "given your expertise in this area I would love to get your input, but I understand if you are pressed for time".
    • Since it is a given that professors are incredibly busy, however, I might consider leaving this off. Some people don't like it when you state the obvious, while others might view it as a courtesy, it's really your call.
  • Showing a bit of passion can be good. If fin. tech is really your 'dream' job then try to convey that in some way (just saying, "its my dream to work in x" is good enough). Professors are often very passionate about their work and like to help students that share some of that passion too.

I also think you should consider whether you want to ask to meet with them briefly rather than discuss things over email. Many professors are more than happy to share their wisdom and expertise with students. If you are more comfortable with email though then that is certainly fine.

If you do want to meet, then in the 'state what you want section' mention you want to pursue mathematical finance, that there is no apparent program at the university, that you are looking for guidance on what to study, and ask if they would be interested in a brief conversation about it sometime.

Don't be worried about these sorts of emails having a 'bad reputation'. The kind of emails that actually have a bad reputation are low-effort correspondence, often from lazy or entitled students. That is not the case at all here, your university is not setup to provide what you want and this professor is uniquely positioned to be able to help you. At worst he will read it, be too busy, and just move on without a second thought.


What to Avoid

Don't grovel like you did in your proposed intro, apologizing for any perceived offenses your email might be about to commit. This doesn't help the professor know who you are, what you want, or why he should keep reading the email and will likely come off as rather irritating. The professor fully understands the situational dynamics, so there is no need to make them explicit. Just stick to the facts. (quantitative people especially tend to like this)

As long as you are polite, direct, and respectful you should be fine.

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Don’t over think it I would drop a brief email saying as you wrote above I’m @simonshampoo studying Math and CS and have questions a, b , and c and was wondering if I could pop in during your office hours (or your university’s equivalent), or some other convenient time, to discuss.

You don’t need to be apologetic (as @astronat ‘s answer rightly notes ). Few faculty are going to decline to see serious students with interest in their area. I get such requests from time to time, mostly from maths majors, and have always found them interesting conversations. Many (most?) faculty, dislike answering questions which are available via google, but are often pleased to answer those in their area which are not.

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    +1, though probably better to request an online meeting at the moment, rather than in person office hours.
    – astronat
    Feb 8 at 23:35
  • Indeed! Although I think many people continue to hold something similar online (like a zoom room, for example) Feb 9 at 0:51
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Nothing wrong with writing to this professor, but this professor maybe isn't the best resource to answer your questions. In particular, you mention that this is a community college--professors at community colleges can vary hugely in how much time and experience they have for things like this. On one hand, you have younger faculty who are just trying to make ends meet while they complete their own education/try to find a tenure-track job at a "real" university... On the other hand, you can have old industry veterans who only teach part time as a hobby and who would love to tell you all about their experiences.

  1. Career services at your school (especially community colleges generally focus on providing career-oriented curriculum, so career services are usually pretty good).
  2. Your academic advisor(s)...it is literally their job to help you decide what to study. In particular, they might be able to suggest some related areas that you have not considered, like stats or data science, which may be more available at your school. Also, they hopefully have some connections inside your department(s) and know who might actually have the knowledge and the time to talk to you.
  3. The internet. There are literally a million results for what to study and how to get into quant, and if none of them seem specific enough to you then you can always post your own question.
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Although I agree with the other answers that professors receive such e-mails every day and would not be offended to receive one from you, I would caution you against writing this e-mail: "what courses/concepts are important...what steps should I take now..." What is the professor going to tell you? Let me Google that for you? Such an e-mail does not show signs of having "done the homework" and will not make a good first impression. If you have a request to make of a busy person, it should be something they are uniquely qualified to help you with. This kind of general information could be found anywhere, particularly here on StackExchange.

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I know there is already an accepted answer, but let me suggest another option if it is convenient: Go by the professor's office in person. He almost certainly has office hours, and you could also call and arrange a specific time. An in-person conversation would give you a chance to clarify questions, and honestly it would also reduce the chance that he would sincerely mean to reply later and then forget.

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