I’m stuck in my research (I'm a PhD student) with a task/question that neither I nor my advisor are knowledgeable about (we are looking for vendors of a niche item and have had very little success in that). I have found a group on campus that I think may use this tech (based on their published research) and I want to reach out to a grad student there that I think may know where they get this tech from or who makes it for them.

Would it be inappropriate to email them just to ask this question? It isn’t really a scientific question so I don’t want it to come across in a bad way.

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    Grad students are always looking for any reason to procrastinate. Always.
    – J. Mini
    Commented Apr 9, 2021 at 16:51
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    If anything, they'll be delighted. Those emails are my favourite emails. Commented Apr 11, 2021 at 8:56
  • How is that about Academia, or any other area of specific interest, as opposed to simple communication? Who do you think will ever mind if you say something like "Sorry to contact you out of the blue and I hope you don't mind if I ask you (blah lah lah…) …?" Commented Apr 11, 2021 at 19:27
  • @RobbieGoodwin, if this scenario was taking place outside of Academia then it would not be a question. The question is about unique communication aspects of academia. Many questions are like this on Academia and other parts of stack exchange such as the workplace
    – user74671
    Commented Apr 11, 2021 at 21:13
  • @user74671 Thanks and I suggest there's nothing unique to Academia about that Question. You're welcome to Post some explanations in Chat and please consider what kind of problem the Answers or other Comments here see… or even ask your own colleagues? Commented Apr 18, 2021 at 23:37

3 Answers 3


Nope, this would be totally appropriate.

If they don't respond, your advisor could escalate to their advisor.

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    But possibly ignored as many cold emails get ignored. But, if your advisor asks them, or their advisor, it changes the game.
    – Buffy
    Commented Apr 8, 2021 at 15:43
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    @Buffy The same goes for professors getting emails. All else being equal, I would estimate a larger chance of success emailing a grad student than a professor. Commented Apr 8, 2021 at 15:47
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    @AzorAhai-him- yes this is why I chose to email a grad student haha I know the professor would not respond. I think if I was the one getting the email I’d be happy to help if I could, but I wasn’t sure if it would come across as lazy
    – user74671
    Commented Apr 8, 2021 at 15:51
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    @user74671 Why would the professor not answer you? You are not a invisible lab rat or sone underspecies. You are looking for solution of your problem and they may have the answer. Phrase it well, show the interest and you might be surprised.
    – Crowley
    Commented Apr 8, 2021 at 15:53
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    +1 I'll add: Go visit the group (covid restrictions permitting).
    – user2768
    Commented Apr 8, 2021 at 18:03

Under recent circumstances (Covid lockdown) the e-mail asking for either collaboration or details of their equipment is sufficient. Just phrase it well. You don't need to hesitate to ask the professor or department head and other officials.

Answering this question two years earlier (no plague) I would recommend you going to their department and asking face to face. Either the students or professor/officials.

Think of it like a conference - even there the students are talking to the professors, how else the research seniors can communicate their knowledge to the younger ones?

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    Answering this question two years earlier, I would still suggest sending an email first, asking if they used a certain type of equipment - followed by a face to face meeting if the answer was yes.
    – Sabine
    Commented Apr 9, 2021 at 8:38
  • I also appreciate face to face contact but at a large university such as mine, finding the group's lab/office may even be challenging. Or lab may be in secured building that you maybe shouldn't be wandering around. Not to mention could be a mile away. I think an email at least asking to arrange to meet would be more appropriate
    – user74671
    Commented Apr 11, 2021 at 21:08

I agree with the other answers that this is entirely appropriate. If reaching out to this one group doesn't yield results, it may be useful to cast a wider net by using a departmental (or similar) mailing list.

  • This suggestion may be good in some cases but i think it would be inappropriate in the current case. I don’t want to give too many details but it would basically be a question like “does anyone know a good mechanic” except for a scientific service. Such an email would be very uncommon in my department at least
    – user74671
    Commented Apr 10, 2021 at 22:14
  • @user74671 Sure, it depends on departmental customs. In physics departments I've seen a fair number of "is anyone familiar with X", "does anyone know how to repair Y" and "does anyone have a spare Z they're willing to loan out" emails, but YMMV.
    – Anyon
    Commented Apr 11, 2021 at 1:06

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