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Is it normal/acceptable to ask researchers/supervisors you're familiar with (in this case, a professor who supervised me some number of years ago) about other researchers who they've likely to have met? Specifically, I'm having to decide on a researcher to supervise me on a short project, but other than a few emails, I know nothing about their personality/work-style.

I planned to send an email to my old supervisor along the lines of: "How well do you know Professor X? Would you recommend working with them?" (but with more pleasantries). Could this come across as rude, or is this sort've thing expected (in UK/US academia). Also for reference, I'm currently a PhD student in the UK and the researchers I'm asking about are all at US institutions, so I don't have any chance to meet them personally first. I also understand that this is largely dependent on how close you are with the person you ask, but some other opinions would be useful anyway.

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As long as you are sending the letter to someone you know and who will remember something about you, this should be fine. It may actually be necessary to obtain some such information about potential supervisors in a system in which you need to choose a supervisor as part of the application process. Other places there isn't really a need (the US, for example, in most fields).

I doubt that it is necessary to be "friends" with the person you ask, but there should be some likelihood that the one you ask will have some context for the question.

But the expectation is that you will treat any information in confidence.

Moreover, if the professor recommends another to you, they might also be a good choice to recommend you to them if you actually make application.

The need may be less for general collaboration, since you may have the opportunity to communicate with people before you make any binding decisions and get a sense of how they respond. But still, it should be fine, without issues.


Since you mention the US specifically, note that it is fairly rare to need to choose a supervisor as part of the application process. Hiring for TAs and such is mostly (not exclusively) a departmental matter. See How does the admissions process work for Ph.D. programs in Country X?, for general information about doctoral applications various places, including UK and US.

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  • Thanks for your answer - agree with everything you say there, so I guess the question was more for some confirmation. Regarding the US bit and choosing a supervisor, this is for a funded doctoral exchange program, so I need a supervisor to agree in advanced. I emailed a few professors with details, and was surprised that they all came back with a 'yes', so now I'm just trying to make a decision.
    – Eletie
    Feb 21 at 16:42
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Answering the titular question - yes, this kind of information harvesting is completely normal and acceptable.

However, I would exercise caution and opt for a direct contact with the potential supervisor instead if you do not maintain or have maintained a close enough professional relationship with the person you are about to inquire. In other words, if you do not feel comfortable showing up at their door with "hey, I was wondering if you could help me a bit" - do not do that.

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