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This hasn't directly happened to me, but it's come close. Basically I meet a professor for other reasons (I attended a talk by them, I requested a recommendation from them, during a social visit to their department, etc), and we talk about their work. They are clearly very passionate about their subject, and they eventually offer further collaboration with e.g. "We have this open position and are looking to hire. Would you like to apply?"

Problem is, I don't find their work very interesting. What is a good way to say I don't intend to collaborate further because I don't find the topic interesting? What if we are already collaborating, but I intend to end the collaboration because I lost interest in the topic? Does it matter if the topics (i.e. the one I work on / would like to work on vs. the one the professor works on) are different niches in the same subject, or if they are completely disjoint? For example, if I'm a number theorist, do I respond differently to a professor in algebra or to a professor in medicine?

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  • 45
    "Professors" aren't arcane creatures who must be talked to in ritual ways. Just tell them as you would tell anyone else you aren't interested in an offer they made you.
    – N.I.
    May 27 at 13:35
  • 17
    Tactfully...
    – Valorum
    May 27 at 16:07
  • ...Flashbacks to when my semantics prof told me excitedly about his research project. It was on problems of cardinal number reference in the event of a tie. "If two people cross the line at the exact same moment, there is no first-place winner. If so, we can't name a second-place winner because we have no first. Then how can we have a third when the next person crosses the line?" he asked triumphantly. "They're both first," I said. "They tied!" He seemed dismayed by this response. I had not perceived the profundity of the problem. To be fair, though, he was a good teacher. May 29 at 13:54
  • 4
    As a professor, you'd rather have someone say they want to focus on something else, than to agree to work with you and do a half-hearted job.
    – MechMK1
    May 30 at 10:53
  • What kind of trouble/problems do you expect just honestly saying what you think? If I personally were the professor (and I have been in a situation like that), I'd just note that collaboration is not going to happen and move on. Why would I even bother at all whether somebody I probably have no dealings with in the future is interested in my work? Jun 1 at 12:45

6 Answers 6

33

Be polite but direct. "Thanks for thinking of me. I'm really looking for opportunities in [area] - I think that's where my research interests lie."

But consider (depending on your career stage) if you might find the collaboration interesting or useful after all. I didn't have much interest in my PhD topic when I started it, but it led me to all sorts of fascinating places.

If you're already collaborating with someone and it isn't working out, that's trickier. It's probably worth looking for a natural stopping point if you can (a publication or the end of a grant perhaps). Again, polite but direct - "I think our interests are diverging - I'm hoping to do more work in [area] and I don't think this research is leading in that direction."

16

Actually, I recommend keeping such thoughts to yourself. There is really no need to say you aren't interested. It is hard to say it in such a way that isn't negative since they are highly committed to their own path.

If offered collaboration just say, "Sorry, but I'm too busy/involved in my own research to be able to offer anything".

If breaking an existing collaboration, express it as an opportunity to pursue a new direction that will take all your efforts.

At most, "Sorry, but my interests are elsewhere" is about as far as you should go.

But to, in essence, say to someone that their research is boring isn't going to be helpful to anyone. Let them be them and you be you.

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    I wonder how realistic it may be to say to them that you are too busy right now to consider anything else. 1) However busy you are finishing off the current work, you just have to be looking ahead to finding your next position - otherwise you'll find yourself on welfare ! 2) The said professor may have already been told by one of his contemporaries in your department that you are looking around for a new job. Surely a respectful - even friendly - "Thanks for telling me, I appreciate it - but I am committed to pursuing my interest in XYZ." would not be offensive ?
    – Trunk
    May 27 at 17:39
  • 1
    And worst of all if you dissemble on your disinterest, (3) What if the professor holds the job for you till he learns you took another job and by then it's too late to choose other candidates who, though interested, couldn't wait as they had to secure some kind of job before a certain date. Now you have really riled up a professor of stature who will not keep his displeasure to himself. The OP got into this situation in the first place through ambiguating about his interest in a colleague's work just to fill in some time. Be kind but don't let this misplaced 'interest' go any further.
    – Trunk
    May 27 at 17:56
11

Just tell them straight-up that you don't find the topic interesting

Honestly, if I were in the position of these professors, it wouldn't bother me at all if you just told me straight-up that you don't find my topic interesting. That is a perfectly acceptable reason to not want to do research with me. Most academics are well aware that we work in niche areas that the vast majority of people would find boring. Even within our general fields, there are research preferences and problems we find interesting and problems that we find uninteresting. My expertise is in statistical theory, which I absolutely adore; I'm well aware that the average person would consider that field about as interesting as watching hair grow. I'm also well aware that there are areas of research in statistics that I am personnally uninterested in, even though I find the field in general to be fascinating.

The best thing you can do long-term in academia ---both for yourself and your colleagues--- is to find a research field that you love, that will sustain your interest for decades of research. Those professors know this, so if you don't find their topic interesting, you're doing them a favour by saying so and bowing out of research in that field. They will want to hire someone who is passionate about the subject, so if that's not you, no problem --- just say so. (Also, your present interests may change over time; you might find that in five years you start to find that field interesting. If so, your previous candour on your lack of interest will stand you in good stead when you tell them you have now developed an interest in that field. At least, that is how I would look at it if you were dealing with me.)

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    I think if OP follows this advice, it would be important to emphasize that the topic is not interesting to OP, and not that the OP thinks the topic is not interesting in an absolute sense. May 27 at 18:13
  • 3
    A lot depends on OP's assessment of this professor's emotional maturity. If the professor is mature enough to take such a challenge then OP could say that he regards this topic as likely to be unfruitful and wants to pursue another topic. Of course, you can't go dishing it out if you can't take it so be prepared for a vigorous defense from the professor and a few salvos from him on your research interest ! That will test OP's emotional maturity.
    – Trunk
    May 27 at 18:28
  • 3
    Both great points --- in general, if you are going to go with the present advice, the lack of interest should be delivered in a way that is open and candid, but not insulting to the professor; so yes, OP would stress that the topic is not interesting to OP while acknowledging that it is of interest to others.
    – Ben
    May 27 at 23:49
  • 1
    "..about as interesting as watching hair grow" -- if you play it at 10x the speed, it's quite mesmerizing.
    – VitaminE
    May 29 at 1:15
7

we talk about their work

Possibly out of courtesy, even though you don't find it interesting.

Extend the same courtesy when answering this question.

They have not, after all, sought your opinion on their work; only whether you'd like to collaborate. There are numerous reasons you could turn down the offer; lack of time, lack of core competence, misalignment with long-term plans, the existence of a more suited candidate, personal choice of country/city/university to work at, etc.

This will probably be easier if the professor is from a vastly different field. Within the same area, they may be able to suggest mutually attractive projects- in which case you could either reconsider, or go with one of the personal reasons.

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Be honest, be polite, keep an open mind

Do tell the professor that you’re happy with your current employment, current line of research, etc. Or tell them that the area or research is a little too far outside of your knowledge for you to delve into it right now. Thank the professor genuinely for the offer. And I’d suggest stating your position as “right now”, not in absolutes (“it’s a little outside my focus right now” vs. “I don’t like that research area—it’s boring”). And keep in mind that what sounds boring now may fascinate you in the future. Don’t burn bridges, and keep an open mind about the type of work you want to do. For my own part I’ve been surprised to find that work I thought was super boring I now find totally fascinating.

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"Professors" aren't arcane creatures who must be talked to in ritual ways. Just tell them as you would tell anyone else you aren't interested in an offer made to you.

1
  • I guess this comment I made is really an answer after all.
    – N.I.
    Jun 1 at 12:03

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