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I am a PhD student in mathematics and I’d like to visit professor X (whom I don’t know personally), as he’s an expert in my field and could really help me with some passages in my research. I have quite a few questions:

  • How to approach professor X to ask if I can visit him and what sort of information should I provide?

  • When PhD students visit academics, what happens usually? I mean, would professor X become a sort of supervisor for the time of the visit, or would it just be that me and professor X would mostly be in the same place at the same time and able to chat a bit if the opportunity arises?

  • How long do visits last, usually? Would I be a student at professor X’s university during the time of my visit? Would I have any academic requirements (e.g. to give talks at seminars, etc.)?

  • Professor X is in a different country than I am. Are professors based in a different country than a potential visiting student more reluctant to let students visit them? If so, why?

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There's no definite answer to any of your questions. All of these details depend a lot on the professor, the circumstances (e.g., funding), and you:

How to approach professor X to ask if I can visit him and what sort of information should I provide?

I would assume a mail is sufficient. However, if you don't know the prof personally, and you are not overly well-known in your community yet, it may be better to ask your advisor to establish contact. Professors get many mails from prospective students on various levels, with various intends. Those mails tend to get discarded quickly and unceremoniously.

I don't know what information would be required, initially probably almost none, except who you are and what you would like to work on with the professor. At a later point, details of how this visit would be funded may become an important discussion item (e.g., who pays your travel? who pays your hotel / apartment? if you are an university employee, who pays YOU during your visit?). Don't expect your host to arrange funding - this is something that you / your advisor will need to arrange, and just agree with the host.

When PhD students visit academics, what happens usually? I mean, would professor X become a sort of supervisor for the time of the visit, or would it just be that me and professor X would mostly be in the same place at the same time and able to chat a bit if the opportunity arises?

I have seen both happen. Clearly, in the second case, the visit is often close to worthless. However, in most cases, the truth is somewhere in the middle. The prof meets a few times with the visitor, and "appoints" one or more of his own students with a matching profile /research interests as a contact point and collaborator for the visit. You should not have too high expectations of how much time your host can really invest into you (and not into, say, his own students or his own research).

How long do visits last, usually? Would I be a student at professor X’s university during the time of my visit? Would I have any academic requirements (e.g. to give talks at seminars, etc.)?

Depends. I have so far done two research visits, one as a short as 2 weeks, one for 6 weeks. I know of others who have done visits for up to 6 months. You usually have little academic requirements, and you are not usually considered a student of the host institution (at least for visits that are shorter than one term). Giving a talk is sometimes necessary as part of your funding arrangements. For instance, in my second stay, my travel was funded by the host institution over the vehicle that they officially invited me as an expert speaker for their seminar series (so that they could formally pay for my travel, which they could not do for a visit). In my first visit, the expectation of the funding source was that at some point a paper would be published related to the visit (clearly not within those two weeks, but at some point). Further, I had to write a brief report.

Professor X is in a different country than I am. Are professors based in a different country than a potential visiting student more reluctant to let students visit them? If so, why?

Not typically, however, finding funding may be even more difficult. However, both of my visits have been cross-country, in one case cross-continents, so it definitely can be done.

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  • Some advice: when you want something from someone e-mail is almost never the best way to approach. It is too indirect and too easily dismissed. It is also very hard to convey what you really want using e-mail as you cannot predict the questions someone might have. Why not give someone a friendly call? The call can be kept very short, just introduce yourself. Tell about your intent and if the other person might be interested. Then ask if you can e-mail that person with some more detailed information. This way you already have a rapport with someone. – Roy T. Sep 8 '14 at 12:07
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    @RoyT. I strongly discourage everybody from calling busy professors unsolicited. – xLeitix Sep 8 '14 at 12:15
  • @RoyT: Like xLeitix, I disagree. For me personally, I'd much rather be emailed than called. (1) I am only in my office a couple hours a day, so you'd probably get my voice mail, and when I called back I'd probably get yours. Repeat. If I am in my office, it's probably because I am meeting with someone, or working intently on something that I don't want interrupted. (2) Perhaps a social thing, but I don't do well talking to strangers by phone. If you call me, what you'll get is not so much a rapport as a lot of awkward hesitant stammering. – Nate Eldredge Sep 8 '14 at 14:17
  • @RoyT.: On the other hand, if you email me, I'll read it carefully, look up your web page, and compose a graceful response. I don't find it indirect at all and I won't dismiss it. Not everyone needs to hear a voice in order to form a rapport. – Nate Eldredge Sep 8 '14 at 14:19
  • @RoyT. To add to the other comments about using the phone, recall that there is a good likelyhood that the professor in question will be based in another country, with potential for problems with timezones and huge charges for international calls. – Tobias Kildetoft Sep 8 '14 at 18:43
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Academic visits take all sorts of forms, so it really depends on the situation. There are however some general things that you should keep in mind.

First of all, it would be necessary to come into contact with the professor you want to work with. Just contacting him out of the blue might not be very successful. If your PhD advisor knows him, it is probably a good idea to let him make the initial contact. Another option would be to try to talk to him or his students at a conference of workshop.

Another question is who will fund the visit (hotel, travel costs, etc.). If you would be able to attract funds yourself, that would be helpful. Especially since you say you will have to travel abroad, this could run up the costs.

As to what happens during the visit, that really depends. It is usual that the visitor gives a seminar or colloquium talk. What I usually do is to try to talk to as many people in the group as possible, to get some feeling about the kind of projects the people are working on. If you come there to solve a particular problem with the professor, then in-dept dicussion sessions with him make more sense. Finally, most groups have desks available for visitors, so that you can work on your own as well.

For longer visits, say more than a week or two, the professor might take more of an advisor role, but that really depends on the goal of the visit and on the people involved.

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