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I want to learn more about a specific part of a narrow, fledgling field. I want to have a 30 minute conversation with a the burgeoning experts in this area of study -- they are all researchers at universities.

I have completed my undergrad in a related field, but at a different institution, and without formal training in the specialized area I'm investigating. But I have read up enough to be able to ask informed questions.

How can I get these busy people to give me a half an hour (or more) of their life when I don't know anyone in their network and am an outsider? What can I offer them in exchange for their time? What is a good way to make contact and avoid a totally "cold call"?

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    If you are very serious, pay the registration fees for a conference in that field and you can meet there people that work on your topic of interest. – Niko May 27 '15 at 19:01
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    @Niko: You can meet them, but you can't be sure of much more than a handshake. Certainly not a 30-minute discussion. – Nate Eldredge May 27 '15 at 19:12
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    Have you tried emailing with some of your questions? Many academics love to talk about their field, indeed with some, this is more of a shortcoming than an advantage. Once you have established a rapport by email you can proceed to meeting in person. – Calchas May 27 '15 at 19:16
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    The traditional method is to read one of their papers. – JeffE May 27 '15 at 21:08
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You are right that it is difficult to make contact with a busy expert when you have no network contacts to draw upon. One of the best ways to make contact is to attend a conference that covers your area of interest; this can be pricey, but in my field the major conference even has "Meet the Experts" lunches for student attendees. At the conference, register for pre-meeting, student, and/or special interest group events that may have a either a career development focus or are likely to have a more specialized attendance and thus more opportunities to approach individuals with whom you'd like to talk.

While some experts may, in fact, respond to a "cold call" (or cold email, as the case may be), the fact is that most are probably putting out fires and dealing with higher-level responsibilities, and may simply be too busy. In that case you may want to try moving down the ladder a bit...a graduate student or postdoc in their lab may be a bit more available to chat, and may actually have good advice for you about the next step in your career, as well as information about the nitty-gritty of the specialized area their lab works on.

My best advice is just go out there and make your best effort to get in touch, provided you convey respect for their time and withdraw gracefully if they aren't able to make time for you. Some investigators may respond very favorably--you might be surprised! Nothing ventured, nothing gained...

  • "may be more available to chat" should probably be "hasn't learned how to say 'no' yet" :) – Moriarty May 28 '15 at 13:51
  • @Moriarty or "has less ways to procrastinate, so you can become more easily one". – Davidmh May 29 '15 at 16:46
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Your starting point for how to think about this should be the same as with any social interaction: empathize. Put yourself in their shoes. Start by trying to imagine what their motivations might be and what they might get out of spending 30 minutes with you answering your questions. Many social interactions involve some kind of exchange; what is exchanged might vary (it might be information, or emotional support, or entertainment, or a sense of connection, or any of a number of other motivations), but try to understand what the professor might get out of it, and then tailor your approach accordingly. What value can you offer? What's the benefit to them?

Realistically, in many cases, there might be nothing you have to offer that would make it worthwhile for the professor to spend 30 minutes of their limited time answering your questions. Professors are often busy and have many responsibilities and obligations of their own, and so they simply might not be available to be a free resource for you, as much as you wish it were so. In this sense, professors are much like any other domain expert. For instance, if you needed advice from a legal expert (a lawyer), what could you offer them to make it worth their while to spend 30 minutes of their time answering your legal questions for free? Usually, you can't. Instead, you have to hire their services.

Now in some cases you might get lucky and be able to find an expert who knows the subject area and is willing to give you free advice. The motivation might vary, but here are some samples of why someone might be willing to help you out like this:

  • Maybe the professor/expert gets some satisfaction out of seeing their ideas used in practice, as well as some boost to their professional reputation. (This might be applicable if you're going to build a widely deployed product, and the professor's research provides specialized knowledge that will improve the product, but it probably won't be if you're an amateur who is tooling about with this stuff for curiosity's sake.)

  • Maybe the professor/expert gets some satisfaction out of serving the public. (This might be more applicable if you work for a non-profit that is working to serve the public, or if answering your question will help not only you but others -- such as if the answer is documented on a public site like StackExchange.)

  • Maybe the professor/expert is doing a favor for someone else they know, who they owe a favor or want to oblige. (This might be applicable if you know someone who has a strong relationship with the expert and who is willing to ask a favor and whom the expert might want to oblige.)

So, if you're asking for free advice from the professor, start by knowing which of those motivations you might fit into, and tailor your approach closely.

But realize that most professors/experts will likely be too busy to give you this much of their time for free, if they're not getting anything out of it. You're not entitled to any of their time; if they give you any time, you should be grateful for it and consider yourself fortunate. So your traditional options are:

  • Hire the professor/expert as a consultant.

  • Read the professor's published papers. Read the research literature in the area. Study the field as much as possible. If you've spent weeks or months doing so, then typically you'll get a good idea of the answers to many of your questions -- and if there are one or two that remain unanswered, you might be able to frame an email that asks a well-crafted, focused, non-trivial question about their research. When you've put in a ton of effort on your own and are able to ask a narrowly-focused intelligent question about the professor's research, and you're not wasting their time, it's more likely you'll get an answer. But in this model, you're not asking for 30 minutes of their time. You're sending an email with a single, well-crafted question.

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    @Mehrdad, if that's the goal, then I refer you to literally everything else I wrote in my answer. (Imagine writing to a professor and saying "I know I could probably answer this on my own by studying published papers, but I don't want to do that, so can you volunteer 30 minutes of your time, to save me the effort?" How do you think that's going to work out?) – D.W. May 28 '15 at 6:38
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    @Mehrdad, is it really that unreasonable? Yes, it really is. Try walking into a lawyer's office and saying "can you give 30 minutes for free to give me a legal advice? it doesn't make sense for me to spend years studying the law when you could spend 30 minutes explaining me the answer to my question". See how well that works out for you. As I wrote, "You're not entitled to any of their time; if they give you any time, you should be grateful for it and consider yourself fortunate." – D.W. May 28 '15 at 6:45
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    @Mehrdad, more generally, when you write "it doesn't make sense for me to study this for months", you are thinking only about yourself and your own concerns, without considering what the professor stands to gain or what the professor's considerations might be. I encourage you to re-read the first paragraph of my answer. "Empathize. Put yourself in their shoes. Start by trying to imagine what their motivations might be and what they might get out of spending 30 minutes with you answering your questions." – D.W. May 28 '15 at 6:48
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    @Mehrdad, you're saying "I shouldn't have to offer the professor anything". While you might be right that this is how the world ought to work, it's not necessarily how the world does work, and in any case, it's not what the question asks. The question isn't asking how the world ought to work. Instead, the question asks for pragmatic advice. It asks "What can I offer [the professor] in exchange for their time?" -- and my answer attempts to articulate some specific things you can offer the professor... along with a cautionary note about why often you might not be able to offer anything. – D.W. May 28 '15 at 7:11
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    If it still isn't clear, consider that most professors have several hundred students who would also benefit immensely from a half hour of one on one time, who have done the background work, and who are at least in a sense paying for the time. – Tim May 28 '15 at 17:27
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Start with just sending a friendly "hey, I'd love to meet with you for just a few minutes" email. You'd be surprised that a few people will actually respond and respond well to that sort of initiative. Anecdotally, I got quite a few interesting meetings with people just with that.

If they don't reply to your email, you can decide how you want to go. I'd recommend the following, but really, any of these can be done in any order.

  • Send a follow-up email. I'd do this a maximum of two times. At that point, if he's ignoring you, he's ignoring you.

  • Try to talk to an administrative assistant, see if there's a better way to get in touch/get on his schedule.

  • Drop by his office sometime, see if he's willing to talk to you unannounced. I would recommend asking his graduate students before you do this, as he may not appreciate it.

  • Find someone else to talk to. Some people just don't like talking.

  • +1 for "some people just don't like talking". A common response to an "I'd love to meet with you" e-mail is "Sorry, I can't, but you should talk to [grad student/more junior professor/someone in your area interested in this research area]" – Gaurav May 28 '15 at 18:07
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    @Gaurav - Excellent point. If he sends you to a grad student/postdoc/whoever, it's then up to you as to whether you want to follow up. Pro tip: you probably should, no matter how junior they are they probably know more than you (they're in the field, you're not) and will be able to give useful advice. – eykanal May 28 '15 at 23:13
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Just this week, I got a call set up with a professor. I have no connection with him or the university he teaches at. As a disclaimer, I have no idea how busy he is or whether he is an expert in my field. Here's how I did it:

For background, I am interested in learning about student engagement, more specifically using popular media in the classroom. One of the presentations on the professor's department website discussed this topic in some form, and it really captured my interest.

First off, I created an email subject that would probably capture his interest. Since he is a professor, he is probably interested in education. And since he has a presentation on popular media, he is probably interested in that as well. So combining the two, my subject line was: "Using Popular Culture to Educate Students." Note that I didn't use the word "media" because he does not use that specific terminology in his presentation.

I started out the body of my email by linking to the presentation and thanking him for creating such a valuable resource. I expressed genuine appreciation for the presentation that he (or someone else in his department) created. I then mentioned that I am exploring the topic of the presentation and "would love to learn more about [his] work." Finally, I ended the email by asking to chat briefly on the phone. I then went further and suggested a specific day and time to chat. The bolded part is what most people don't include in their emails. This significantly reduces the work for the person you are trying to "sell" to and makes them more likely to respond. And sure enough, I got a response.

To recap, here's how I approached the situation:

  1. Create a subject line that will be likely to capture their interest.
  2. Link to a specific work of theirs that you found interesting and/or valuable. People appreciate it when you acknowledge their work.
  3. Show that you are working within the scope of their work, and indicate that you are trying to learn more about that subject.
  4. Ask for a quick chat on the phone, and indicate why you want to speak with them.
  5. Suggest a specific date/time to chat.

I believe the above steps made me successful in gaining the attention of the professor. There's also a little luck involved, so it's possible that I could have just gotten lucky.

I hope this helps!

  • Update: Yes, we actually had a call a few hours ago. And it went very well! – Alexander May 29 '15 at 0:24

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