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I tried looking up the answer for this one online already, but I couldn't find something for my specific scenario:

I am interested in reaching out to a few professors in the field that I am interested in, Computer Science, in regards to some specific problems I might be facing in the immediate future. However, I'm slightly unsure of how to do this. That is, I don't attend the University they teach at and I do not have a college degree. Does this make a difference of some sort or can I contact them without having to explain that I don't attend their University? Is this something that I should even bother bringing up prior to speaking to them, or is it a complete non-issue?

I feel like if highly technical, learned people like professors are so easily accessible - completely free of charge - then I find the entire concept of attending college kind of hard to grasp. Maybe I'm missing a basic underlying concept here. Perhaps they would be under some kind of NDA in how much information they would be able to provide if it was on cutting edge research, or something else I might not be accounting for? The entire concept of just e-mailing some of the top scientists in a given field strikes me as kind of odd, especially if I don't have to pay them for their time.

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    Here's an analogy to consider: If you wanted personal investment advice, do you think you could just reach out to several Goldman Sachs investment bankers and have them coach you for free? Academics are more like businessmen, not priests; their job is not to just be there for anyone who needs their help, since they do have responsibilities to their employers first and foremost. – user4512 Jul 15 '15 at 22:35
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    "Then I find the entire concept of attending college kind of hard to grasp". Do not fool yourself. Those "highly technical, learned people like professors" became highly technical after many years of attending all possible levels of university education. For a normal individual, reaching this level of knowledge is not possible on your own. Period. – Alexandros Jul 16 '15 at 4:42
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    if highly technical, learned people like professors are so easily accessible - completely free of charge - then I find the entire concept of attending college kind of hard to grasp — If highly technical, learned people were easily and freely accessible, there would be rainbows and unicorns and chocolate for everyone. But they aren't. Professors are busy, especially in computer science, where class sizes have doubled over the last five years. – JeffE Jul 16 '15 at 14:51
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    That's a pretty low standard of "accessible". I can email President Obama for free too. – Chan-Ho Suh Jul 16 '15 at 16:57
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    You don't attend college in order to get information on cutting edge research, or to get a response to one email. You attend college in order to get several years of education in one or more subjects, and many hours of professors' time. There's a very long distance between a professor being willing to answer an email, and a professor bringing you up to degree standard. So don't worry that one conversation with a professor will accidentally undermine all of higher education ;-) – Steve Jessop Jul 16 '15 at 23:17
46

Okay, so this might sound a little bit too honest.

You can email them, and if you're sufficiently interesting or intelligent, they will write back. For example, if you asked things like "what is the best sorting algorithm? Can you explain why that is?" they probably won't respond, because it's boring. You have to realize that the professors usually also get a lot of "crank" messages (false claims to amazing results) to which they don't respond to. However, if you actually read and understood their research, and had something that you could contribute to, then they probably will respond. Your pedigree isn't extremely important, as far as I am concerned. It is true that the top scientists are available for free, but only if you are worth their time.

The university system requires the professors to talk to the amateurs that they normally wouldn't talk to (i.e. students). My university had a student who claimed to have proven P vs NP problem. Normally if someone sent me a proof of that by email, I'd have deleted it without reading it, but since it was a known student, the professors still looked over the proof (it was actually quite clever, albeit wrong), and the student was eventually offered a summer research position. So I wouldn't say that the university system is pointless.

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  • Out of curiosity, what mistake did they make to solve P≟NP? – user253751 Jul 16 '15 at 1:29
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    @immibis Usually, the mistake isn't very instructive. Presumably, some detail of the reduction, or of its complexity analysis, didn't work. – David Richerby Jul 16 '15 at 8:16
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    @immibis Gerhard Woeginger has been collecting proofs of P=NP and P≠NP since about 2000; he's up to 107 so far: win.tue.nl/~gwoegi/P-versus-NP.htm – JeffE Jul 16 '15 at 14:55
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    ""what is the best sorting algorithm? Can you explain why that is?" they probably won't respond, because it's boring." -- that's even true for non-professors. Such questions get routinely closed on Computer Science. – Raphael Jul 17 '15 at 9:21
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You can email them, but they are under no obligation to respond. They are generally under no restrictions on what they can say to you, but they probably won't share unpublished results with you if they do decide to respond. Professors, like most professionals are very busy, so unless there's some reason to respond, they probably won't. If you send them a long series of emails after they fail to respond, they may treat your emails as harassing.

Professors are not likely to respond to you if you haven't demonstrated some command of their field. One way to do that is to enroll in their classes. Another is to have published in the journals or conferences they know. Otherwise, sending unsolicited email about an area they are an expert in seeking their advice, opinion, etc, may be seen as the behavior of a crank.

If you have a CS problem that you need some help solving, the best way to do so would be to hire an expert as a consultant. That expert could easily be a professor at a university, but it could also be someone in industry that specializes in your problem.

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12

Whether or not your status makes a difference is a highly individual matter. It is unlikely that anyone would reject an email from you because they discovered that you are not a current student in their department. It would also probably not be productive for you to generically "reach out" to faculty. I often get emails from people I don't know who are not students in my university, and often I give a polite but disinterested "Pleasure to meet you" response. The ones that lead to productive connections involve the student actively raising a point of research interest and demonstrating relevant knowledge of the subject matter (knowledge, not mastery).

The point, for professors, is not about the paycheck and obligations to customers, it's about intellectual engagement. You won't get a degree by emailing me, but you might get a publication.

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I'm a professor in CS and I can tell you that most of us are very busy. You can always try to e-mail professors. It cost nothing. But there is no guarantee that they will answer and it may takes several days to get an answer. Personnally, if I receive a question that is not related to my research interests from someone that is not my student or that is not a researcher, I will generally politely reply that I don't have time to answer. The reason is that all professors have very busy schedule with teaching, research, etc.

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    "most of us are very busy" - but in your case at least, not too busy to helpfully answer unsolicited questions from strangers ;-p So there's some hope, but email might not be the best medium, and the questioner's CS question is probably way harder to answer than his academia question. – Steve Jessop Jul 16 '15 at 23:11
4

Just talk to them. Honestly. They're humans. Talk to them. If they don't want to help you, or they can't, they will tell you (or ignore you) and that's that. There does not need to be a great big song and dance surrounding simply talking to someone.

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4

I feel like if highly technical, learned people like professors are so easily accessible - completely free of charge - then I find the entire concept of attending college kind of hard to grasp.

Even if there were no point for the student in attending college, it would be hugely inefficient for a professor to attempt to teach 100 students just by answering email queries rather than delivering a lecture. As in, it would take more than 24 hours per day.

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3

Remember, one of the things tuition pays for is professors' salaries, and as part of their teaching role they make themselves available to students at that school. If you aren't a student or colleague, they have no reason to make any special effort to help you. Either pay for access, or prove to them that you're knowledgeable and interesting enough that talking to you benefits them... or settle for being their lowest priority and possibly ignored completely.

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3

I'm a student and I attended an ordinary college. During my B.Sc. years I turned out into a very active student and I started working with professors at my own university as a research assistant, but since my research interests changed overtime I tried to work with other professors from other universities and faculties. and that was a home run ;). I sent many Emails and arranged many appointments, some were very busy, but some did have time and I started collaborating with them and that even broadened the range of people I was conducting research with. Some of those profs even didn't ask me which university do I study at, or never asked me for any kind of proof, but the point was I was contributing to their research and even my name was mentioned in some of their books in acknowledgment since I helped in book's TeX Style and also I could publish an article with one of them from another university in collaboration with another PhD student.

In contacting professors as many others have indicated here you need to consider few points:

  1. You should have a very clear and specific question in mind. Profs mostly don't reply general questions and they mostly don't teach you introductory stuff. I remember reaching a professor during my high-school years. She even accepted me in her office and provided me with few links and people, but at that time I had a very clear goal though my knowledge was introductory, and I had some computer skills which put me in contact with her students and I started working on a project with her.

  2. You should try several ways of contacting them and reach them at appropriate time and in appropriate manner. Don't contact profs once they are too busy or near holidays.

  3. If you have friends in that specific university, you can ask them to arrange a meeting for you with that professors. I used that and it really worked well.

  4. Profs may answer your questions every once in a while , but it won't last forever if they don't find you useful for their projects! Yes, profs answer their students questions, but that's even the case with the students as well once they are not lecturing them anymore!

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Before you talk to a Professor at another university I would recommend you read their Bio, research all their projects, read any papers they have written, and always a BIG PLUS is buy their book. If you choose to go in person I would advise you wait till the end of their office hours to approach them or try and get them after their last class to set an appointment. Calls and emails are great but you run a chance of being denied. Professors are people too and don't always jump at the idea of doing more work. It's harder to shoot someone down face to face. Hope that helps.

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    Why is buying their books a big plus? Attending office hours isn't an option if you're not a student at the university. And, believe it or not, you have a chance of being told to shove off even if you show up in person. If you even get to the professor's office, that is: turning up without an appointment is likely to get you turned away by reception. – David Richerby Jul 17 '15 at 20:29
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    @DavidRicherby: One reason people write books is because they are sick of hearing the same question over and over again, and they think they can answer it once and for all and then move on to more productive things. If the first question you ask has already been exhaustively covered and answered in the book, with a bunch of photographs and professionally typeset equations and other illustrations, the professor may feel trying to answer your question with a few spoken words and a bit of chalk is a waste of time on both sides. – David Cary Jul 17 '15 at 22:58
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    The question is about access to professors: buying a book is certainly useful for study but how does it help you access a professor? In the UK, university departments are not open to the public and people who are not associated with the department would be expected to have an appointment before visiting. Most (though not all) departments have a receptionist. – David Richerby Jul 17 '15 at 23:04
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    @JeffreyM The question is not if they are allowed to have visitors: the question is if they are likely to actually respond when you try to set up a meeting or just email them a question. Just showing up unannounced to office hours is likely to get you kicked out, and if you insist, escorted out by security. I'm a current student at a top US institution, and I'm not allowed to attend office hours for classes I don't attend. Those are for fee paying students. – Johanna Jul 17 '15 at 23:06
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    @DavidCary Those are good points (except I don't think that's why people write books at all!). But that's advice to avoid asking questions that are adequately covered by the professor's books, and that's a wholely different proposition to actually buying those books. And why limit it to books by that specific professor? A professor is unlikely to feel that discussing basic textbook material with a random member of the public is a good use of their time. – David Richerby Jul 17 '15 at 23:12

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