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Lately it feels like I haven't been doing enough both personally and professionally. I am very productive at both my place of employment and my graduate studies (i.e. PhD in Soil and Water Science) however I want to be more active. I am perfectly content with crunching numbers, developing models, researching the literature, writing up results, etc...I know I am kinda...well nerdy and weird that way.

Recently I have begun reaching out to scientists in my field asking if they would like to collaborate in an effort to gain more experience with different kinds of data and ecosystems, make more connections, etc. When I offer to collaborate most don't respond...which I completely understand being an overworked scientists in the publish or perish game who needs another person to slow you down? Meanwhile some respond with a "sure love too" then when I follow up with questions or brainstorming ideas no one responds.

Is it proper to email say a professor with an email indicating that I am interested in their work and would like to collaborate on any projects? If they respond with a "Yes, love to work with you" type email with subsequent emails falling on deaf ears, is it them nicely trying to say bugger off?

  • Thank you all for your responses...I am by no means being naive and completely understand the demands placed on researchers and professors. I am very research oriented...so @paul garrett I understand where your coming from. I realize that a random email to someone I don't personally know could be somewhat off putting. However several instances have been of me applying for positions in their lab and not able to go/accept position due to funding restrictions (labs are out of the country). After an exchange of emails I offered a collaboration and things go silent. Just wanted some feedback. – Paul Julian Aug 11 '15 at 0:41
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    If you're asking someone to collaborate out of the blue, they're probably expecting that you already have a project in mind and are contacting them because their area of expertise would fill a required role in that project. If you follow up on their take with "great, let's get brainstorming" then they're probably rolling their eyes and feeling a bit misled - they expressed interest in collaborating on the unspoken assumption that you had a project in mind. Usually you come up with the idea first - then contact collaborators because they do something you need to complete the project. – J... Aug 11 '15 at 10:29
  • edited title to try to capture essence of your question; you may wish to edit further to get your preferred focus. – Jeromy Anglim Aug 12 '15 at 5:24
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Collaborations almost never start with a cold email in my experience. All of my collaborations have involved people from my former lab, people I met at conference, or an obvious opportunity where I had the data and they had the analysis tool. Anecdote aside, I think you have to have something the other side will obviously want: a dataset, a method, a tool; access to a site or species or specimen; something besides an idea. Lots of people have ideas. Lots of people even have the same idea. But in order to start a research relationship with someone you don't know, you've probably got to have something they want and vice-versa.

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    A comment I overheard once when someone came offering "I've got many good ideas, you could use them" was "don't worry, I have my own ideas enough to last for a lifetime, I just sorely lack hands to check them all out". – vonbrand Aug 11 '15 at 0:49
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An answer that will probably not be optimally useful to you, but may be explanatory:

I'm in mathematics, at a relatively good univ, relatively senior, generally very interested in "research" in a substantive (rather than "traditional publication") sense, but have done much of the traditional status-enhancing tenure-getting thing, too. And am enthusiastic about mentoring, especially of PhD students.

Short answer: serious people are almost universally already fully booked-up. They're not waiting for a lucky cold-call from out-of-the-blue, in any case. Thus, they're fully committed already. Bang, done.

To second-order: they may consider broadening their interaction base... but to avoid risk, it'd be to people they already know well, trust, etc. Cold-callers would have to offer something semi-amazing to make it worthwhile... oops, but then that simultaneously wrecks the cold-caller's credibility. Ouch. Catch-22.

One could go on in a similar vein, but I'd wager that's the dynamic that's stymi-ing you in these attempts. So the recommendation is to attempt meeting people in more "personal" ways, to establish your non-crank/seriousness, your tractability as a person, and... work up to it more gradually.

(If something I've said is opaque, I can certainly expand a bit. I do realize that you feel, reasonably-if-naively, that you're doing something positive, with baffling results...)

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    +1 Interesting answer. Would your analysis be different if the "cold-caller" were on the faculty at the same university, but in a different department, i.e., does working at the same place make the outcome more preferable for the one doing the initiating? – Mad Jack Aug 11 '15 at 0:24
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    @MadJack, well, maybe, yes, it'd be easier for a person I didn't know to establish a "trustworthy" connection if I could look them in the eye over coffee... but that's not strictly necessary. The "problem" is perhaps that of sufficiently establishing one's "persona" ... on the internet?... or somehow in broader circles, so that people can gauge one's reliability, seriousness, and so on. The traditional ways of doing this are well known... and we don't seem to have transparent new-precedents. Very-well-established people can trust each other in a way, that they have reputations to lose... – paul garrett Aug 11 '15 at 0:55
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    And, yes, to be clear: "trust". In the end, also noticing (hey!) by accident a long human tradition of tribal and other bases for relationships... "trust", often based on "obligation" (not the worst reason to trust), is the final and decisive thing, I do think. Based on observation, I think "young" people have a flimsy notion of "trust", which would not suffice for me... but/and I am commensurately widely disappointed in the apparent failure of "trust-worthiness" ... mileage varies, and all that. – paul garrett Aug 11 '15 at 0:59
  • @paulgarrett - While I am no young buck...I too think people these days have a flimsy notion of trust and reliability. Hence why I have very few people to ask and have to turn to these community based Q and A boards. – Paul Julian Aug 11 '15 at 1:04
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    @PaulJulian, ... sigh. Well, yes, indeed. But, anyway, to reiterate, I do think that a decisive version of "trust-ability" is most easily established in person, looking people in the eye, etc., if only because of the human animal condition... So it's hard, long-distance. Not impossible, as I could testify, but very difficult without much prior established reputation and such. The animalistic thing is not entirely unreasonable, after all. I'd say, "go visit people", be patient, ... – paul garrett Aug 11 '15 at 1:15
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I am currently writing a blurb for my promotion packet to "full professor". It contains (for now anyway...) the following bullet point as an attempt to provide evidence of my stature in the community:

Mathematicians often send me their manuscripts. Collaborations have resulted from ``cold emails'' by W.C. Jagy, J.R. Schmitt, and A. Bishnoi. More people have been turned down.

I think there is some useful information for you here. The most important word is manuscripts. I did not say that people write to me asking to work for me: they do that all the time, often in a way that makes me think they must be sending very similar emails to hundreds of other people. If I think your goal is for me to give you a position of some sort, then the best response you might get is an explanation of how you can apply for that position; it is more likely that I won't respond at all. If the main question of the email is "Will you collaborate with me?" then if I am favorably disposed to the writer I will write back pointing out that they have not really asked the right question.

You shouldn't ask whether you may collaborate with me: even if I say yes, what have we accomplished? You should actually try to start up a collaboration in an intellectually meaningful way in the email. A great way to do this is to show me some actual work, describe it in the email -- briefly, but in enough detail so that I can see that it is of interest -- and make a connection with some prior work or interest of mine. Something like "Because of your work X, I think you might be interested in the enclosed paper Y. I feel like more work could be done on question Z. Do you know if...?" would be ideal.

I am starting to wonder whether the above quotation may not demonstrate my "stature" within the academic community to a general audience but rather some different (positive, I think) quality: yes, I have a position of some power and influence, enough to recommend you or introduce you to Dr. A or (if the circumstances are right) hire you. However I am not too busy to collaborate with people who are unknown to me. Yes, I am very busy. People send me stuff all the time. (Another bullet point: "I get more than a dozen referee requests a year.") But I usually do reply to what people send me if the conditions are right. Does someone truly eminent stop reading cold emails altogether? I think the answer is probably no, they just become increasingly picky and selective.

My own preoccupations may have made me take the long way around on this one. What I am trying to say is: reverse your approach. Don't send the "Do you like me? yes/no" email first. First send the email in which you explain your ideas and work in a way which will be attractive and quickly perspicuous to the right person. What you are shooting for is to first convince them that you have expertise / technique / work of interest and use to them and second that they have the same which can be useful for you. (Sometimes I get emails sending me interesting stuff and asking me to join in, and my reaction is unfortunately, "Gosh, I wonder why they thought that I could help them with any of that. I have no ideas whatsoever, in fact surely less so than the people who contacted me." At this point I'm busy enough not to want to sign on to a new project with the expectation that I'll have something to contribute in the future. I need to have something insightful to say right now.)

One final thought: I have often thought that a more than ordinary compulsion to answer a question, any question, is characteristic of those who work in mathematics (and probably also in academia generally). Private citizens routinely completely ignore questions. To me that is quite a feat, and the only safe way for me to not answer a question is not to respond at all. I think that to a large degree "You get one question" when you are interacting with an academic. (If you don't get a response from a cold email, the most likely reason is that the question is one that they have been asked too many times before -- just not by you.) Choose your "one question" wisely. Make it something that inherently draws the other person in intellectually.

  • Donald E. Knuth stopped answering all mail quite some time back. He only accepts bug reports for his books. – vonbrand Feb 10 '16 at 1:45
  • @vonbrand: Around the time of his retirement, perhaps? – Pete L. Clark Feb 10 '16 at 3:09
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Your implied question is

How can I initiate distance collaborations with carefully chosen people I'm not personally acquainted with?

Here are some ideas. (I apologize if you've already tried everything I describe here.)

Send an email to a potential collaborator you've targeted, talking specifically about some ideas or results in a paper of his that you have read. Pose some "I wonder what would result from such-and-so approach to this data" or "Would the results be more useful if such-and-so additional data were collected" types of questions. Describe how you have used that approach to good effect. Or tell them you need some more data sets to test your analytical tool on. Introduce yourself briefly and mention some fruitful collaboration you've had with someone else.

Alternatively, call the person up for the initial contact. Start out with "This is So-and-So. I read your paper about such-and-so and have some questions about it. I hope I'm not calling at a bad time. [Short pause for answer.] I have done some similar work (describe briefly), and was particularly interested in etc. etc.

"We" might go over better than "I". The rest of the "we" could be your advisor. You want this stranger to think of you as a reliable character, not someone who's isolated and a little nutty. (You can actually be as nutty as you like, but we just want to make sure you don't give an initial impression that way.)

If you get an initial positive response, ask if it would be possible to have a phone appointment to follow up. Mention what some good times of day are for you. Email is good for that initial contact, but phone will give you better give and take of ideas, and the person is more likely to get excited about a possible collaboration through a phone call.

If you need to re-start some stalled communication, you can respond to last month's thread with either some new thoughts, if you've had some, or with a friendly note saying that you wanted to check in about etc. etc.

Granted, you don't want to be pushy... but it is okay to be persistent, as long as you're not a pest about it.

Better than all of the above, however, would be if your advisor could get the ball rolling for you.

Attending conferences, as mentioned already by Bill, can be quite helpful.

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    I gave this a +1, in particular because you made some of the key points of my answer with less fuss and personal angst. The one thing I would say is that: academics can be delicately anti-social social creatures. Being called by someone you don't know is a real escalation. Often it is worth it, but it is not to be done too lightly: I have had several email exchanges with people and then called their office phone and detected a note of mild surprise/anxiety in their voice when we talked. Not to mention that maybe the person you're communicating with is N time zones away... – Pete L. Clark Aug 11 '15 at 3:45
  • @PeteL.Clark - Just to reassure you about my proposal to follow up by phone -- "If you get an initial positive response, ask if it would be possible to have a phone appointment to follow up." – aparente001 Aug 11 '15 at 3:57
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    I was referring to the part "Alternatively, call the person up for the initial contact." I actually think that email would be better for this, because the initial overture should be contentful, but calling me up and asking me a contentful question is rather different from letting me ponder it at my own convenience. – Pete L. Clark Aug 11 '15 at 4:16
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    I don't normally phone people about research who aren't collaborators, but I have set up Skype meetings after some emailing back and forth (usually with someone I've met, but not always). However, what I think is better is to invite a person to visit or tell them you'd like to go visit them to discuss such and such. Obviously you should have significant interest already in their work for the latter. – Kimball Aug 11 '15 at 10:21
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    In that case, I don't think it's a good idea. I'm always put off when someone comes across as trying to sell themself. – Kimball Aug 12 '15 at 20:15
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I think some of the existing answers are very good. Approaches that sometimes work are:

  • "Please find attached a draft paper. Given your expertise in X, I'd very much value your comments and would like to invite you to be a co-author, if you are interested in contributing."
  • "I have funding of $X and need expertise in your area. Would you be interested in sharing this funding?"
  • "I have an excellent potential PhD student and wonder if you would be interested in co-supervising this student, given that their proposed topic of Y overlaps our two areas."
  • "I have skills in Z and my time is fully funded. I am interested in working with you: is there anything I can do to assist your current work?"
  • "I am preparing a funding bid on X [where I have a reasonable chance of success] and I would like to involve you in the project proposal. Are you interested in working together?"
  • "I have an [extremely interesting, attention-grabbing] idea for a collaboration. Would you be interested in contributing?"
0

Try crowdsourcing sites for collaboration opportunities. See http://www.crowdsourcing.org/ which has links to places like https://www.zooniverse.org for projects that could use your brainpower and passion.

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