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Actually I am doing my PhD in Computer Science, and it is advancing a little bit slow. I am convinced that I can use a technique to solve a problem in my research, but my supervisor is not very keen with the idea. Searching on an online course I found an expert in the area that uses this technique, and I would like to ask for his opinion and maybe advice.

The questions I have are:

  • How to write an email to this expert? I mean should it be a formal one asking beforehand if he would have some time to read the doubts I have, or should I just send an email with the question I want to ask directly?
  • What to do in order to increase the likelihood of receiving a reply from this expert? I know they usually are very busy people and that they receive tons of emails, so what can I do to make the difference so that he will answer it?

Before, I have sent some emails to other experts and I did not get any reply, except for one special case from a renowned expert in the field of Evolutionary Programming that was incredible kind and eager to answer in a very detailed way the questions that I gave to him. Any advice?

  • Probably not "eager", but "willing"... to answer. – paul garrett Feb 17 '16 at 21:46
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    Better send one email with your problem and detailed questions. Oh, wait. You could ask here at SE! More or less the same etiquette applies. Both ways, your question might get an immediate, enthusiastic response, or go thumbleweed (6 months without answer). – vonbrand Feb 17 '16 at 23:14
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    Try to pick up some of that expert's work or paper and let him know in your first sentence that you enjoyed reading it or that it was very inspirational etc. (but be honest in this part). Than try to make some connections to your problem and ask him directly. – user3624251 Feb 18 '16 at 15:26
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  • Start with a summary. Write a couple of sentences to explain the reason for your email and a rough statement of what it is you'd like help with. If your message is long and takes a while to get to the point then the expert is likely to get bored and lose interest.
  • Explain how you know of their work, and how it relates to yours. As @user3624251 suggests in their comment, a bit of massaging their ego will not go amiss, as long as it is not excessively fawning.
  • Be polite, but to the point. If you are too apologetic then you'll just come across as underconfident and unimportant.
  • State your problem as succinctly as possible. As you would on SE, try to make it as self-contained and well-defined as you can.
  • If you can't describe the problem in a couple of paragraphs or less, and/or the reply would require more than a few paragraphs, then it might not be well suited to an email enquiry and you might be better off trying to arrange a meeting. You could try finding out if there are any conferences coming up that you could meet up at. Or, if you can sell your problem as being really interesting, maybe the expert would be interested in collaboration.
  • Accept that, as you have already discovered, you will not have 100% success rate. However well you write the message, you may not even receive a reply, and that is not necessarily a poor reflection on you. But there is very little harm in trying, and some people turn out to be very generous with their time and advice.
  • Always follow up with an appreciative email if they reply in any way whatsoever!
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When reaching out an expert for help, it's good to learn as much as you can about him before hand. I always dip into LinkedIn to check out background, and to see if there are any interesting clues, common experiences, and the like.

Usually, the very best way to get connected is with an introduction. Do you know anyone who knows this expert, who can make an introduction? That's where LinkedIn is quite helpful.

If email doesn't work, consider using @name in Twitter and see if you can get an answer that way.

Also, when I'm asking for help, I don't usually fire off the question. Instead, I'll shoot a request off saying "I'm XYZ at ZYX and I'm working on ABC. Do you mind if I ask a question on CBA?" I know it's a second step, but I've found that people tend to be more open once asked if a dialog is acceptable.

Speaking personally, I get a LOT of questions via email and have an auto-responder to answer them. I sometimes check those questions, but rarely individually answer them. But if someone I know reaches out to me, or I see a quick, easy-to-answer question on Twitter, I often reply.

Good luck. Don't limit your outreach to one person in a field. If you don't get an answer, move on. You never know how busy any one person is or whether it's just a busy week.

--David

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