I go to community college so our professors aren't busy with lab research. They're still busy people though and I wish to respect that.

I'm pretty much just working through some neuroscience textbooks for the sheer heck of it, but I often get stuck. It would take forever to ask every single question on the internet. Plus, sometimes a discussion with a real person is just better in many ways; it could lead to further questions and answers plus instant clarifications.

Thus, would it be weird/wrong to just ask a random professor (with whom I've never taken a class...just one with the relevant biology expertise) for help with specific questions about my side project?

I'm guessing it depends on the professor; but on a scale of 1-10 how weird/ intrusive would this be? I mean, some people would be ok with getting hugged by strangers, but that doesn't mean it's a good idea to try and hug them.

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    is it possible for you to take classes in your interest? I understand your question, but it seems you are seeking an alternative route to what is already being done at many universities/community colleges. By taking a class, you will have the material explained to you by an expert in your field while also having a person whose job it is to answer student's questions. In addition, more than likely most of your questions will be answered through the course being taught. Commented Jun 22, 2016 at 23:40
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    It's hard to do this and not come off like a crank. You'd be better off developing some rapport by taking a class from one of these professors first and then asking for their help.
    – Bill Barth
    Commented Jun 22, 2016 at 23:46
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    These are some pretty specific topics i'm interested in that are not taught at 2 year community colleges. Plus, i think it would be more annoying to be in a class/office hours and take it off topic than to just schedule a whole separate meeting.
    – Flurpy
    Commented Jun 22, 2016 at 23:47
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    have you looked into online "MOOC" courses, through websites such as coursera and edx? Commented Jun 22, 2016 at 23:48
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    many MOOCs have forums where you can discuss your questions with classmates, who are viewing similar material so they have more context than a random person. In addition, you may be able to email the MOOC professor (or TA's) who will be receptive to student's questions. Commented Jun 22, 2016 at 23:51

3 Answers 3


Yes, it is entirely appropriate, especially if you come to them in person and just knock on their office door when they're around and ask if they can spare 5 minutes to answer a question or two. If you are nice, polite, curious and fun to talk to (and you sound like all of those things to me) they may easily end up talking to you for an hour. Busy or not, professors are people and love to procrastinate just like anyone else. :-)

Email is a lot less likely to work, but again, I don't see it as inappropriate, simply less effective.

And don't overthink it. Knocking on someone's (even a stranger's) office door is not the same as hugging them, and not every decision in life should be agonized over and analyzed in minute detail. Just try it, the worst that can happen is... nothing.

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    Very good answer, especially the last paragraph. Systematically overthinking every decision is a great recipe for unhappiness in my experience. Commented Jun 23, 2016 at 1:49
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    This may depend on your macro and micro culture, but in Germany it may easily come off as rude to randomly knock on someone's office door without prior notice. Instead, you would talk to their secretary first. Commented Jun 23, 2016 at 8:57
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    @Stefan I have never in my life met a professor who has a secretary.
    – Dan
    Commented Jun 23, 2016 at 15:21
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    @Dan Oh, I had no idea that this wasn't the norm everywhere. Commented Jun 23, 2016 at 15:33
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    As a professor I would add only one thing to this answer: only approach the prof during his or her posted office hours. This is the reserved time to meet with students. Expect to get bumped if the professor's current enrolled students show up.
    – Linter
    Commented Jun 24, 2016 at 13:48

One of the perks of being a college or university student is access to the faculty for academic purposes. Ph.D's become professors at community college particularly because they want to be engaged with students and their curiosity without the enormous overhead of excessive grant writing, etc. In short, they basically live to work with curious students like you.

Ok to ask random professor questions relating to hobby-project?

Yes, and if you show half the courtesy and respect in your introduction to the professor that you did in this posting, you can rest assured that the response will be solely a function of his/her current availability.

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    100% agree! All of my favorite professors were extraordinarily open to intellectual discussion even while they were very busy. Professors spend a huge amount of time preparing and marking coursework and lectures, so taking a short break to have a discussion with a curious student might even be the highlight of their day.
    – Dan
    Commented Jun 23, 2016 at 15:19
  • If he is in the topic, he might be interested. Be relevant. Commented Jun 23, 2016 at 16:14

If you don't ask, the odds of getting help are zero.

Admittedly, even if you do ask, you're unlikely to get very far—as you mentioned, the professor doesn't know who you are, and therefore would be very unlikely to respond unless the email is written in such a way as to grab her interest.

However, if you're a student attending the same institution as this professor, asking to set up a meeting might be a more productive route, so long as you show genuine interest in the professor's work. Most professors will take the time to talk to someone who's interested in their work (we're human, and we usually like the attention!).

  • yes I'm part of the institution, but our professors don't do research work (at this school...who knows what they cook in their garages). They are all lecturers and only teach classes. I'm also not doing "research"; just reading some complicated books I need help understanding.
    – Flurpy
    Commented Jun 22, 2016 at 23:21
  • I was about to give much the same answer, well worded email from university email asking for meeting over just asking for help. @Flurpy, if you want the professor's help it would behoove you to research what his/her research areas are as it shows effort (and we really do love to speak about our research - yes, many of us still research even at community college) Commented Jun 22, 2016 at 23:28
  • Absolutely agree with the last sentence. I would personally react more favorably toward a student who is willing to take the time to e-mail and set up an appointment, compared to someone who just make a cold call. (Besides, if someone just knock on my door about something that will likely take more than 5 minutes, I would ask them to e-mail me and make an appointment first.) Commented Jun 23, 2016 at 13:28

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