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I am an undergraduate in CS and engineering. Approximately a week ago, I sent an email to a professor whose research really interests me. I sent him couple of my questions and confusions rooted from reading his recent papers, but I did not get any response. Consequently, I sent a short followup email to him indicating that email was sent a week ago, but he sent a short reply saying that "Sorry, I do not have time to respond."

Does it mean that he wants me to go away and never bother him again? Does he not like me (we had some previous but positive communications) or not want to be bothered by undergraduates? Should I perhaps send a followup email a month later?

  • 8
    Is he at your institution or some other institution? – Dawn Jun 29 '17 at 2:52
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    If what you're interested in is the content of the papers, then posting to the relevant stack exchange could help. If are interested in "networking" with the professor, then I think this is an indication that this is a bad route to take. You could try going to his office hours with a copy of the relevant paper to ask some questions, he would likely respond better to that. – Retired account Jun 29 '17 at 4:02
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    A good skill to learn is to ask yourself "What is the most ideal thing this person might do if [whatever] was true?", and if it coincides with what you're seeing, then take it at face value. In this case, if the professor doesn't have time, literally the most direct, efficient, and polite thing he could tell you is that he doesn't have time. Most people would dance around the issue; this professor is doing you a favor by not doing that. Take him at his word. – Mehrdad Jun 29 '17 at 9:19
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    Honestly, I think it's a good sign that he responded at all. Most professors barely even have time to do that with student emails due to the thousands of other important emails/correspondence they have to attend to. And most that I know just ignore student emails if they are too busy. It seems to me that he thinks the relationship is important but must be picked up at a later date when he is not as busy. – syntonicC Jun 29 '17 at 13:56
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it is about the meaning of an ordinary English sentence, under the false premise that professors somehow use ordinary English sentences in a different way to everybody else. – David Richerby Jun 30 '17 at 10:06
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Keep in mind a very simple rule: Professors are human beings

Many of the questions on this site seem to assume from the outset that faculty are strange, mysterious and mercurial creatures, whose motives are entirely opaque and whose every word must be subjected to an intense amount of kremlinology.

"Sorry, I do not have time to respond." means that he doesn't have time to respond.

There could be many reasons for this. He might be particularly busy at the moment - lots of conferences take place in the summer, and many academics also use it to catch up on work not done during the academic year. If he is, as you say, approaching emeritus status he may be occupied with wrapping up things he's intending to walk away from. He might be dealing with other things in his life.

You should take that message at face value, and try not to impute any sort of hidden motive onto it - you simply don't know enough to know. Try following up in a month or two with a simple question as to whether or not his schedule has freed up and he might have some time. If the answer is still no, let it go.

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    I would like to add another very simple rule, which relates to this situation and would help anyone, anywhere, including myself. Try not to overthink things. – DottoreM Jun 29 '17 at 7:57
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    +1. academia.se seems to get a lot of "please read this person's mind for me" questions :). I'd just like to add that kremlinology is particularly unnecessary for someone at the same institution, who you can find at a coffee break, after a lecture, in a corridor, etc., where you can usually work out how busy/stressed they are before venturing a request. If he never takes a coffee break, disappears the second the lecture ends, and swoops down corridors at 20km/h, that's a good indication that yes, he really is too busy to attend to your questions at the moment. – Pont Jun 29 '17 at 8:21
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    Awesome answer! +1 for the very apt kremlinology metaphor. I'm half-tempted to set up a kremlinology (or maybe "professorology"?) question tag... – Dan Romik Jun 29 '17 at 17:25
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    Just to play devil's advocate, it's possible that the level of busy-ness experienced by the average professor may in fact be strange and mysterious to most people. – Daniel R. Collins Jun 29 '17 at 18:35
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    Do you have any evidential data to support your primary assertion? – Strawberry Jun 30 '17 at 12:54
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I really wanted to build network with him too, but I guess it is too late at this point.

Or it might be too early. This will certainly vary by university culture, but e.g. in my place, starting to network based upon research topics as an undergrad (assuming you mean something like pre-Bachelor) would be extremely early. Most students at that stage have just started to learn about the operational basics of their subject area.

There can of course be valuable ideas for actual research topics, but it can be hard for undergrad students to already correctly assess how interesting something is research-wise. For instance, even at the very beginning of my (CS) PhD, the ideas that I thought might be interesting were either way too technical (looking back, I now realize most were still mostly about coding something tricky rather than about any conceptual problem) or too superficial (because I didn't realize the sheer amount of existing work and the depth of analysis provided in existing solutions).

I quickly learned to get a feeling for what could be interesting in research, and always tried to convey this also to my students in seminars or BSc/MSc theses. Again, I do not know whether or not you already have a sufficient overview of what is going on in research, but your professor's response might be a sign that from your questions to them, it becomes apparent you do not.

Conclusion: Try to get in touch with someone else (less busy) working on related topics (e.g. a TA offering a related seminar or so) and/or take part in related seminars and lectures. If you see your perspective widen indeed, contact the professor again at a later point when you also have "more to offer" than just requests for clarification out of what could be just a passing interest.

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    or phd students of that professor – Fábio Dias Jun 30 '17 at 0:23
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    @FábioDias: Yes, that's what I meant by referring to TAs. Sorry, the organisational structure is different in my place. – O. R. Mapper Jun 30 '17 at 3:59
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In addition to Fomite's answer I want to provide the interpretation that brevity is a sign of your good relationship with this professor.

You are mentioning that you already communicated with him with a positive outcome. Therefore he probably feels that he already "knows you" in a way. He is comfortable enough to dispense with formalities and is assuming that you are, too. He trusts you to understand that it is not meant as a sign of disrespect because he did answer you before, after all.

Imagine you have had a friend for ten years and went together through thick and thin. You call him one day and he tells you: "Sorry man, can't speak right now." and hangs up. You probably would not immediately assume that he is ending the friendship but that he is actually busy with something very important and because of your close relationship is comfortable enough to not provide you with a few minutes of excuses before hanging up.

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    To me, this is an example of the kremlinology @Fomite is talking about in his answer. Without more information, you are reading way too much into a one-time answer. – fileunderwater Jun 30 '17 at 18:09
  • @fileunderwater My interpretation is based on the assumption that most professors like their jobs and in general also like to teach. This was my experience. Therefore it is improbable that they have any bad feelings towards students and therefore I agree with Fomite's answer. Additionaly most people in a working environment stick to social norms and at least a little bit of formality, unless they know each other and feel comfortable to be direct. – problemofficer Jul 2 '17 at 5:35
4

It is important to note that your questions to your professor did not relate to their role as your lecturer. They were therefore not responding to you as their student on a matter that relates to your studies, but as to somebody without qualification asking them about their research.

As mentioned in another answer, it appears doubtful from your question that you really have the expertise required to understand these research papers. If this is so, your professor will know that (and can presumably tell from the questions you asked them) and will want to avoid engaging with you in a discussion about these papers.

  • I disagree with your second thought. I asked the questions to other professors (and got their insightful replies) and also asked for their feedbacks. They thought my questions are to the point and precise. – MathWanderer Jun 30 '17 at 18:35
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    @MathWanderer Okay, but that was not clear from your post. – Walter Jul 1 '17 at 9:52
1

I suppose it means "[he does] not have time to respond" to your email. Why he does not have time is anyone's guess.

I don't think he wants you "to go away and never bother him again". I can speculate on the reason and say that, has an undergraduate, maybe you are on the lower third of his priority queue and not worth the investment (of his time) at this stage of your studies.

-3

Sometimes Professors tend to have so much to handle but that doesn't necessarily justify the Professor's act of failing to respond to your emails. My advice would be that you try to frame the email in a precise and direct to the point way and probably book an appointment and see him one on one. In short, insist and eventually your efforts will bear fruits I believe. All the best.

  • 3
    "[I]nsist and eventually your efforts will bear fruits I believe." Why do you believe that? If I'm asked for something by somebody who I'm under no obligation to help and I tell them no, then repeated requests for help from that person will irritate me and make me much less likely to say yes in the future. – David Richerby Jul 1 '17 at 14:12
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Probably he don't want to give you shallow answers but properly describe you everything connected with what have you asked him about. But he don't have currently time for that. I think he will keep in mind your mail and reply in free time

-14

Isn't "I don't have time to respond" an oxymoron?

I have read in an answer that professors are also human beings. Exactly, and decent human beings don't leave others so anxious and lost with a response to the point that they have to go ask in a public forum. Also, talking about human beings, the professor would never give this answer to a peer or someone ranked higher than him.

I don't find that response appropriate or excusable. It would have taken literally 30 seconds to add to that response what the next step is. For example "I will get back to you in 2 months", "I am sorry but currently I am not accepting more students", or "meet me in my office in 2 weeks".

So, no one really knows what your professor means, but if I had to bet, I would bet he is not interested in you at the moment but he does not want to appear impolite or inconsiderate, so he thinks this is a better answer than answering honestly. And this is like in relationships. Please, don't insist and beg, or he will smell your desperation and will either feel annoyed/stalked or get you and exploit you. If he is interested he'll get back to you. In the meantime, look for someone else who can spend 10 seconds writing a proper answer.

Regarding being busy and what "I don't have time" means, I recommend you read this article, because it's answered there: http://scottberkun.com/2010/the-cult-of-busy/

I will quote directly here, for those busy people who don't have time but are reading Academia StackExchange anyway :)

The phrase “I don’t have time for” should never be said. We all get the same amount of time every day. If you can’t do something it’s not about the quantity of time. It’s really about how important the task is to you. I’m sure if you were having a heart attack, you’d magically find time to go to the hospital. That time would come from something else you’d planned to do, but now seems less important. This is how time works all the time. What people really mean when they say “I don’t have time” is this thing is not important enough to earn my time. It’s a polite way to tell people they’re not worth your time.

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    "Isn't 'I don't have time to respond' an oxymoron?" - only if you take things too literally. Obviously, the professor means that he doesn't have time to provide answers for the OP's questions. "It would have taken literally 30 seconds to add to that response what the next step is." - and then, we may be looking at an Academia SE question asking "What does he mean by 'I will get back to you in 2 months'?" "look for someone else who can spend 10 seconds writing a proper answer." - the OP is looking for answers to their questions, which will presumably require more than 10 seconds to write. – O. R. Mapper Jun 29 '17 at 8:37
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    My downvote, however, is not for the above points, but based on the conclusion of this article with the nonsensical quotation. Basically, that text claims that a statement starting with "I don't have ..." should never be said. Whether it's time, money, or any other resource, "I don't have ..." can always be maliciously reinterpreted to "You are not worth my ...". But with the latter statement, you lose information, because "You are not worth my ..." does not specify any more whether other things are prioritized, or whether I cannot use the resource in question for you due to other reasons. – O. R. Mapper Jun 29 '17 at 8:42
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    @Pablo: "I think you have said it all about what you think about the student." - you appear to imply I think lowly of the OP for asking what could have an obvious answer. Also, you imply the OP's professor is not a "decent human being" and deem their response "[in]appropriate and [in]excusable". And finally, you back your statements with an article that insinuates "[People who have no time for something] are either trying to do too much, or they aren’t doing what they’re doing very well." In other words, getting asked questions is their fault, or they are incompetent (or maybe both?). ... – O. R. Mapper Jun 29 '17 at 8:53
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    ... I do not know where all that negativity in your assumptions comes from, but it is what makes me strongly disagree with your answer. – O. R. Mapper Jun 29 '17 at 8:54
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    I agree with your point that it would have been helpful had the professor added an extra clarifying sentence to explain whether or not this "not having time" is temporary or permanent. But I can't upvote because a) this isn't an answer to the question, and b) it is overly negative. You infer from six words, quite evidently written in a hurry, that this professor is not a decent human being. Show some imagination. – user2390246 Jun 29 '17 at 10:14

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