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I have a friend who is trying hard to establish a connection with a well-known professor at a generally top 5 school for STEM in the U.S. This professor is frequently at some good seminars around the area.

My question is: is it appropriate for my friend to ask out this professor for coffee? She has tried several times - trying to meet him one on one before the start of seminars, some other scheduled times, etc. This may be relevant, so I will note that she is female, and the professor is male.

He has turned my friend down with reasons such as "I'll be traveling and can't meet for coffee", or "sorry, but I won't be able to make it today." Otherwise, the professor answers all of her questions and gives great advice to her, in terms of how to advance in the field. Based on what she tells me, he is very polite and helpful.

Personally, I would never ask a professor out for coffee - let alone try repeatedly, after he or she has said "no" several times. I would email to start some dialogue and perhaps meet in his / her office. So I just want to know whether perhaps I should hint to my friend to stop trying to get him out to coffee and that maybe he's not so into the idea of letting students schmooze with him one on one.

I wonder if this is sort of specific to the STEM field academia culture, too; e.g. if we were in film school or business school, I think it'd be much more "normal" to ask a professor out to coffee to try and build a relationship.

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    We know nothing about your friend. Is your friend a undergrad or grad student at the same university? Applying? What's the reason for the desire of the connection? – T K Aug 22 '17 at 16:50
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    The language you're using here is very strange, but perhaps you're not a native speaker? To me the phrase "ask out" essentially always has romantic connotations, and in a non-romantic setting you would phrase things differently (e.g. "meet at a coffee shop"). – Noah Snyder Aug 22 '17 at 18:35
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – ff524 Aug 22 '17 at 20:00
  • Is there a coffee place on campus, near his building? – einpoklum Aug 22 '17 at 20:31
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I don't think that this is special to any type of professional environment. The professor is polite and responsive. However, they repeatedly tactfully refused an informal meeting, which indicates that they are uncomfortable with it (indeed, they may be coincidentally busy at the given time, but often this would be reflected in the suggestion for rescheduling, which I don't see). In my opinion, your friend should take the hint and reevaluate their approach, e.g. schedule an office meeting.

As to whether it is appropriate to ask, as long as the tone is professional, I see no problem in asking, just as I see no problem getting 'no' for an answer. This, however, may in some cases be culture specific.

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    Also, going out for a coffee sounds like a significant time investment. I'm sure coffee is available at his office. – Roland Aug 22 '17 at 8:44
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    @Roland the time investment is the whole point. Going for coffee does not literally "grab a double espresso in the same coffee shop before returning to the department." It means "meeting to discusss [research, professional prospects, etc.] in an informal setting " – Clement C. Aug 22 '17 at 13:21
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    @ClementC. I understand that. But going to a coffee place and back is additional time and inconvenience. – Roland Aug 22 '17 at 13:25
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    I think even the professors I'm on good terms with would laugh at the idea of leaving their office (where all their notes are besides) to take 20-30 to walk somewhere and back to chat with me. – Azor Ahai Aug 22 '17 at 16:35
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    @Azor-Ahai This exactly. Going out for coffee is much more time than likely that professor's own graduate students get. It's a pretty tall ask for a random hopeful... – J... Aug 22 '17 at 19:01
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It is not appropriate to waste other people's time. As a general life principle, anyone wanting to talk to me without being able to articulate a reason beyond wanting to "establish a connection" or "build a relationship" with me quite clearly is doing it to advance their own self-interest without having anything meaningful to say to me, and without really being interested in my work or in me as a person. Professors are human beings and don't like to be manipulated or used as pawns by students looking to advance their careers by networking with them. I would bet that the professor's refusal to go have coffee with your friend has something to do with him getting the sort of ick factor that I'm getting when I hear that someone wants to "establish a connection" with me.

The professor may also be concerned, justifiably or not, that going out for coffee with a young female student who is asking to chat with him for vague reasons may be asking for trouble beyond the waste of time that such an outing would entail.

To summarize, she has asked him several times, and he has repeatedly said no. It may have been more or less appropriate the first time, and clueless the second time, but asking more than twice would be quite inappropriate in my opinion, and likely to leave a pretty poor impression.

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    @Magicsowon Is it? Many professors have limited time and limited people skills to control manipulative or pushy people. Frankly, if someone doesn't take a NO several times, insistent to form a relationship according to her terms, even sends a friend to SE to figure out how to do this, it is a clear sign that she is pushy. – Greg Aug 22 '17 at 18:10
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    @Greg It is correct here, but telling pushy and manipulative people they are pushy and manipulative invites conflict, which is one other thing you don't have time for if you are a professor. – user21264 Aug 22 '17 at 18:15
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    @Magicsowon I think calling her pushy and manipulative is rather unwarranted given how little we know about the situation. – Elizabeth Henning Aug 22 '17 at 18:28
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    @Greg Or she's just a little clueless. Come on. – Elizabeth Henning Aug 22 '17 at 18:29
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    @ElizabethHenning That might be true. She might be one of those overly enthusiastic students who simply doesn't realize the professor can't afford the time investment. Whatever the reason, the most the professor can do is to have a short office meeting and only if she has something specific to ask about research. – user21264 Aug 22 '17 at 18:33
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Otherwise, the professor answers all of her questions and gives great advice to her, in terms of how to advance in the field.

I would say that she has successfully already established a connection with this professor. Lucky her: you can find many variations on the question "How do I get professors to answer my e-mails?" -- both on this site and elsewhere on the internet.

My experience as a math professor is that, generally, we appreciate direct requests. (Especially if they are made in such a way as to not presume the answer will be yes.) For example, your friend should feel free to ask the professor directly if she: wants a letter of recommendation; wants a suggestion for a research project; has a technical question about one of his papers; would like feedback on a research idea; etc.

Indeed, I have made and received all sorts of invitations out of the blue, to and from people I did not know at all well: to travel out-of-state to give lectures, to collaborate on research projects, etc. This is perfectly normal in math culture. It is of course perfectly polite (and common) to decline, but sometimes such invitations will be accepted, and indeed a couple of my research collaborations have started this way.

Usually one would "establish a connection" if one wanted either: (1) to pursue a friendship or romantic relationship for its own sake, or (2) to smooth the way to make career-motivated requests in the future. I wouldn't recommend (1), especially after he has repeatedly declined coffee invitations. As for (2), I would recommend not worrying about first "establishing a connection" and instead simply make her requests directly.

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  1. OP's friend is not their student, nor even (apparently) a student anywhere in their school. They are just one of tens of thousands of prospective students applying. American academics can be quite formal and strict about this; this comes across as trying to ignore, shortcircuit or unduly influence the admissions process.
    • And as OP points out, he's already said 'No' at least twice, and a polite 'No' is still a 'No'. OP's friend not listening and persisting is at best annoying and at worst potentially fatal to her application.
  2. Also, since academic careers can be stalled or killed by even one false allegation of sexual harassment, and in some colleges male academic staff (even down to TAs) are advised not to even have a closed-door meeting on their own with a female student to mitigate that risk, let alone an offcampus 'coffee' with someone who isn't even an enrolled student in their dept let alone college, you can see why the professor might well be declining the meeting - even if he's a helpful guy and believes she's a very good applicant.
  3. So at best she comes across as pushy, persistent, not listening and disrespectful of his time. Consider that if a male prospective student repeatedly pestered a female professor to 'have a coffee' alone, it might be construed as stalking, or worse
  4. Even if we totally set all that massive context aside, she's not even remotely communicating effectively: instead of repeatedly asking him to have a 'coffee meeting' with undisclosed purpose, which he is clearly not prepared to do, it would be better for her to have stated a clearer request by email "How can I apply to dept X?" or "How can I make my application to dept X look better?", which again brings us back to strongly coming across as trying to ignore, shortcircuit or unduly influence the admissions process. Also, busy professors (of whatever gender) have no obligation to answer any such emails, of which they receive a very high volume daily (if they're in a top-5 US school), in which case she should have demonstrated both courtesy and initiative by not pestering him further, and instead tried to find a graduate student, postdoc, recent graduate, recent applicant etc. who actually was willing to speak with her (voluntarily, at a setting, time and place of their choosing, not hers) and give her advice. But she didn't do that.
  5. Let's allow that she's well-qualified and has a shot at the graduate position, and it's her lifelong dream. Remember with (say) a 1% accept rate there might be 99+ other similar applicants for the same position. Let us assume for the sake of the professor's sanity they are not all behaving similarly. Ultimately, she's competing with those other 99, so if she continues to pressure or annoy the professor, the chances one of the other 99 gets picked go up.
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Is it appropriate?

It depends on the culture. I assume you're asking for Europe and United States, in which case the answer is that some would consider this appropriate to ask. That does not mean it's appropriate that the professor would do so for multiple reasons:

  • Some might see this as trying to get around merit by becoming a favorite or knowing someone on the inside. Some people think it's highly unethical to hire or favor on the basis of "who you know" not "what you know" but this depends on the culture and environment.
  • The request is incredibly time-consuming with little benefit for the professor. Not everyone likes coffee and a drink is not worth an hour or thirty minutes of a person's time, especially if they're at a top 5 school anywhere. They probably have huge responsibilities.
  • Since a top teacher's time is limited, what would happen if 10% of prospective students did this? It wouldn't be possible for his/her time.
  • Some people may feel uncomfortable seeing students or prospective students in a casual environment that could be misconstrued by others. Also, some cultures have experienced legal implications of accusations, which true or not, have made some higher-ups consider whether a meeting with anyone is appropriate. Unfortunately, people "higher up" tend to be targets in these accusations.

So while in most cases, there's no harm in asking, I can't think of a single case where a top 5 professor in any field would grant this request.

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If he keeps brushing her off, it might be time to move along. I think it's important that she be clear about the intention of the meeting since coffee sounds a lot like a date.

protected by ff524 Aug 22 '17 at 19:59

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