Asking help from professors who are not in your program: etiquette

Don’t call anyone by their first name until they invite you to do so.   It is “Professor X” or “Dr. X” until you’ve gotten an email signed with a first name only.  Yes, you have just gotten used to calling the professors at your own program by their first names, but guess what?  They invited you to.

Ask professors specific questions.  Do not ask them to “walk you through” how to do something.  Do not assume that just because they wrote or did something that they have no greater joy in life than walking you through said thing, especially when it is obvious you haven’t made an effort to understand it yourself first.  How do they know that you’ve made a good faith effort?  Ask specific questions!

Many professors cannot read anything longer than three lines.  Get to the point quickly.  If you are polite and clear, the professor may read more lines, but put them in a new paragraph.

Do not assume that just because you are a white male graduate student at a top program that your time is more important than that of a professor at a less than top program.  Said professor has a more impressive PhD than yours and you will no doubt end up someplace even less impressive if you graduate.  And even if that’s not the case, the professor still has her own important stuff to do.  None of it involves you.  Show some humility and respect her time.  She isn’t your RA.
Grumpeteers, what advice do you have for graduate students requesting help from professors outside of their program?

19 Responses to “Asking help from professors who are not in your program: etiquette”

  1. Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

    Ask professors specific questions. Do not ask them to “walk you through” how to do something.

    I get these kind of e-mails all the time: “Dear Professor PhysioProffe: I have been reading some of the papers from your labbe, and they are very interesting, especially the ones about glibbitty florping in the flimfarg. Do you have any more thoughts about this topic?”

  2. Liz Says:

    I’ve contacted professors before, but it’s always to ask for a copy of something they wrote that I can’t get on my own (for whatever reason), or to ask if there’s a recording of a talk they gave somewhere. Perhaps, however, that’s because my experience is that my own department has negative time (not even zero, but less than zero) to help me with questions about the topics I’m writing about…

    Maybe it’s different for PhD students, rather than terminal MAs? But I won’t go down that grumble path.

    Tangential but related question: when should you drop your MA adviser in search of greener pastures? Context: a year of “I’m busy” and the most substantive comment being “Your writing is shitte, go seek some help”. Paraphrased, of course, but the average response consists of fewer than three sentences and ignores any/all questions in my email. Also, the department is very small and no one other than the current person really does anything related to my content. And saying it’s related is a small stretch. And I also have only one semester left to get this done, working FT outside of academe.

    • Debbie M Says:

      Some advisers just suck. (Mine was merely unhelpful. Week after week of “Yep. That sounds good. No, you’re doing fine.”)

      If you have no choice, you have no choice. But there might be someone interested in what you’re working on even though it’s a different field. Is there anyone whose writing style or research approach you admire? Or even just teaching ability or communication ability? (Disclaimer–I am not an academic. My only claim to knowledge about this question is that I found out at the last minute that I needed a second reader on my thesis, and she probably gave me more helpful advice than my adviser had, even though it was just a few points. So I’m thinking you never know who could be helpful.)

      • Rumpus Says:

        I second this. Some advisors are no good. Talk with someone else about your situation…other MA students, secretaries (be tactful/careful), or a graduate student advisor type staff-person. To get the most out of your time, you need guidance, and if your official advisor is not providing it I would see if you could find another advisor that would.

    • Bardiac Says:

      Debbie et. al. are correct that some advisers “just suck.” But some writing also sucks. Is there a writing lab or another faculty member you can go to and just ask to get feedback on your writing? Just ask: does this suck? If it doesn’t, then it’s time to find a new adviser. If it does, then the writing lab should be able to help you. (I’ve had to read MA thesis work that was written dreadfully. It happens.)

  3. Viola Says:

    I haven’t had anyone ask me to “walk them through” anything as a professor yet, but I did have someone basically email me their qualifying exam questions when I was a postdoc, and ask for my “thoughts” on them. I think I replied back that he was lucky I didn’t notify his PI directly and alert them to the fact that he was trying to cheat (he used his university email – it wasn’t hard to find out who he was). That was weird, but must happen to a lot of people if you stick around long enough.

  4. rented life Says:

    “Ask specific questions!” Should be advice for all students all the time. I do not handle the “Professor, I don’t understand the assignment/reading/question.” “What don’t you understand?” “Well….” And then they can’t tell me.

  5. Rumpus Says:

    A lot of the communication issues are the same when attempting to communicate with non-academics. Students and recent graduates generally have little experience communicating and so their attempts are childish, insulting, and ineffective. The best (i.e., most aware) are good communicators. The not-so-bad just need a comment that they are being unprofessional. The “unwashed masses” require instruction, and often times the instruction in communication is more important for their own development/growth than the answer to their original question.

    It’s even worse when they first have to run a meeting, but what can one expect when they have no training in such things?

  6. Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

    There must be something in the water, because I had a first-year graduate student from one of the programs I am affiliated with–but whom I have never met before–in my office today basically say, “So. What can you tell me about the research in your lab?” So, I go, “Well, are you interested in doing a rotation in my lab, and if so, what areas of our research are interesting to you?” So he goes, “No, not really. I am just curious about your research.” So I go, “This is not an appropriate context for me to give you a lecture on the various research areas in my lab. If you have any specific questions I would be happy to answer them.” And then he looks at me like I am completely deranged and then asks me a grossly intrusive question about my personal motivations underlying a particular aspect of my professional history.

  7. Laura Vanderkam (@lvanderkam) Says:

    I’m not a grad student, but when I email professors to ask for interviews for articles, I always address it to Prof. Name. Usually the person responds to “Laura” and ends by signing their first name, so then I figure we’re all cool for being more informal. If the person responds to Ms. Vanderkam, we continue on a last-name and honorific basis.

  8. Link love (Powered by strawberries and Caprese salad) | NZ Muse Says:

    […] and Maggie with some advice on the proper etiquette when dealing with professors. (You can probably apply this in many contexts. Folks who contact editors, get to the point fast, and […]

  9. Melete Says:

    What advice? For godsake, stay out of graduate school!

    Get a job. Better yet, learn a trade, where your colleagues may not be so full of themselves. :roll:

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I’m sure you have *plenty* of time to walk impolite people who can’t be bothered to read what is already out there through things when they’re not paying you. It’s only academics who are so full of themselves that they value their time. You must do a lot of editing for free.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: