In the ideal world, you have somebody who can introduce you to a professor you want to contact. In reality, you will need to cold email a senior colleague, which I’ll refer to as a professor, at some point during your doctoral years or beyond.
Let’s say you need to cold email a professor to get information (we can get into the even-worse situation of having to cold email a professor to apply for a position at some other point). What can you do to increase the chances that you will get a reply?
1. Be polite
Address senior colleagues by their title and last name. You may be on first-name basis with professors in your research group, or in your university, but when you write a professor you don’t know, err on the polite side until they explicitly tell you that you can call them by their first name.
2. Keep it short
Don’t write a two-page email. Chances are, your contact may be put off by a very long email. Stay to the point.
3. Give a quick introduction
Write a short introduction paragraph on who you are and who you are working with, and what you are working on.
4. Have a clear ask
Make it clear what you need from the professor you are emailing. Don’t write a long and confusing paragraph. Explain what you are looking for and what you will use it for. For example, write “I have developed a model to study XX and would like to check this with your dataset. Could you please send me the dataset you used in paper YY?”
5. Write a final paragraph to thank them in advance
Write a short (say, two lines) paragraph thanking the professor in advance for their willingness to help you with your research.
I do receive quite a number of cold emails, and when I can figure out what they are about, I almost always reply. I’ve received questions on how I calculated something in a paper, if I had applied my methods to a different structural element, if I can explain something from one of my papers in more detail, or if I can share an obscure paper I cited with another researcher. I don’t receive that many requests for datasets as virtually all my datasets are in the public domain, and most of my papers are either open access or we have a postprint on the university server.
Here are a few things that I don’t appreciate at all:
- Sending follow up emails: Don’t start to passively aggressively ask a professor to look at your email. Professors are busy people. If they have an autoreply on, don’t send follow up emails, and take into account it will take them weeks to catch up after a holiday. They’ll get to it eventually.
- Don’t start to stalk on social media: Worse than the unwanted “reminder” emails is starting to stalk the professor on social media, and writing them on Twitter or Instagram to ask if they have received your email. Just give it some time.
- Use the information without reference or acknowledgment: If you end up working with, for example, a dataset from another professor in one of your papers, then you should cite the dataset (if it has a DOI / is published as a table in a paper) or the paper in which the dataset is first used. If a professor spent significant time on helping you understand a crucial aspect of your research, thank them in the acknowledgment of the paper. Do not just ignore their work.