Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Am I An Expert?

Today I got email from a young professor I've met once or twice, saying:

"My colleagues X and Y keep telling me that I have to contact you because you may be an expert in Z, so I am writing to you. Are you an expert in Z? If so, tell me what you are doing on Topic A. By the way, we met a few years ago when you were in Europe when your husband was on sabbatical there."

I keep meaning to thank my husband for bringing me on his sabbatical with him, perhaps because I was on sabbatical too? This email also suggests that Dr. Young Professor, who is in the first year of his faculty position, does not know how to do a literature search.

I sent back a nice and helpful reply, though I think he could have worded his email a bit more respectfully and professionally.


Melinda Casino said...

Ah, well, I've sent a poorly worded email or two myself. If this person lives in Europe, perhaps it's a cultural thing? For instance, the Germans are known to be blunt.

At any rate, the email format invites a more familiar tone, but I agree that it could've been more respectful and professional.

Female Science Professor said...

I didn't mind the bluntness of the email, but I think the sender could have done a search on Topic A, found my papers on this Topic in international journals, and asked me some informed questions instead.

Anonymous said...

I wonder why do you have to look at the email that way ..... as if everyone is trying to get you or something. Maybe English is not his first language, maybe he wanted to say (without being lengthy) that he knows your husband too, maybe he is very straight forward, and the concept of being sexist doesn't even occur to him.

Why don't you try to be professional and look at the research part of the email, and not get excited by the irrelevant part. After all, you are a full professor and he is a young professor.

Female Science Professor said...

That's why I responded to him in a nice and professional way with the information he sought. His problem is not with English. I have met him. His colleagues told me that it was very difficult for him to write to me and ask for information because he didn't really believe that I would have anything useful to tell him, so I guess that affected my view of his wording.

Anonymous said...

I understand why others have said that perhaps English or other problems have precluded this person from writing coherently, but since we've put that to rest, I think perhaps your email might have best included a comment, not maliciously, directing this person who certainly should have worked to educate himself to do so in the future for he has in fact done a great disservice to you and he has set himself up to make himself look very foolish in the future and not be taken very seriously, or something along those lines. I agree that you were right to be polite and helpful, but I do not always think it is right to not help the underlying problem, and I really think we'd all hate to see all the time, effort and money people have spent on his education wasted at all.

Honestly, even as an undergraduate I did literature searches on professors. It's a valuable education to be taken down a peg.

gs said...

How about:

Dear Young Professor,

Yes, I remember meeting you when my husband and I took our sabbaticals in Europe. It's nice to be in touch again.

I'm gratified that your colleagues thought of me regarding Z. Tell me more about your interest in Topic A. My publications on the subject should be a good starting point for a discussion.

The papers should be readily identifiable by a literature search (?or on my cv on the departmental website?). If you're not in a position to perform a search, I'll be happy to send you a list, as well as copies of any papers that you don't have access to.

Thanks again for the email. I look forward to hearing back from you. Please give my regards to Professors X and Y.



Female Science Professor said...

Here is my actual reply to the email:

Dear X,

Thanks for your email. Yes, I do remember meeting you during my sabbatical year in European City. It's great to hear that you are also interested in Topic A and related subjects.

I am still working on Topic A, including this-specific-thing and that-specific thing. My group is currently doing such and such(blah blah blah details). You can read about our work to date in the attached reprint (see reference list for earlier related works). I'd be happy to discuss Topic A with you if you have comments or questions.



John Dupuis said...

In reference to literature searches, in my experience a lot of grad students don't have a clue. They don't know what journals or conferences are and don't know why they should care, never mind what the main article search databases & publishers are in their field. They're also too confident and/or embarassed to admit these failings to their advisors and thus seem to muddle through on Google. I imagine a certain percentage of the clueless manage to make it through and become profs themselves.

Fortunately, a lot of science faculty make sure their grad students meet a librarian and get off to a good start. On the other hand, some also seem to think that grad students learned it all as undergrads (they didn't) or will just pick it up by osmosis like they did back in the good old days (doesn't happen that way anymore, too easy to use just anything on Google).

Oh, the stories I could tell. Your librarian can help you get your grad students (and thus the new generation of profs) oriented to the scholarly communications landscape.

- Your friendly neighbourhood Science Librarian

anonymous said...

Well, I am an expert!

You can tell because:

1) I know exactly what you did wrong in every situation

2) I provide my ever-so-insightful advice anonymously (because that really adds to my credibility, you know)

Anonymous said...

I once received an email from a colleague in an Asian country congratulating me on my "pretty" paper and asking a question about it. I answered his question, and made one careful comment about using the word "pretty" - I did not want to dress him down in any way, just wanted to alert him to the connotations of a foreign language so that he wouldn't make the same mistake with someone else. He was very effusively apologetic in return. It's hard to get the response exactly right; I certainly don't want to militantly over-react, but I did want to make a positive step.

Rosie Redfield said...

Perhaps you could point him (and other beginners) to Eszter Hargittai's excellent article "A Primer on Electronic Communication", which explains how to politely and effectively use email to ask for research advice.


Female Science Professor said...

Rosie, thanks for the link. It's amazing that such simple common-sense rules for corresponding with someone can make such a difference, but they do.

Ms.PhD said...

I love the sarcastic joke about thanking your husband. =D

But gaaah! There is no excuse for not knowing how to use the internet in this day and age, if you're coming from a developed country!

And dear science librarian guy, there are some google worshipers who would be offended to think it's not good enough for, well, any and every information need you might have! Seriously, don't underestimate the ability of the younger generation to use the internet, but I agree they need to know what sort of information exist and in what format if they're ever going to find it.