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Is it polite to ask professors for references to ideas that you have?

  • Thread starter Simfish
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  • #1
Simfish
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Main Question or Discussion Point

For example, here's a e-mail I recently sent to a professor.

""Hello Professor XX,

Do you know if any theoretical work has been done on the atmospheric evolution of a tidally locked planet facing a red dwarf star? Especially a planet whose atmosphere freezes over on the cold side, but re-vaporizes on the warm side? I'd be especially curious to know whether or not such an atmosphere could be stable over long periods of time [and how its stability compares to the stability of a planet whose atmosphere doesn't freeze over] (on the cold side, you might have comparatively few air molecules, so they might be able to "escape" a planet on the cold side since they don't have to deal with the numerous collisions that they have to deal with on the warm side, and there might not be as complex of an atmosphere on the dark side).

Is Triton an example where the atmosphere condenses on the cold side and re-vaporizes on the warm side? (YY told me that she made a homework problem about that, where the student had to calculate the heat of condensation). I'm extremely curious about how numerical models could be used on exoplanetary atmospheres, although I can't really find much research on that.

Thanks!
XX""
 

Answers and Replies

  • #2
chiro
Science Advisor
4,790
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For example, here's a e-mail I recently sent to a professor.

""Hello Professor XX,

Do you know if any theoretical work has been done on the atmospheric evolution of a tidally locked planet facing a red dwarf star? Especially a planet whose atmosphere freezes over on the cold side, but re-vaporizes on the warm side? I'd be especially curious to know whether or not such an atmosphere could be stable over long periods of time [and how its stability compares to the stability of a planet whose atmosphere doesn't freeze over] (on the cold side, you might have comparatively few air molecules, so they might be able to "escape" a planet on the cold side since they don't have to deal with the numerous collisions that they have to deal with on the warm side, and there might not be as complex of an atmosphere on the dark side).

Is Triton an example where the atmosphere condenses on the cold side and re-vaporizes on the warm side? (YY told me that she made a homework problem about that, where the student had to calculate the heat of condensation). I'm extremely curious about how numerical models could be used on exoplanetary atmospheres, although I can't really find much research on that.

Thanks!
XX""
The only suggestion I've got is to kind of introduce yourself a bit more. State you're background for example. If you are in his classes then state this.

Also thank him for his time and be a little more courteous. I might be overdoing it by saying this, but if he is a busy guy (or gal) he might get frustrated by you if he sees a letter without an appropriate introduction and a little courtesy.

Also you might want to find out what his research area is before you send it. The uni should have a faculty website detailing the faculty members and areas of research.

If the faculty member works in a related area or is the best person to ask, mention that in your request and then state that and your interest.

When you write to other people put yourself in their shoes: what do they know about you or assume about you, how busy are they and what do they do and so on.

Apart from that the question seems specific which is really good since you don't want to have communication that isn't specific enough and simple enough in its wording.
 
  • #3
Simfish
Gold Member
818
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Oh okay, thanks for the suggestions!

The professor already knows who I am though, so I don't need to introduce myself. I usually introduce my emails with "I hope you're doing well", but since I've said that (twice) in my emails to him, I don't want to sound too repetitive (there are other phrases I can use too, but even then, it sounds awkward if you've used those phrases in the same place several times already).

So I wonder if there are better ways to send emails with a professor you might interact with on a basis of once every few months?

Hm, like, here's another email I sent to a professor who knows who I am (I'm taking a class from her right now so it wouldn't be abrupt):

Hello XX,

Since you're involved in global warming research, I think you might have a few thoughts on this (or maybe some references).

So I recognize that it's easy for people to cherry-pick time intervals so that they could find a particular trend that they want to see.

For example, the average temperature in the US for both 2008 and 2009 were remarkably cool compared to every other year since 1998. Deniers could easily cherry-pick these intervals to say that global warming didn't really happen. And of course, we can always expect a few of these intervals to happen despite a trend - simply due to statistical variation.

Even then, 13 years is not a strong sample size, and 2 out of 13 is still greater than 5%.

But might it be possible to improve the statistical rigor of our data if we used all possible 12-month intervals from 1998 to 2010? (for example, february 2006 to february 2007?) And possibly - all 5-day and all 73 day intervals too? (since they're factors of 365, so they're possible to compare from year to year?) Changing the time bin intervals and testing the trend across all possible time-bin intervals might be a more rigorous way of doing things (of course, it's possible that people don't care *that* much about rigor, but I'm sure that changing the intervals of time binning would be quite useful for some things - although two time bins might have the same data). I know that the size (and degree of overlap) in time-binning intervals is extremely important in neuroscience research, as I did write a small neuroscience program that varied the time bins that were relevant for spike-triggered-averages relevant for neuron firing. Time binning is very important when it comes to systems that store information, where studying the history in the past would be relevant to immediate predictions in the future (although the weather system is a chaotic system, in which case the precise behavior in the past might not be as relevant to the precise behavior in the future, even if averages in the past are relevant to averages in the future).

I read the data from http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/oa/climate/research/cag3/cag3.html a lot, since it allows people to select their own time bins (latest 3-month period or latest 6-month period, and ending at any given month).

Okay, and I have some other questions too.

- Are there atmospheric scientists who do a lot of research that use pattern classification/data mining/other optimization algorithms? I think that the atmospheric sciences are one of the areas that could benefit the most from this, since we already have massive datasets from the atmospheric sciences (which will increase as we increase the number of sensors [and the precision of the sensors]).

Why is it that global warming is often forecasted to increase the number of storms and other adverse weather events? Of course, adverse weather events are often correlated with the water content in the air, and warmer air generally holds more water. But on the other hand, warming will disproportionately affect the poles relative to the tropics, and the decreased temperature gradient might reduce wind speeds and some adverse weather effects related to those wind speeds.

And then another one: have there been any attempts to change how we measure highs and lows? The problem with measuring highs and lows is that it's often a poor metric for the temperature throughout the day. For example, many cities in the Midwest have frequent thunderstorms during summer. And the temperatures of these cities can really drop during a thunderstorm - Denver, for example, frequently has highs of 90 degrees at 1 PM, but then has temperatures that suddenly drop to 63 degrees at 3 PM due to a passing thunderstorm. But this data isn't captured at all in high/low data. Similarly, the high/low data is sometimes flat-out misleading when a cold front passes over a city in the night following a very warm day - the high might then be registered as 50 degrees (at midnight), even though the city might have an average temperature of 30 degrees throughout the entire afternoon. A lot of the data is really only captured in hourly observation data, and given the tools we have today, it seems that using hourly observation data in research would make a lot of research more rigorous (especially since there are some cities where such anomalies systematically happen - maybe not so much Seattle as much as the Midwest).

There are some other metrics that I'm really interested in but haven't really seen (maybe they might exist somewhere in the literature?) For example, dT/dt, where dT is change in temperature, and dt is change in time. Measuring average rates of that figure can be done given the data that we do have - we might be able to measure dT/dt with respect to both seasonal changes and hourly changes, and see how these are both affected by temperature.

Thanks!
 
  • #4
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The professor already knows who I am though, so I don't need to introduce myself.
I think the big question is how well you know the professor. :-) More often than not however, if you ask a professor about a topic they are interested in, they'll talk your ear off about it. Also, don't be surprised if the prof responds with a "it's an interesting question, but I don't know anything about it." People are very narrow in their fields, and so it's possible that you know more about the topic than the person you are e-mailing.

It's a pretty nice letter.

So I wonder if there are better ways to send emails with a professor you might interact with on a basis of once every few months?
If you at the same university, it's better to talk face to face. If you are at a different university, it is sometimes useful to mention when you saw them because they may not remember.
 
  • #5
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I like the first letter better than the second letter. The problem with the second letter is that you are asking for a lot of information, and so if you ask a lot of questions, the person getting it might be reluctant to respond unless they have all of that information, which may be never. For things like the second letter, it's probably a lot better to ask if they have time to talk to you about some questions about global warming and then talk to them face to face.

Something else that is useful is that instead of e-mailing a professor, you might be a lot better off e-mailing a graduate student. The social distance is less, and so it might be a lot more comfortable to have an informal conversation with a grad student than a professor.
 
  • #6
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All my life I wanted to join the Xmen. I first discovered my mutant powers (Theoretical Astrophysics) when I was 14 and since then I feel I've matured enough to join your research group.
You aren't being helpful here.

I thought the first letter was pretty good.

Also one thing that you may find interesting is that learning to write an "are you interested" email is an important skill because professors write these things to each other.

The things to remember is that

1) Profs tend to be busy, so anything that you can do to make it so that they can reply quickly is good. For the first letter, the prof can easily spend two minutes replying with a reference to a review paper or some names of people to google. The second letter is less good because it will take the prof an hour to reply, and they may not have that hour

2) Profs can be very narrowly focused so they may know nothing about your question. On the other hand, if you do hit someone that is doing active research on something, they'll talk and talk and talk about it. What that means is to make sure you are getting the right person.

3) Graduate students can get you much of the information that professors can.
 
  • #7
Simfish
Gold Member
818
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Thanks for all the feedback! :) I'll definitely implement those ideas the next time around.

Also one thing that you may find interesting is that learning to write an "are you interested" email is an important skill because professors write these things to each other.
Ah I totally didn't realize that. That's really interesting. :)
 
  • #8
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Hi Professor X,

All my life I wanted to join the Xmen. I first discovered my mutant powers (Theoretical Astrophysics) when I was 14 and since then I feel I've matured enough to join your research group.
4TheWin
 

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