Academics: Success with Research Papers/Contacting Professors

Today I found a good article about how to do research for university-level papers. Most undergraduates and nearly all graduate students in American universities will write several long “research papers” before they graduate. These papers are big projects, with two important parts: the research and the writing.

Most students are so worried about the writing part that they don’t think about the research part very much. The research is not original research–you don’t do any experiments, dig up any bones, or run any tests. This is “library research.” Many students don’t do well on this part of the paper, because they don’t know where to start, choose sources that are not high-level, or get lost and spend too much time trying to find sources.

Dustin Wax, at, has written a good article on “10 Steps Toward Better Research.” He mentions that it’s important to talk to your professor and to librarians to help you with your topic. I would add that it’s really important to talk to your professor at the beginning, when you’re trying to figure out your topic. Discussions by either e-mail or in person are fine, depending on your and your professor’s preferences.

Another article that I read recently said that American students at American universities and international students and American universities talk to their professors differently. American students tended to e-mail their professors specific questions, such as “Do you think the question of (blah blah blah) would be a good paper topic? Or would it be better for me to focus more on (blah blah blah)?” On the other hand, international students asked more general questions such as “What kind of topic should I pick?”

Although the international students probably thought of their questions as more polite, very general questions are difficult for professors to answer over e-mail. The result was that the American students received their answers quickly, but it took a long time for the international students and the professors to finish their e-mail conversations. Because of this, the American students had more time to work on their papers.

The more general question would be fine for an in-person talk with the professor. However, the international students in the article also had problems setting up a time by e-mail to visit their professor in person. The American students checked the office hours on the syllabus, and then e-mailed the professor to say things like “I can’t come during your office hours, but do you have any free time Tuesday or Thursday afternoons? I could come in any time between 2 PM and 4 PM.” This lets the professor respond with a specific time, such as “How about Thursday at 3 PM?” or suggest an alternate such as “I’m busy then, but we could meet 15 minutes before class on Wednesday.”

The international students again were more general, asking questions such as “When can I go to your office?” Again, this probably seemed more polite to the students than giving a suggestion. The result, though, was that it took many e-mails and more time for the professor and the international student to arrange their meeting.

This is not to say that it’s always better to be more direct. Also, the local way of doing things (American, in this case) is not always the best way to do something. Still, it’s a good idea to be aware of how things like this are done wherever you are, whether it’s the US, Canada, Australia, etc. Even if you feel a little uncomfortable using the local style, it might be able to help you succeed in school.

2 thoughts on “Academics: Success with Research Papers/Contacting Professors”

  1. You talked about communicating with professors and also about doing research so I’d like to add a tip combining both.

    Sometimes you read a very interesting paper or even a great book during your research. I’ve found it’s quite easy to write the author and get extra help and advice on your questions.

    First, find the author’s Email address. This is often on the paper itself or you may need to do a search to find his university or personal webpage.

    Second, write him a note of appreciation for his paper or book. Just say how much you liked it and try to mention something specific you liked about it.

    Third, wait for the reply. It may take about a week but you’ll get an Email note back, usually just one line, thanking you for your Thank You note.

    Fourth, now you can write your question. “Reply” to the Email that you received from the author so it will be clear that you are the fan, that person he/she just wrote.

    I have written to many professors, book authors, newspaper reporters and various top experts around the world in this way and it nearly always works.

  2. That’s a good suggestion, Dave. My only addition would be that students should be sure their question is not too basic. It’s pretty irritating for a writer to get a question that could have been answered using Google or Wikipedia. If you write to an author or professor, be sure your question is something that is specific to that person.

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