Paul Kei Matsuda
http://pmatsuda.faculty.asu.edu/

E-Mentorship

I tend to get a lot of email messages from graduate students from other institutions and other countries. In general, I enjoy corresponding with them, and I try to help them as much as possible by sharing my opinion, providing feedback on their research design, suggesting a few sources, and sharing some of my own work.

Many of the people who send me those requests are really professional, polite and pleasant. Before they ask for help, they tell me who they are, who their advisors are, in which programs and at institutions they are studying, which one of my articles has influenced their work, etc. They also tell me a bit about their work--enough for me to understand what they are trying to do, what they have read, at what stage of the project they are at, and what they are struggling with.

But other messages are not as informative. Perhaps they are trying not to waste my time by telling me all about themselves before asking me a question. (Too much information can actually get overwhelming.) But sometimes its not clear whether they have read anything on the topic, what they are trying to do, why they are interested in it, and why they have decided to contact me of all people (other than having my email address handy). I try to respond even in those cases, but those correspondences often end up taking a lot more time because I have to probe for details to understand what kind of suggestions would be most helpful. I've also had a few situations where the student had already done what I would have suggested.

Other researchers in my field also get this kind of email. Some of them try to respond as much as possible; others simply delete them. Others respond only if the initial message is courteous and professional.

Before you contact anyone for help, do your homework. Make sure you have done everything you can on your own before asking for help from an outside expert. Specifically:

  • Try http://www.google.com/. Use every possible keywords imaginable. 
  • Search through databases available through the library at your own institution. If you don't know how to use it, contact your own librarians. They are there to help you. 
  • If you are interested in second language writing, search and browse through the entire issue of the Journal of Second Language Writing before contacting anyone. 
  • Consult your advisor first about the question--she or he may have the information you need or at least know where best to find it. They should also be able to tell you if your request is a reasonable one. 
After doing all of these, you should be able to find the answer. If they are not able or willing to help, start shopping for a better advisor at your institution or elsewhere. If you are not in a doctoral program yet, find the right one for you. Here are the guidelines: http://dissoilogoi2.blogspot.com/2012/06/choosing-phd-program.html.

If you can't find answers to your questions after trying all of these, then consider emailing someone at another institution. Here are some guidelines:
  • Introduce yourself--explain who you are, which program you are in and at what stage, who your advisor is, etc.
  • Explain why you are contacting the person and not anyone else.
  • Briefly explain your project. Thinks of it as a mini-proposal--a statement of rationale, a brief summary of your mental mapping of the works related to the topic, a statement of the gap in the professional literature you are trying to address, the research design (if it's an empirical research), and possible contributions to the field. Without this kind of information, it's often not possible to give a sound and specific advice.
  • Focus only on the information that can't be obtained elsewhere or from anyone else.
  • Keep the question or request specific and to a minimum, and make it easy to answer.
  • Understand that researchers are busy with their own work and, in many cases, their own students. Being courteous and showing some appreciation (at least a thank you note) is the least you can do. I also like it when people send me the result of their work that I helped with. 
  • Include the person's full name in the acknowledgements. (Or cite the person's contribution in the manuscript as personal communication.) 
The information about the advisor may seem trivial, but I ask anyways because I don't want to give the kind of help that the advisor may find inappropriate (that is, I don't want to contribute to an act of academic dishonesty). Some people hesitate to give me that information, perhaps thinking that I wouldn't know the advisor anyway (although I often do know something about them) or fearing that it would embarrass the advisor (but if that's true, they should not be contacting me).

Occasionally, these correspondences turn into long-term professional relationship--even friendship. But this kind of relationship usually start with a well-written and considerate messages as well as thoughtful follow-ups. Writing does matter, I guess.

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Last update: January 6, 2008