Monday, July 26, 2010

Etiquette Question

In the spirit of pushing ahead with my PhD work, I have been contacting other labs and students I know on campus who are working in my same area. Or, at least working on some aspect of what I want to do. I figure since part of being state-of-the-art is knowing what state-of-the-art IS, I should learn as much as I can to make sure I'm not reinventing anything.

Most of the students are very quick to respond. But sometimes I don't know anybody personally in the lab (especially outside my department - I don't spend much time in Chemical Engineering or Materials). Then I contact the PI directly.

I try to follow all the good email etiquette - I state who I am, who I work for, what lab I'm in. I indicate what the lab does that seems relevant to me (showing that I at least did some background work and looked up some papers). Then I ask politely if the PI has time for a discussion on possible overlaps in research, and if I could possibly come look at the lab. I close by saying that if the PI can reccomend one of their students, I would be happy to discuss with them instead. And of course, thank you.

A couple PIs were very good about responding. But the other handful I never heard from. I waited a while, and sent a follow up, and usually by some way or other I can track them down.

There is only one professor I couldn't track down, after a month. So I went to the lab's website, and checked the publication list. I looked at the most relevant papers, and noted who the first author was. The website said that author was still working for the group. So, I sent the grad student an email.

Here, dear readers, is my dilemma. Today, I got an email from both the grad student AND the professor (who suddenly checked his email, I guess).

The professor said, "Sorry, we don't do what you are looking for. Please try these other labs."

And the student said, "Sure! I'll show you around the lab. But I don't actually work there any more, I'm a PostDoc."

So what do I do? I would still like to see the lab, I think it might be useful for me (even if not directly related - maybe I didn't explain myself very well in the email?).

Is it sketchy to have a former grad student show me around the lab, even though the PI said he didn't think it would be relevant? If anyone ever wanted to see my lab, I don't think my PI or I would ever turn them away. Maybe I shouldn't have sent separate emails - I feel like perhaps I went behind the PI's back, but I was just trying to not bother him in the case that he was too busy.

Ack! How should I respond to the two of them? What would Emily Post say?


  1. Is there something specific that you are looking to see in this lab?

    If no, I would just let it go

    If yes, I would ask the former student to provide the contact of a current student in the lab, get in contact with this person and get him/her to show you what you want to see.

  2. Agree. Ask yourself if it's really important. If it is, get in touch with a *current* student or postdoc in the lab.