As part of your final project, you’ll have to email your subject-matter expert to set up a time to speak. It can be a bit stressful to write an email of inquiry to someone you don’t know, but chances are, you’ll have to do this periodically in your life, like:

  • if you decide to apply for grad school and want to speak to a faculty member about a program.
  • if you have a question about applying for a job.
  • if you’d like to schedule an informational interview with someone.

So the ability to politely and thoughtfully request assistance from someone you haven’t met can really come in handy!

Here are my best tips:

  • Use the most formal form of address. Write “Dear Dr.” or “Dear Ms.” or whatever is the most formal title. Do not address women you haven’t met as “Mrs.” or “Miss,” especially if they have a Ph.D. If you’re not 100% sure about someone’s gender, you can address them by their full name, like “Dear Miriam Posner.” When you’re requesting a favor from an authority, do not call them by their first name unless they specifically invite you to do so.
  • Keep it short. Your first email shouldn’t lay out all the details and supporting documentation of your inquiry. It should be a brief description of the favor you’re asking and an inquiry as to whether the person has the time and inclination to participate. If they say yes, that’s when you can send follow-up details. Basically, your first email shouldn’t give the impression that you assume they’ll say yes.
  • When scheduling a time to speak, defer to that person’s schedule. You will probably need to be as flexible as possible in scheduling a conversation. Do whatever you need to do to make it easy for that person to speak with you. If the person agrees to speak with you, you might start by asking which dates and times are generally best for them, and then finding some times in your schedule that could work. Try to keep the scheduling emails to a minimum.
  • Give the person some options about how to interact with you. Many people prefer to speak on the phone for things like this, because it’s a lot faster than typing everything out. Let the person decide how they want to speak with you.

And that’s about it. Be polite and considerate, but be bold in emailing people you don’t know! You never know what might come of it!