How to Interview an Expert for your Research Paper

Interviewing an expert

Photo: Christina @ on Unsplash 

How to do an Interview

Interviews! The fast track to expert opinions and answers. Or, what one student jokingly said, "Let the expert write your research paper for you!" Well, almost. 

If you’re trying to gather the latest information about your topic, ask an expert or someone who knows the subject in depth for an interview. 

Typically, this would begin with an email to a professor. Here are some tips to think about when you write this request.

  • Safety: Include your parents’ email in the exchange.
  • Say: “Hello, Professor (Title) Watson (Name),”
  • Tell them who you are and what project you are researching.
  • Show you know something about the subject.
  • Ask a question that cannot be searched online easily.
  • Ask ONE Open-ended Question. Avoid questions that can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.”
  • Say, "Thank you!"
  • Add your name.
  • Your school.
  • Optionally, add your interest (Future Paleontologist).

An Email Example:

To: [email protected]

CC:[email protected]

From: [email protected]

Subject:  T. Rex Location Research Question (Homeschooler, from Pam Fletcher)

Hello Professor Watson,

My name is Jayme Stanley, and I am a 7th grader working on an independent research project. 

I’m searching for places in the U.S. where one can find a Tyrannosaurus Rex skull. 

In my current findings, Montana seems to be an ideal place where the T. Rex Lucy was found. T. Rex Sue was found 90% intact in South Dakota. 

I would love it if you could respond to this question, which I have found trouble finding elsewhere: 

  1. Why are so many T. Rex’s found in those areas? 

Thank you in advance for taking the time to respond.

Have a wonderful day!

Pam Fletcher

Future Paleontologist  

Homeschooler, Mountain View, CA

Be Safe: Add your Parents Email in the CC.  

There may be weird people out there, so you have to be careful. 

We’ve never had an issue with emailing or calling experts, especially since they are often people who are associated with people we know. Experts are often professional. But just to be safe, make sure you do the following. 

  1. For your emails, phone calls, or video calls, make sure your parent or guardian is nearby. 
    1. For Emails, include your parent in the email exchange. 
    2. For Phone calls, do a conference call.
    3. Have your parents nearby for Video calls, like Zoom or Google Meet. 


Most of the experts you will be contacting will be by email at first. 

  1. Here’s how you could address them. 
  2. The main rule is to be nice, tell them who you are, and that it is for an independent research project. 
  3. Ask only ONE question. You can ask two, but you risk the expert ignoring your email because it’s too much work to respond. 
  4. Now, before you email them, try to research their work. People like it when they know or are familiar with the research they’ve worked on for years.
  5. Keep it short and genuinely sincere. 

Phone Calls Or Live Video

Zoom, or Google Meet:

If you have a chance to talk to someone, you want to have a parent with you - even if they are off-screen sitting next to you. 

  1. You also might want to record the talk, so ask for permission to do so. 
  2. Most of the time, you will correspond by email. But if they are open to a call, make sure you have a piece of paper to jot down notes. 
  3. Make sure you respond to them and make eye contact. They’re watching you if you are listening. 
  4. Be open and curious. If you get an answer worth digging into, pursue it. Often, you’ll find better, New questions during the interview. Forget your original questions if it makes sense to you. 
  5. Have at least 5-7 burning intelligent questions to ask. 
  6. Make sure you say “Thank you!”

In Person Coffee Shop Meetings 

Try to reserve this with people you know. Later, when you’re in high school you can meet people with your parents. When you’re in college, you can meet people on your own. That said, I’m adding this in for future reference.

  1. You probably did your initial email with your One Question, and since the expert is nearby, you set up a meeting with them at a local coffee shop. 
  2. Let them know you will be with your parent, and it will only be about 20 minutes to 30 minutes. In this way, if you don’t find them all that informative, you can be on your way. This also makes the expert to think that this meeting should be quick. 
  3. Like in the Phone Call or Zoom meeting above, build rapport, meaning make small talk like “How did you get into your field?” or “Where you always interested in (X) or your focus or expertise?” That way, you won’t sound like a task master or a robot. 
  4. Go with the flow, and see if you steer your expert to the burning questions you have for research paper. 
  5. If possible, record your interview. 
  6. Jot notes on a clean notepad. 
  7. When you get to your time, ask them if they can stay for a few minutes, especially, if you like what they’re saying. 
  8. There’s a funny “rule,” which seems to be true from my experience. Most people will not really open up about their lives or work until 45 minutes into the coversation. 
  9.  Have fun!

Ask Open-ended Questions:

  1. A Closed-ended Question can be answered with a simple “Yes” or “No.” Try to avoid them.

    1. Here’s an answer that could be found on the internet. 
      1. Q: What’s the chemical that makes the Poison-dart frog deadly?
      2. A: batrachotoxin.
      3. And that’s all you may get from the expert. Ugh.  
      4. Better: If a person touches Batrachotoxin what are ways to prevent it from causing death? 

    2. Here’s an answer that ends with “yes” or “no.”
      1. Q: Is there a cure for Batrachotoxin?
      2. A: No. 
      3. Q: Is Batrachotoxin really toxic?
      4. A: Yes. 
  1. An Open-ended Question forces people to answer with more depth. 

    1. Use the 5Ws and How and test if it’s not a “Yes” or “No” answer. If it isn’t, and you’re forced to explain with more depth, then you have an Open-ended Question. Yay! If you’re lucky, they will answer with more depth than you wanted. 

Open-ended question Examples:

If your expert answered your One Question, ask them if they can answer more. Most will say yes. Here are questions that you can ask. Let them tell you a Story.

  1. Why is [X] important? Why should a [specific audience] care?
  2. How would you explain [X] for a beginner?
  3. And how do you talk about [X] to your peers?
  4. What’s something non-experts believe about [X] that they’re wrong about?
  5. What’s the most common reason people struggle with [X]?
  6. Take me through the steps you take to do [X]. How do you know where to start? How do you know when you’re done?
  7. What does a typical day with [X] research look like?
  8. What is the one action you’d recommend somebody new to [X] takes?
  9. What do you hope to see with [X] in the near and far future?
  10. What did you wish you knew about [X] before you started?
  11. How did you get involved with [X]?
  12. What attracted you to [X]?
  13. What issues are you still concerned about with [X]?
  14. What convinced you to explore [X]?
  15. When/where did you first hear about [X]?

Interviewing is a fun art of its own with tons of nuances. Find interviews of celebrities, and you may notice how fluid and comfortable the interviewers are. Well, sometimes the interviewer or the person being interviewed may act awkward. It's the job of one of them to put the other at ease and just have fun. When you are interested in the other person's subject, or you find something interesting about, your interviewee will open up and provide you with insights that cannot be found on the internet or in a book.

Interviews are friendships in the making. Always thank your guest right after the interview, and few days later. This is a classy act, and people like to associate with classy, nice people. Occasionally, they we go out of their way to help you out on your journey!

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