Academics are a diverse bunch. Those in my department of just under 40 lecturers and teaching fellows span an estimated 40-year age-range, at least 10 different nationalities and the full spectrum of technological competence. Some were introduced to e-mail in their teens, others in their 40s – all of us use it as the primary mode of communicating with students. A student making e-mail contact with an academic therefore needs to make a few allowances for the recipient.

Below are a few thing to watch out for when e-mailing academics for the first time.

1) Use your university-provided e-mail account.
It’s your ‘work’ e-mail, so set it up correctly (make sure you change the account setting to display your sender name etc.) and use it for work-related correspondence. I don’t know what to think when I get an e-mail from fluffyspuggle@freemail.com.

2) Use an appropriate greeting.
“Dear <title> <surname>,”  will never let you down. Yes, there are some who believe that it’s too formal for the medium, but you’re e-mailing someone about whom you know very little.  They might like being addressed this formally, they might not care, but they certainly won’t think any worse of you doing it. In my view, the less formal “Hello <title> <surname>” is equally appropriate, though straying into “Hi” or “Hey” gets risky – I don’t mind “Hi” but I really hate receiving e-mails that open with “Hey” from someone I don’t know. The total absence of a greeting offends me.

3) Don’t get your academic’s gender wrong.
I have a name that ends in the letter A.  As a result of a Western European naming heuristic, people often assume that I am female. This assumption is fine from telemarketers and those who want to send me trial subscriptions to Red magazine, but not students.  If you’re not a professional cold-caller, getting your e-mail recipient’s gender wrong just suggests that you’re lazy. If you’ve haven’t heard the name before, Google it.

4) Don’t get your academic’s title wrong.
Is the recipient’s gender even relevant to your e-mail? If you’re e-mailing an academic with “Dear Mr/Mrs/Ms”,  you’re already taking an etiquette risk. Some academics get very tetchy about their title (Dr, Professor). If in doubt, just Google it. The search term <first name> <surname> <institution> usually does the trick.  If they have PhD or Dr on their page, use “Dr”.  If they have Prof or Professor on their page, use “Prof”.  If none of these apply, use a gender-appropriate title.

5) Don’t make inappropriate gender assumptions about your academic.
Women get PhDs.  Women also get made Professor. I don’t know anyone who would argue with these facts, but coffee-room conversation suggests that female academics have to deal with a greater number of inappropriately-written e-mails than their male colleagues.

6) Use appropriate language to communicate.
Communicating over e-mail isn’t like communicating over twitter or facebook (at least your academic probably doesn’t think so). Yes, keep it concise, but not so concise that you have to omit vowels.  Smileys in your first e-mail may make your recipient >:  And be polite… please?

7) Sign off.
Something more formal than “Cheers” usually does the trick. “Regards,” “Best,” and “Thanks,” are all fine by me, though I would err on the side of “Regards,” if you started with “Dear”.  And do sign off with your name (first or first and surname) and no kisses. Just friends, ok?

These recommendations become a little looser as you build a history of communication with your academic.  In second e-mails you can probably ditch the <title> <surname> business in favour of the academic’s sign-off name or something appropriate to the tone of their response (or slightly more formal).  For instance, if your academic signs off with  “Best, Akira” or “Thanks, A” feel free to follow-up with “Dear Akira,” or “Hello Akira,”.  If your academic responds with “Hey,” they have absolutely no reason to get offended by a similar reply from you.

Just make sure you get that first e-mail right. It does matter.  You’re going to be relying on tutors, project supervisors and lecturers to give you guidance and opportunities during and after university. Making a bad first-impression isn’t insurmountable, but it’s definitely something you can do without.

8 thoughts on “E-mail etiquette: How to make contact with academics

  1. This advice is good. And it doesn’t just apply to students – also important when contacting editors, potential PhD/postdoc supervisors, academic referees, etc. at which point 4) and 5) are particularly salient. It’s not so much that academics are stuffy and uptight about titles (though some are), more that you say a lot, and sometimes unconsciously, in the way you first choose to address a stranger. Mistakes can make you seem careless or even sexist, so play it safe.

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  2. Absolutely Tom. One thing I worry about is that maybe I’m just being old-fashioned. Am I just clinging to an old-fashioned letter-writing ideal that goes beyond stating simply what we wish to communicate? Either way, there are people out there who don’t worry about that sort of thing and simply expect e-mails to be written a certain way. Avoiding a bad first impression, when it’s as easy as getting titles right and spelling names correctly, is simple enough, so why not do it.

    As an aside, I’m quite interested in the idea of surveying colleagues to see whether females are consistently referred to less by their academic titles than males.

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  3. All true. A female colleague of mine frequently receives emails from students that address her as ‘Miss’, much to her chagrin, and believes that the equivalent is less likely to be encountered by male academics.

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  4. I don’t mind too much how people address me, and I’m happy to send things like reprints, but I do get cross if they are lazy and ask me for copies of things that they could easily get from the web. Or expect me to compile a reading list for them. Or badger me because I haven’t replied the same day. Email overload is a curse for most academics, and it’s especially bad if you come from a generation who thinks it’s impolite not to reply to communications, as you then get very cross at people who waste your time.
    I used to reply to everyone, but these days there are some categories that I put in a ‘no reply’ folder, including:
    The slightly older students who send the same generic email asking for a job/studentship to everyone in the department. Or everyone in the world.
    Those saying they want to work with me because they really want to be in London (I’m in Oxford), or work on children’s emotional problems (not my area).

    Reply
    • Richard – I get Miss and even Mrs O’Connor a fair amount, but very rarely Mr O’Connor. The problem I have in trying to disentangle gender and title gripes is that I don’t know how many of those who address me as Dr also assume I am female. I’m therefore not able to tell with my n of 1 whether those who assume I am female are less likely to assume I should be referred to as Dr than those who assume I am male. Presumably the German Herr Doktor/Frau Doktor system might provide a less confounded test for those like me with gender-ambiguous names!

      Dorothy – Yes, very frustrating. No amount of Dear Dr O’Connor will stop me getting annoyed with that sort of laziness. I know of colleagues who have pages on their websites to put this sort of problem e-mailer right (or at least point them in the right direction), but I suspect the wording on that sort of page has to be very carefully considered. Tristan Henderson, a senior lecturer here has an excellent FAQ page that I think gets the tone absolutely perfect: http://www.cs.st-andrews.ac.uk/~tristan/

      Reply
  5. I agree with everything you said! And no, I don’t think it is too old-fashioned… an email conversation can quickly go from Dear Prof… to Hi Steve… but that initial email needs to be professional and addressed properly.
    If I’m emailing someone about a job or something I can spend hours composing the email carefully – I also keep it in my drafts folder without their email address in the To box to make sure that I can’t send it accidentally before its really!

    Reply
    • Thanks Helen. I also take my time agonising over important e-mails which is why I sometimes wonder whether the way I view the medium is markedly different from the way someone who grew up sending e-mails at nursery views it, hence the total lack of formality, even rudeness.

      The drafts folder trick is something I ought to do more!

      Reply
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