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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.