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.

I’m taking part in a Guardian live chat this Friday (1-4pm BST) titled ‘Surviving your first academic post.’ With this topic in mind, I’m noting some preliminary thoughts under a few themes.

The points below relate to my first 10 months as a lecturer at St Andrews and aren’t at all relevant to my postdoc experience which was, by and large, extremely easy to navigate and the most enjoyable period of my career so far. It’s also important to make the context from which I am making these observations clear.  I am privileged in that I am on a permanent contract, the first five years of which comprise a SINAPSE research fellowship which means I have a minimal teaching load.  That said, I do have an admin load and I have the additional responsibility to promote neuroimaging within the department and across the SINAPSE network.

Before you accept the job – You’ll start evaluating whether a position is right for you from the moment you see the advert.  Beyond whether you are the ‘type’ of academic the institution is after, you’ll also consider the department is right for you (is it the right size? could you collaborate with anyone? are there local research facilities? is it the right calibre of institution for you?), whether you could live there (is it too big/small a city? too far to move? too isolated?) and whether you could actually do what you enjoy about academia there (is the teaching load too heavy? if you did your PhD/postdoc there, could you get taken seriously as a PI). All of these thoughts feed into the rather nebulous concept of ‘fit’ which, it turns out, is rather important to you enjoying your potential new job.

When I interviewed at St Andrews, everyone I spoke to mentioned how small the town is.  I didn’t think it would be a problem, but on moving here, the realisation that I had never previously lived outside a city certainly hit home. Within my first few weeks here I understood that this common point of conversation had been an important warning. Starting your first academic post can be lonely (even if you go with family), and being in a place that doesn’t feel right for you can make you feel even lonelier. I would never have turned down the offer to work here, but I suspect that another candidate for the job I went on to accept did, and it was probably something to do with ‘fit’.

Start-up negotiations are also worth devoting some thought to once you’ve established that the ‘fit’ is going to be satisfactory. You’ll have to walk a fine line between making sure you don’t do yourself out of money you will need to set up a lab that is capable of doing the research you are being employed to do, and asking for too much and appearing (or being) greedy. My experience of start-up negotiation was that the equipment I wanted was a lot easier to obtain than the scanner time I wanted. Colleagues have mentioned an informal loan arrangement where the School provided expensive equipment on condition that costs be recouped further down the line, so that could be a useful negotiation strategy, particularly when expensive equipment is required from the outset. One thing I wish I had done was to speak to an academic who had recently started, to ascertain where they thought they went wrong in their start-up request. I, for example, realised too late that I would have to buy my own printer toner, which ended up having to come out of my research budget for the 2010/2011 academic year.

Your first weeks – These are lonely and stressful. Simple things like making external phone calls can be challenging. Of course, people offer their help and advice, but you want to appear capable and self-sufficient so you end up spending far too much time working things out on your own.  If there are other new hires in your department, pooling your newly acquired knowledge will help. Induction events are also a good way to get to know people throughout the University.

Department coffee mornings are supposed to be an excellent way of establishing yourself amongst your new colleagues.  But, I found these to be something of a double-edged sword.  Despite the social benefits, there will be times you wish you hadn’t gone. Within a week of starting, going to grab some coffee had led to me being roped in to give a cover lecture on probability theory. I felt like hiding in my office after that (and I did for a while), but the best strategy is to…

Learn how to say “no” – You won’t want to appear uncollegiate, but people will ask you to do things until you learn how to say “no”. You’ll probably receive a lot of requests to cover lectures and complete one-off tasks in your first few weeks.  Some of this is down to people wrongly assuming that you won’t have anything else to do, and some of it, I think, is down to people testing the water and seeing whether you are a ‘yes-(wo)man’ who will agree to anything.

Crafting that first refusal will probably take a lot of time, but it is an important step to take.  Just make sure that you:
a) can demonstrate that you have shown willing (it helps to have said “yes” at least once before your first “no”);
b) say why you are refusing (not the right person for the job, have already said “yes” to too many other requests, too little time at this stage, though happy to muck in next semester when things have settled, etc.);
c) don’t let the task you initially agreed to morph into something that you would never have agreed to in the first place (e.g. it’s OK for a “yes” to become a “no” if a one-off lecture turns into longer-term cover for a lecturer on maternity leave).

Saying “no” gets easier, it just takes a bit of practice.  With some strategic refusals and a bit of luck, you’ll calibrate the system so that you’re not having to say “no” to very much because people making requests of you will make sure that you really are the right person for the job before asking.

If you run into a persistent problem of people making too many unreasonable demands of you, a mentor who is looking out for your interests will help. I haven’t yet had to call on my mentor for this, but I’m fairly certain that she has been doing so anyway, if only by not suggesting me for admin duties whose allocation she controls.

Time – When I was a postdoc, nothing felt too difficult.  All anything took was time, sometimes plenty of it, but it didn’t matter because time was something I was given plenty of.  I spent months learning Matlab, weeks scripting analyses and days making a couple of lines of code to do just what I wanted them to do. Now, some tasks are too difficult because I don’t feel I have the time to devote to them. Of course, I have much more time than I would if I had a full teaching load, but I have much less time than I had as a postdoc.

To remedy this perceived lack of time, I’m considering devoting a few weeks here and there to an ‘at-work-retreat’.  That is, I will go to work, and just work on what I need to work on to get analyses done and papers written without the distraction of e-mail, admin jobs (which will be put on hold) and teaching. I think it might even be appropriate to use an e-mail auto-response, the exact working of which I will have to be very careful about, to let people know of my unavailability. This fellowship period of my job should be a perfect opportunity for me to do this sort of thing and it may be something worth writing about on the blog at a later date.

Money – I need to funding to carry out neuroimaging. I therefore need grant funding. I don’t mind that the School strongly encourage me to apply for grant-funding because I need to apply for it anyway. That said, it feels like I have only just learned how to write journal articles and now I’m being asked to write in a totally different style with a totally different emphasis.  Applying for grant funding has probably taken more time than any other activity in my first 10 months here. It’s a shame, because I could have devoted this time to writing journal articles that would have added to my CV and made me more ‘fundable’.  Still, I need to do it at some stage, and now is as good a time as any.

Tomorrow I travel to Saarbrucken to give an invited  seminar at Saarland University. It will be my seventh and penultimate talk of the academic year (with my last talk scheduled for ICOM in York at the beginning of August).

Chris Moulin
Chris Moulin: My PhD supervisor and one of the best academic public speakers I have encountered.

I don’t much enjoy giving talks.  In fact, if you had told me a year ago that the within my first year as a full-time lecturer, I would be obliged to give eight academic talks, I may well have reconsidered whether I wanted a career in academia at all! This may sound like quite a strange position to be in given that my job-title, ‘Lecturer’, doesn’t exactly lend itself to someone who doesn’t enjoy speaking in front of an audience. But my enjoyment of conducting research and disseminating it through written media generally overrides the revulsion I feel for public-speaking enough to make me think of my job as one I love doing.

I haven’t always disliked giving talks as much as I do now.  In fact, I can pin-point the moment my healthy disdain for them matured into a bravado-less fear to the moment I realised that my talks were sometimes good, sometimes bad, but generally unpredictable.  This realisation came as a direct consequence of feedback I received from my postdoctoral mentor following a rather bad talk given for the  Brain and Behavior Colloquia series at Washington University in St Louis.  I hated receiving this feedback, but it has done me the world of good, and I’m thankful I went through the few seconds of intense personal embarrassment and the couple of days of painful rumination to get to where I am now.  The feedback I was given was a much more tactful paraphrasing of:

“You’re no Richard Burton. You can’t talk endlessly and engagingly about something that people don’t inherently find interesting. You therefore need to plan and practice your talks accordingly.”

Receiving that feedback made me realise that I wasn’t going to get better at giving talks by simply giving more talks as I had been giving them.  I’m not a natural public speaker, so I shouldn’t expect to adopt the style, in preparation and delivery, of a natural speaker and hope everything falls into place. I was going to get better at giving talks by honing how I prepare to give talks and practising the hell out of their delivery.

I now hate giving talks because I’ve experienced the clear benefit that a revised, personally-appropriate talk preparation has on the quality of my delivery. I know that the quality of my talk reflects directly how much time and effort I have put into its preparation. The audience’s judgement of my talk feels like much more of a valid judgement of me than I used to think it was, and of course, now, it is. I now hate talks because I know that if I spend weeks preparing them, they will go well. To do anything less for a talk I care about would simply be irresponsible.

I now have a quite rigorous regime for talk preparation and delivery as follows:

  • I plan and construct the slides for the talk weeks in advance.
  • Once the slides have been written, I script the talk. I don’t think there’s any shame in this as long as you have weaned yourself off the script by the time you deliver your talk and it seems that others agree, see Lifehacker’s post on nailing your talk à la Malcolm Gladwell.
  • I iteratively refine my slides and script through daily practice. Easy for a 15 minute talk, more challenging for an hour-long seminar.
  • I learn when I can ad lib, and when I must stay on script. Some points are so complicated or nuanced that they require minimal deviation from your script.
  • I wean myself off my script through dress rehearsals. I don’t mean that I wear my conference garb every time I  run through my talk, but I try to deliver the talk as I intend to deliver it on the day. I practice my pace, my volume, and my phrasing. For example, when I am delivering a bad talk, I speak too slowly, too quietly and I tail off at the end of sentences. Reversing all of these bad habits during practice runs has stopped me defaulting to this state on final delivery.
  • I use my own laptop (PC) to present the talk.  Conferences tend to provide additional VGA cables to which Mac users can connect their laptops. Using my own PC laptop with this cable instead of the pre-supplied PC minimises the chances of media files going astray and Powerpoint versions causing problems.
  • I remove myself from the lectern. This takes a bit of guts at first, but it removes the temptation to read slides. It also introduces more naturalistic and conversational hand movement. I not a big gesturer, so I don’t think too many people find my hand movement off-putting. If you look like a semaphore signaller when you talk, this might be something to work on reducing!
  • I make sure there is water available to sip on during the talk. Again, taking my first sip is sometimes awkward, but not nearly as awkward as a gummed up mouth adding unnecessary consonants to my otherwise well-delivered talk.
This regime helps me to deliver better talks, but it has also had knock-on benefits to other aspects of my presentation:
  • I now write better slides because I have more confidence in my delivery.
  • I can upload my slides with script to the blog. Of course, the final version of the talk I give will deviate significantly from my script, but the script is still useful in helping people make sense of my slides.
  • I don’t overrun my scheduled time because I have had so many opportunities to practice this. This helps to keep stress levels down.
Of course, this approach is totally unsustainable when delivering a programme of lectures, but it’s great for one-off events.  In fact, I would go as far as saying that it got me a job and helped me to deliver a some of the best academic talks of my career along the way.