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.

Having deleted my facebook account nearly two years ago, as I activated a Google+ account this week I was wary of repeating previous mistakes.  Back in 2009 I had decided that I wasn’t getting as much out of facebook as I was putting into it. Specifically, I was ashamed at the amount of my time it consumed, I was worried, not so much about my privacy, as the disregard of my right to it (even if I chose not to take it up), and I was anxious about expressing myself too freely lest I cause offence to my friends.  Google+ has lessened my anxiety with its subdivision of friends into circles, though, of course, its potential to cause me shame and worry over my time and privacy are just as real as they ever were with facebook.

With all this in mind, my early experiences of Google+ have been very positive. As I was hoping to, I have re-connected with some lovely friends who had remained on facebook and never ventured onto twitter. Perhaps most encouragingly though, it looks like Google+ might be able to reach beyond the social, and enrich my professional life too. The following exchange, which I started to try and learn more about the use of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk in psychological research, is the sort of thing that’s making me very excited about this possibility.

Full Google Plus conversation

The discussion went in to far more detail than I could have hoped, and for those who are interested, a text-searchable pdf of the exchange complete with clickable links is available here.  (Incidentally, the reason I have had to go to so much trouble to provide a link to the thread with jpgs and pdfs, as opposed to the sort of easy html permalinking offered by twitter, is down to Google’s as-yet imperfect post-hoc sharing system. Once I decided that the thread deserved a wider audience, the options available to me were a) to re-share my original post, without the comments, to anyone on the web, or b) to provide a permalink to the whole thread that was only accessible to those with whom I had originally shared my first post. An option to change the sharing permissions for the entire thread, with the permission of all contributors of course, would be highly appreciated!)

As to why the question about Mechanical Turk generated so much useful information, there are three reasons I can think of.  The first is a simple affordance of the length of posts and comments.  Unlike twitter, detail can be provided when detail is required.  Whilst I have read the thoughts of writers praising the cognitive workout required to condense their tweets to be both eloquent and informative, it is limited medium that doesn’t lend itself to information-rich content or detailed evaluation.  Google+provides a clean, long-format forum in which ideas can be effectively transferred.

The second reason lies in the flexibility of the medium to provide relevant information to those who care.  Circles can be used to selectively share updates with certain groups.  This means that scientific updates can be restricted to my ‘Science’ circle, posts on running can be restricted to my ‘Runners’ circle,  and users may be feeling the effects of a more targeted dose of updates and information.  Comments aren’t driven by a desire to appear funny to a large number of people who probably share your boredom at the fact that, as it’s Sunday, Akira has once again completed a 6.3 mile run in a smidgen over 50 minutes – you’d probably only reach 5 people who would actually be rather preoccupied with trying to work out why Akira hasn’t managed to improve on his 6-mile time despite having done the same run every week for about 6 months.  Depending on your willingness to invest time in the categorisation of contacts, you can be taken as seriously as you want.

Finally, and maybe most importantly, Google+ is current rife with early-adopters. These are technologically ‘switched-on’ folk, who are willing to take a punt on a new medium, testing its capabilities and its uses as they go. To illustrate, Tom Hartley, Tal Yarkoni and Yana Weinstein all maintain current blogs/websites of their own and all contributors to the above thread are active twitter users (and well worth following).  Asking a question about how to conduct science using a nascent technology via a nascent communication technology stood every chance of being successful given the overlap in the Venn diagram of technology users.  Add to that the diminished risk of being called out as a ‘geek’, we’re all geeks here even before uber-geeks are further isolated within the ‘Geek’ circle, and we have the optimum conditions in which to find out about Amazon’s Mechanical Turk.

This isn’t to say that Google+ won’t be successful for non-technological academic discussion, or for technological discussion even after the the laggards arrive.  But I think that success depends on the parameters for its use in academia being established now.  If academics recognise that Google+ can be used to exchange work-related ideas early on in its life-cycle, then it has a much better chance of taking off and even being further developed with this use in mind. It already seems to me a far more attractive site for academics than academia.edu which has comprehensively failed to do anything other than act as a repository for electronic papers and CVs.

So, I’m quietly optimistic… until the next big thing comes along and I jump ship, desperately trying to keep up with all the other early-adopters.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=suJgV9HhJp8]