Email etiquette is one of the most important skills to have in your repertoire as an academic. I know, you’re thinking, really? Emailing? We all know how to email. But you would be surprised.
What inspired this post? I have many friends who are now in the process of searching for an advisor for their Ph.D.’s. And having successfully navigated this treacherous path, many have asked me how I did it, which prompted my previous post “The Grad School Application Process.” However, once you carefully and painstakingly spend hours narrowing your list of programs that you want to study at, with a faculty member with whom you want to work with, comes the “difficult part” – reaching out. This part terrifies people, myself included. While I touched a bit on the do’s and don’t’s of email etiquette in my last post, I feel like this is a topic worth expanding on.
So, a colleague of mine asks how I reached out to professors when I was looking for an advisor. Naturally, she is freaked out about initiating that first point of contact. And rightly so, the first email you send to a potential advisor can set the tone for the rest of your correspondence. This does not mean, however, that you should be incapacitated with fear. Remind yourself that this is a normal part of academia, that professors get emails every day, and it is part of the job description to correspond with potential new students. Returning to my little story – I said I would send her a template of the email I would set out. Into the rabbit hole of my bachelor email inbox I go to find these early emails I sent when I was looking for masters programs. The results were not pretty my friends.
Now you’re thinking: “Ok, so you had terrible email etiquette, and now you’re going to tell us how to write proper emails?” My answer? Hells, yea. Why? Because nothing teaches you like mistakes, and better yet, if I can share my mistakes with you, then that makes messing up the first time that much more worth it since it was a learning experience for all. Shall we dive in?
Let me set the scene for you real quick. A 21-year-old AA is eager to pursue a career in archaeology, and she realizes early on that a bachelors degree on its own won’t cut it. So, she begins searching for masters programs. This is a difficult process in itself, it becomes even more so when your research is so niche, like mine. I began by searching for archaeologists who worked in Albania; I found 3. Excited beyond words, I drafted some emails and sent them off. At the moment I was very proud of myself, I had reached out, I was taking baby steps to making my dreams come true. And honestly, I still am proud of 21-year-old me. But there are some things that I would advise her on, because, let me tell you, re-reading some of those emails made me cringe.
Spelling and Grammer
I cannot stress how important this is. This is the first time someone is “meeting you.” What’s more, this might be the first impression you make on a potential advisor. Don’t blow it with typos and poor grammar. Did I do this by the way? Oh yea, multiple times, I even spelled last names wrong. That is probably one of the worst things you can do. Luckily, I wasn’t emailing that professor whose name I spelled wrong, but mentioning that I was considering reaching out to them. Of course, because archaeology is a small world, the professor was corresponding knew the professor I was referring to, and corrected me on my spelling. Woops. Clearly, this is a really big weakness for myself, so what are some tips to avoid such blunders.
- Slow down: take your time writing your email, there’s no fire. Check yourself as you are writing each sentence. Fix typos and errors as you see them (not at the very end).
- Read your email out loud: this is golden, but many people don’t do this anymore. This doesn’t just apply to emails, this applies to all things written. Assignments papers, responses, text messages… if you’re not sure, read it out loud.
- Have someone else look over your email: another golden rule. Our brains are notorious for correcting what we see. So when we have looked at something for a long time, we no longer pick up on typos or errors because our brain automatically corrects them for us.
- Print it out: if you don’t have a friend to send your draft to, print it out. I used to do this all the time with essays when I felt like I could not look at a screen any longer. For some reason, editing with paper in hand made me pick up on mistakes that I could not on the screen.
- Use a spellchecker/grammar software: there are lots of options available online where you can copy and paste your text to be checked. I use Grammarly for everything, from emails to essays (to my thesis).
This was not a major problem for myself, but I have noticed it in other people. Some people are terrible with emails, they are impossible to get a hold of, they don’t respond, and when they do it’s at 2 am in the morning. My rule of thumb is, as a student, you need to be on your A-Game when it comes to email correspondence with faculty members. This means you respond to emails within a 24 hour period and you email/respond at reasonable times ( I try to stick to Monday-Friday 9-5). Now, of course, certain situations call for exceptions, and if you have already established contact with your faculty member, if you already know them, if the email requires a quick response, then you can judge the situation as you see fit. But in my opinion, you cannot go wrong when you maintain those two rules. This, however, means that you are also checking your email frequently enough so that you don’t miss important emails. A lesson the young AA learned the hard way. I used to be terrible at checking my email until I almost missed an important deadline once. Since then, I check my email constantly. Maybe you don’t want to get my level of obsessive, but you should find a consistency that works for you while ensuring you don’t miss anything important.
Aside from your email having impeccable spelling and grammar, you also need to have good content. Especially if this is your first time reaching out to someone you want to work with. My advice here would be to keep it simple and keep it concise for the first email. If they want to know more, they will ask. Introduce yourself briefly, tell them about your research interests and relate how it relates to theirs. A good way to start the email is to simply say ” I am looking for programs to pursue my graduate studies, X stands out to me as a wonderful fit.” If you have an advisor at your current university, lead with that. This can help open doors. Anytime I send an email to someone who I want to work with, I lead with: “My name is X, I am at the University of X, my graduate advisor is X.” After talking briefly about your research, relate it to theirs. ” I recently read your paper on X…” ‘I noticed that your work is X…” I found an old email I sent to a graduate advisor when I was looking for Ph.D. programs ( 1 year ago, let me remind you) and I just about gasped from embarrassment). It was terrible! It was so long, it had terrible structure and although I did not mean it tom it came off as slightly presumptuous. Which relates to the next topic.
Related to content is courtesy. This is arguably one of the most important aspects of email etiquette, and can sometimes make or break a correspondence. If the faculty member you are emailing thinks you are rude or entitled, then why would they want to work with you? Remember that email is a professional mode of communication, hence is it really important that you keep a professional tone. This is really important when you are corresponding back and forth over multiple emails. Of course, you should sense the tone of the conversation, and you may not have to sign off with Sincerely “your full name here” by email number five. But remember, use full sentences, keep it formal and as always, stay humble. Not everyone you will reach out to is going to respond or be interested in working with you – that’s show biz baby.
If you don’t get a response, I would suggest following up, very politely two weeks after. If you get a response, and it’s a “no,” you still should respond, thank them for their time and wish them all the best. Remember that academia is a small world. Now, this may be an unpopular opinion, but I’m going to go ahead and say it. Academia is inherently hierarchical, I acknowledge that there are severe problems in our discipline, but at the very macro-level, a difference exists between you, the student, and your advisor. This might be a topic for another post about how the mentor-mentee relationship works. But, the way I see it, is this is a hierarchical, professional relationship. Your potential advisor is not meant to be your friend, they are meant to be academic guides if you will. They are experts in their field (with years of experience), treat them as such. So, in your correspondence with potential advisors; stay humble, stay polite and above all do not appear entitled (no one owes you anything – No one has to work with you). By no means should you sell yourself short, just acknowledge that as a young individual in your field, there is much that you don’t know, and that is fine. Cest la vie, you have a career ahead of you to learn. Seven years into school and the only thing that I know for sure is that I have barely scratched the surface of what I need to know.
And there you have it, folks. Some simple things to keep in mind to keep your email game on point. Think of how you would put yourself together if you were going for an interview. You would put on your most professional outfit, you would fix your hair, maybe put some makeup on if that’s your thing, you would show up on time, you would have the appropriate material with you. All the same applies to first contact emails when searching for a faculty advisor (or collaborator etc.): put your best academic face forward.
All this said, remember to be yourself, and take that leap of faith. These words of advice are not meant to be all-encompassing or “the law.” Just some helpful suggestions from someone who has sat in your place not too long ago. And hey, I’m still learning too. I’m also learning that you never stop learning. But now I’m getting metaphysical and philosophical. I also have an assignment I need to finish (yes we still have those in grad school), so its time to wrap this up.
You got this kid, now go forth and email.