Email Etiquette

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.

  1. 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).
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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).

 

Timing

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.

 

Content

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.

 

Courtesy

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.

 

The Grad School Application Process

I know what you’re thinking. It’s still August, why are you talking about applying to grad school, the deadlines are months away.

Well maybe I’m just an overachiever, but I’ve always found that getting a head-start on bureaucratic type processes, like grad school applications, is always a good idea. These things take longer than you think. And a strong application is one that has been well researched and well thought out, in addition to being well written.

So, without further ado, the AA’s guide to the grad school application process…To be taken with a grain of salt, of course.

The first thing you need to do is to do your research. And to do it well. When I first started the grad school application process back in ’16, I must have spent hours Googling different schools, looking at how they compared to each other in regard to my program. Some of the basic things to look for include program duration, cost, funding opportunities, if there is a thesis component etc. I made a little spreadsheet by hand comparing my top favorite universities so I could see how they compared at a glance – not saying you have to do this by any means. I know I’m my own, special, level of organized. Excel also works great..

The next step is to see if there are potential faculty members that could supervise your research, either as chair or committee members. If you like a program, then take a look at the faculty there. Make sure that there are faculty members that can help you with your research.  Alternatively, if there is someone in your field that you really want to work with you might start by searching for the university where they are employed. Don’t limit yourself by only looking at the faculty members in your department only, there could be several faculty members in related departments that would provide valuable insight on your research. For example, I often would look to the geography or classics departments.

Ideally, you will have 3-4 programs that fit your research interests and that have faculty members that could serve as your potential advisers. The next step is to start getting in contact with the university. The best person to initially contact is the graduate adviser. Typically, they know the program better than anyone else and can tell you relatively quickly if it is a good match for you, additionally, recruitment is often a big part of thier job, so they will be happy to talk to potential new students. In the email, introduce yourself, tell them that you find the program very interesting and are interested in applying. You might want to elaborate on your own research interests in a paragraph or so. Ask if there are any resources that you can look at and if the program is accepting students etc. Usually, the graduate adviser will direct you to a faculty member who is taking students and/or has similar research interests. With some luck, it is one of the people that you had researched.

Then you can contact the faculty members you are interested in working with. This first email is essentially the first impression, so it is important that it comes across professional. Keep it short and respectful, and as always, free of typos and grammar errors.  Again, introduce yourself, tell them briefly about you and your research interests and mention that you find their research interesting and pertinent to yours. Ask them if they are accepting students and if they have any advice about your application.

In my experience, the people I reached out to were usually very upfront with me. And let me tell you, I was rejected many, many times. I often got the “your research is interesting, but not really my niche, but you should contact X” response. Rejection is not a bad thing, if someone is not sold on your research, it is better to know that right away. If you get the “sorry not my niche”, or “I have too many students” response, thank them for their time and wish them the best. If you get the very much sought after “that sounds very interesting, tell me more”, and “I am taking students” email, thank them for their time and let them know how much it would mean to have the opportunity to work with them. Now just because someone says they are accepting students doesn’t mean you are in, but it’s a start.

Email etiquette is extremely important at this phase since this is the primary mode of communication with your potential adviser. So, always be polite and prompt. Don’t take three days to respond to an email, and don’t email at 2 am in the morning. Rookie mistakes.

Once you have narrowed down your top universities with faculty members that are taking students and are interested in your research, you can start working on the application itself. This is where the real work starts.  I recommend keeping it to about 3 applications maximum for two reasons – one the applications cost money and they can be expensive, about $100 each. Two, the less applications the more you can focus your time and resources to making strong applications. If you are an international student, I recommend you start early since it will take you time to get your documents ready. The deadline for most programs is often December -March. I would write these deadlines down and know them by heart. Programs won’t consider late applications.

There are about 7 components to the process:

  • Application (form with your basic information)
  • Transcripts
  • Statement of purpose / Personal statement or both
  • Writing Sample
  • Letters of Recommendation
  • Your CV
  • The Tests (The GRE and TOEFL)

To really drive the point home, here is an example timeline (with deadlines) of how the application process unfolds. At least how it unfolded for me. If you want to start in the fall semester, you need to start thinking about your application about a year ahead, usually, this is the last year of your current program, unless you are re-entering academia from the workforce or something along those lines. Regardless, this often means that August is when the process begins.

One: Narrow down three to four schools to apply to and make the first contact with the graduate coordinators, then later professors. (August – September)

Two: Find out the requirements for the programs. (Early September)

Three: Contact previous professors from your school to ask about letters. Ask them early and provide them with the deadlines. The can also help edit your statements of purpose.(Early September)

Four: Start the application process, write-down the login information so you don’t forget it. Figure out what documents you need to send and how; some schools are picky about this. If they want hard copies from the school send them early (September).

Five: Start writing your statements. Look at the website for each program so you can tailor each statement fit the goals of the university. Keep in mind, three applications means three statements since you will have to make them specific to the program. (October).

*This is probably the most important part of your applications as it demonstrates who you are and what you have to offer. It is important that it is well written and shows you are driven and ambitious. Here you can talk about your research goals, what you intend to do with your degree after graduating and how your academic career thus far has prepared you for this next step. Mention that the goals of the university line up with your own, that you feel that you will flourish as an academic there for these reasons. Additionally, mention the faculty members at the university who you would like to work with and why. *

Six: Edit your CV and your writing sample. Make your CV show that you are a well-rounded academic with experience. Find a piece of work you have written for classes that you got a good grade one. One that shows your ability to write academically. It helps to have a friend look them over to catch any minor errors or typos you may have missed yourself (October).

Seven: Take the standardized tests. These are a pain, but they are required by most schools. The GRE is required for all American schools and the TOEFL is required of all international students. As with any test, it helps to prepare. Luckily, there are lots of resources out in the inter-webs to help you study. Most schools will say what their required minimum scores are for acceptance. Now, not meeting this score is not the end of the world, but coming close helps. Especially if there is a lot of competition. However, it is the impression you make on the faculty through your interactions with them and your letter of academic intent that really matters. (October / November).

By end of November, you should have everything ready, I suggest submitting your applications end of November to early December (depending on when they are due, but I did all my applications in one day to get them over with). Everything is done online, including your letters of recommendation. Your professors submit them via a link you send them. You will need their emails and approval when you are filling out your application. When you decide that you’re going to finalize and submit your applications, make sure you give yourself time, it takes a few hours to get everything uploaded, double check everything! I made a folder in my computer for my applications and in this, I made a folder for each school. I saved everything in the folder so when it was time to apply I had everything in one place.

Now, this post may seem like overkill and the deadlines are just suggestions. But I honestly do mean to be helpful. I’m the first in my family (both sides) to go to graduate school. I didn’t have much help figuring out this process, and there were times when I felt overwhelmed. But, I did it (twice), and you can too. Just take it a step at a time, plan it out and start early. Show ’em what you have to offer; be confident, be professional, be you.