A third of student emails make me cringe. Not from scorn (well, maybe a little scorn) but mainly sympathy. Distressing sympathy.
Here are 12 pieces of advice. I welcome others from readers. (Examples of terrible emails are welcome, so long as the sender is anonymous.)
1. Kick the email address from high school
It’s time for “email@example.com” and “firstname.lastname@example.org” to rest in peace.
2. Greet, Politely
Launching straight into the message is bad, but “Hi!” is poor form and “Hey Prof!” is an unmitigated disaster. “Dear” and “Hi” are fine, so long as you follow both by a name or title: “Hi Professor” or “Hi Mr. ____”.
3. On second thought, be careful with the Mr. and Ms.
I could care less if strangers address me as Mr., Dr. or Prof. Blattman. Few of my colleagues seem to feel the same way. Sadly your approach must conform to the average (or even greatest common) ego. If you’re not sure if the person is a Dr. or not, three seconds on Google should tell you.
4. Capitalize and punctuate
otherwise we will lol at yr sad attempts
5. But not all punctuation
Of the exclamation point, Elmore Leonard said “You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.” That’s roughly one exclamation point for every 500 messages you send. Use them wisely, for their overuse is the first sign of an immature mind. (Related, from Terry Pratchett: “Five exclamation marks, the sure sign of an insane mind.”)
6. Death to the emoticon
Keep them for your friends. And recall that, for centuries of the printed word, writers managed to convey sarcastic and funny without the semicolon and parenthesis. If you think your comment needs an emoticon, this is a sign you need to rewrite (or delete) the remark.
7. Avoid fancy typefaces or “stationery”
One word: cheeseball.
8. Be clear and concise
Write short messages, make clear requests, get to your point rapidly, and offer to provide more information rather than launch into your life story. Most of us get over 200 emails a day we need to read and respond to. So say what you need in 2-4 sentences and ideally ask for simple answers (like yes or no).
9. Don’t ask for information before you’ve looked on Google
“Can you send me paper X?” is annoying. But the best I’ve received: a request to explain the Cold War.
10. Don’t sound presumptuous
Many people are busy and important (and everybody thinks they are). If you are asking for anything requiring time or energy, it is courteous to be demure.
11. No quotes from famous people in your signature
See “cheeseball” above.
12. With your juniors, do the above as fastidiously as with your seniors
Allow me, momentarily, to break rule #11: “Modesty is not only an ornament, but also a guard to virtue” — Joseph Addison
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I am very confused by the way he capitalized some words in the title but not others.
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As a grad student one thing that I’ve learned is that salutations are for chumps, and they just make people feel awkward. The best email is a straightforward one. If you know someone, call them by their first name. If not, use their title (prof., dr). Example:
Hi First Name,
Say what you want or need to say.
It’s not complicated.
Here is great advice. I will share it for my friends about “How to email to your Professor, employer, and professional peers”
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I’ve contacted a PhD supervisor and we had several discussions (including Skype). I always sign off mails with “Yours Sincerely” but sometimes it looks too formal. In that sense is it best to use something like “Best Regards”? Professor in fact hinted that if I come to study there it is best to get off these formalities and be in first name basis.
Much thanks to you Mr. Blattman for the article. I am an understudy in the Bay Area, CA, and one of my electives requests that we read this article.
Hi its Isabel your student Mrs.Gonzalez I am contacting you, but its not for you could you pleas tell Mrs.Quesada this.Ok so what I need you to tell her is that I don’t get what she meant about the color picture for the 2 story sentence because I think she explained that when I was in Quior so that’s all I need to tell you, so ya that is all bye have a nice day.
RT @dandolfa: Students: How to email to your Professor, employer, and professional peers http://t.co/wMTLtj4FMa
RT @dandolfa: Students: How to email to your Professor, employer, and professional peers http://t.co/wMTLtj4FMa
RT @dandolfa: Students: How to email to your Professor, employer, and professional peers http://t.co/wMTLtj4FMa
RT @dandolfa: Students: How to email to your Professor, employer, and professional peers http://t.co/wMTLtj4FMa
Students: How to email to your Professor, employer, and professional peers http://t.co/wMTLtj4FMa
RT @raulpacheco: THIS, so much. Err on the side of politeness and property! RT @cblatts: .@BeckyGMartinez @raulpacheco My rant: http://t.co…
RT @cblatts: .@BeckyGMartinez @raulpacheco My rant: http://t.co/m64MID26M0
Students: How to email to your Professor, employer, and professional peers – Chris Blattman http://t.co/zO38DTxrBF
RT @BeckyGMartinez: “@cblatts: .@BeckyGMartinez @raulpacheco My rant: http://t.co/oDEYBpCLJs” <THIS
“@cblatts: .@BeckyGMartinez @raulpacheco My rant: http://t.co/oDEYBpCLJs” <THIS
THIS, so much. Err on the side of politeness and property! RT @cblatts: .@BeckyGMartinez @raulpacheco My rant: http://t.co/akdwJJgsbF
.@BeckyGMartinez @raulpacheco My rant: http://t.co/m64MID26M0
I laughed out loud to #11. Thanks for making my morning.
Thank you Mr. Blattman for the article. I am a student in the Bay Area, CA, and one of my electives asks us to read this article. I have a question: Should we reply to all emails from professors and confirm that we received the email, even if it’s just a “Thank you very much.”?
I just read this after misspelling my Professors name twice. Anyway it’s out of control.
Thank you so much for sharing
A lot of this is cultural, I might expect a student who has never meet me to send an email that has “Dr. Knight” in it the first time but otherwise, first names are generally fine.
Thanks for thisarticle, it helps for communication etiquette. Sometimes it gets very trivial how to send the first email to academics/authors whom we are so familiar but have never met. All the comments as well. Emails and responding with how Gmail looks like a conversation, especially when I get a response in a few minutes feels like a conversation instead of a letter, sometimes I unknowingly reply ‘as it in a conversation’ without the opening and ending of a letter.
Quite tricky with how e-mails and instant style messaging on mobile.
I’m wondering about #6, though. One of my professors is really nice and friendly, and uses smiley faces at the end of her emails – and I’ve had other professors before who did that as well – so I reciprocate that. Should I not? I mean if it’s okay with the professor, I don’t see the harm.
I have students who address me by ONLY my last name in emails, and it irritates me to no end. As a 30-something female, I feel like I have to put in a lot of extra work to gain student respect. Having students address me as though we’re on the same softball team is ridiculous.
Check the gender of your non-anglophone professors/instructors. The number of times I get emails addressed to Mr. (not even Ms., never mind Dr. or Prof.) is mind-boggling.
I think a lot of these problems relate to emailing via smartphone. Maybe the shorter advice (for us all) is: if the email is important, and not urgent, wait until you have your desk/laptop to hand.
I have an almost identical set of rules for my undergrad students. It is our duty to teach them how to conduct themselves professionally, for heaven’s sake. So kudos to the author. That said, *I* cringe when I read “could care less.” The phrase is “couldn’t care less.” Unless, of course, your intention is to state that you do care. No one is perfect, but rule number one about communicating is to say what you actually mean, yes? So please, fellow teachers, stop perpetuating this nonsense. Thanks!
Interesting that the exclamation mark, a symbol of excitement and joy, is considered “immature” here. Such a shame that academia now looks to the oppressive, hierarchical structures of business and “professionalism” for guidance.
Woah, Walt. I disagree with your comment here. I came upon this post two days ago and liked it so much that I decided to share Prof. Blattman’s pointers with my students. In my view, if students are “shelling out tens of thousands of dollars a year,” at the very least they should know how to communicate in a professional manner as they enter “the working world.” To the contrary, I think a professor demonstrates empathy when he or she takes the time to put such a list together and share it with all who are interested. (I do, however, agree with your point that none of this is relevant to “students blowing themselves up in the lab” – after all, they won’t be out looking for jobs.)
Please. Get over yourself. As a chemistry professor I could care less about most of your points. As long as I can understand the e-mail and it is not “off the wall” disrespectful I am happy. If one shows a little empathy to students shelling out tens of thousands of dollars a year—our customers— they tend to reciprocate. You may even start to see interesting changes in your SEI’s. Go figure. I guess in the hard sciences, we have more serious issues to worry about—for instance, students blowing themselves up in the lab. Hope you do not use this piece for your tenure portfolio.
I greatly appreciate the guidelines! As a graduate student, I understand and follow email etiquette and have received kind responses. On the flip side, I think professors can also take the time to respond in a respectful manner. I’ve received emails where professors have misspelled my name even though my full name is in my email address AND in my signature. Professors absolutely deserve the respect and consideration, but I think the same could be said for students. Professors are busy, and I get that, but we all are (rule #10).
A biggest pet peeve of mine is when professors put an instruction in the subject line of an email and leaving the body blank! Argh – sooo demeaning.
There is a selection issue. I get more emails from failing students than average students. They are failing for a reason and it shows in their emails.
I have to say I’m a bit surprised. I’ve TAd for 3 years at Northwestern, with about 50 students/quarter and lots and lots of e-mails. I don’t recall a single e-mail that was really bad, stylistically. Emoticons and exclamation marks are about the only “sin” I can relate to and even those were quite rare.
It might be that NU students are really that much better at writing e-mails, but compared to Yale I’d be somewhat surprised…
The number of responses this post received makes me think that professors need some sort of therapeutic intervention so that they can deal with all of the stress that is induced by poorly-writted emails.
wow, really? this is how my generation communicates?
how about there shouldnt be a need for explaining things like this. we need to educate children at the grade school level on how to communicate.
i grew up with computers around me as far back as i can remember (heck, back before operating systems had GUIs). i can, if i need to, send complex communications with 3-10 characters. still, i know how to properly compose a letter/email/etc, and can cater that appropriately to whomever i am speaking (prof / boss / federal organization / friends / etc). it blows my mind people need to be told the things suggested in this article (not that the article is bad or anything).
i think this is the result of 2 things: 1) the dinosaur generation (those born before a time where computing technology saturated any and all communications technology) having a poor understanding of the new generation who grew up with these things. 2) the new generation being COMPLETELY FAILED by any and all educational services (AND THEIR PARENTS) such that they dont even realize how far theyre straying from the “norm.”
the current educational system is designed to raise a generation of mind tempered, over-consuming, complacently ignorant, mindless worker-bees, and this article is some evidence of that. we need to revamp education from the ground up, or else this is just going to get worse.
(thats an emoticon wearing a sideways baseball hat with a goatee…)
I thought it was a handlebar moustache!
ksr, you put your finger on what I consider to be the most important rule. Re-read what you have written before you send it. I am not in the education business, but the number of times I have had to speak to someone at my company for sending a client an email that is partly or wholly unintelligible is embarrassing.
Of course, I think being respectful, as well as having a valid reason to write are important, but I have to flag that it is also a part of any professor’s job to teach and therefore be responsive to students. If a student has a valid question, doesn’t that warrant a response? Perhaps lingering too much on the details of what is probably a well-intentioned message could be seen as somewhat pedantic, and could deter students a bit from seeing professors as approachable. This is all the more true of undergrads who may need a little coaching, particularly in early years. Of course there are extremes, and basics that everyone should know. But some of these suggestions are not really that, and so may not be the best indicators of whether what a student is asking is actually a question that warrants a response. I know there are a lot of student foibles out there, but there are also plenty of professors that don’t invest in their students. A guide like the one done here might benefit from an equal one to professors on how to be good teachers and mentors even. Thanks!
I’m with Julie… It’s not an ego thing, it’s also a question of being correct. I often get Mrs. _____. There’s no scenario in which that is correct. As a young female I need to make sure I establish respect.
I’ve gotten more than one email that simply addressed me using my last name. As in,
i want to add yr class but the online system sais its ful.
I’m studying in Brazil for a semester and I’m encouraged to start emails with “Hi Flavia” instead of “Professor”. The informality is weird. Professors also end their emails with Hugs,
I’ve noticed the familiarity since arriving here, too. It’s quite unsettling to have just met someone – or to be emailing someone you don’t know – and for them to send you ‘kisses’ (beijos).
Wait?! Is email the type of prose Elmore Leonard had in mind? I thought email was more casual than standard written prose!
What a stick-in-the-mud.
Two observations. First, people who prefer formal are often easily offended by informality, which they will take to be presumptuous. People who prefer informal can easily suggest that formal switch to formal. So start with formal. Second, the writer Joseph Sobran offered this advice on the exclamation point: The exclamation is only to be used in quoting conversation, and then preferably only by the recently disemboweled. Excellent advice. It is more than a little irritating to see the practice in many an economics text of sticking an exclamation point in parentheses to indicate that the preceding remark was a joke.
When I was an undergrad, I used to worry too much about my emails to professors, and as an instructor now, I get some emails that are terrible from my students. The biggest problems are that they often don’t indicate WHO they are, or they use ‘text messaging’ type spellings, and also usually that their subject lines are uninformative. Rather than the words “a question” in the subject line it really is better to have ‘this is Joe from Bio 112″, especially if the sending address is a silly one.
An email to an instructor should be brief and to the point, and anyone that gets too upset over ‘Mr. Ms. Professor, Dr.’ probably isn’t going to be too helpful in email anyway. I really think that the best fall back is simply to use Professor/Prof. If a person is instructing at the college level, then that should be acceptable (except for TA’s of course).
As far as first names, I don’t consider myself a formal person, but if a student sent me an email that said Dear firstname, it’d give me pause.
I would add ALWAYS make sure to spell the instructor’s last name correctly. It’s amazing how often I get emails where this isn’t the case and, frankly, it makes it hard for me take the rest of the email seriously (particularly when it’s about looking at work).
STUDENTS: A few minutes of basic respectful politeness and editing in emails to your faculty members can go a long way in increasing the likelihood that they will answer you fairly quickly. Contrary to some stereotypes, faculty members are very busy, very hard-working folks for the most part.
The main thing is to use titles and polite, not overly familiar language, especially when you don’t know a faculty member well and/or they haven’t told you how they should be addressed. Most people will be tolerant with some of the more specific suggestions above as long as you start with a basic level of respect (use Dr./Prof./Mr./Ms. based on title and whether the person has a Ph.D. or other doctorate; get their name correct).
Great guidelines Chris. I suggest also titling emails in a way that gives a clear indication of the content (e.g. mid-term; thesis; make-up assignment or test). And, if the email seeks a response, the title should give an indication of that also (e.g. query; your guidance; feedback please). This practice will help the recipient triage their inbox – and increase the likelihood an email won’t get lost.
I agree with you in that a first or second email to a stranger shouldn’t include an exclamation point, but to call overuse “the first sign of an immature mind” when studies have shown that women use exclamation points much more often than men seems a bit short-sighted. Maybe you didn’t know about this gendered element, and maybe our definitions of overuse are different (though your citation of Elmore Leonard makes it pretty clear). The exclamation point is a perfectly valid way to express friendliness, gratitude, and enthusiasm, in the right context. I understand that these guidelines are for a specific kind of email, but the oversight here is surprising coming from you.
I agree, though I’d have to say the number of times I responses from my profs that say: “ok thanks – tk” it makes me question why I just spend 5 minutes crafting a well written email.
If I leave my desk for twenty minutes, I will come back to 20 substantive emails requiring a quick response. Most professors and other senior professionals have the same problem. It only increases as you get more senior. So this is how we cope.
Cecilia Miller loves to sign her email with “Cheers” but she is not a Brit, just an anglophile.
Please break up paragraphs into readable chunks that have some logical flow. Spaces between the graphs are fine. Reread them so they aren’t repetitive.
@Zach. I use Best/All the best or Thanks/Thank you. Seems to cover most situations. The Brits can get away with “Cheers”, but I don’t think I can pull it off.
We Canadians get away with Cheers too. I think.
I’ve never known a British academic to write ‘cheers’ – though I have known Australians… I’m not sure anyone but Australians can really pull it of… “Best wishes” and “Kind regards” are much more common (as I’m discovering emailing potential PhD supervisors – luckily I haven’t made any of the mistakes you listed. I think.)
Something else I’d add in here is if you’re emailing your prof–remind them of who you are. (ie. My name is Joe and I’m in your Accy 202 class at 9am on Tuesdays.)
As a current undergrad student the biggest problem I have had with e-mailing a professor is writing a complementary close. I have read over several articles that state that a professional/formal, letter (or in this case e-mail) should have the closing “Sincerely yours,”; however, I still find that this sounds strange to write to a professor. What are your thoughts or suggestions?
I tend to sign e-mails to professors “Respectfully Yours” or similar especially if I am asking for something. I also tend to use the phrase “Thank you in advance for your consideration.” (I pretty much mean “thank’s for reading this e-mail and not simply dismissing my request/total breakdown of ability to (do something).. I understand if you say no, because I actually went and read your policy in the syllabus, but please please please make an exception just this one time and I will be eternally grateful) Of course I’ve also been told by professors that I write overly formal e-mails. Flip side is that I have been allowed to take exams later (for legit reasons like a sick kid and scheduled at the TA/Prof’s convenience) among other huge favors.
I find using “Best” or “My Best to You” to be an often appropriate close whether one knows the professor well or not.
I would say that, if you’re writing to a professor you don’t know for the first time, then something along the lines of “Sincerely” is direct, formal enough, and to the point. I’ve also occasionally used “Warmest Regards” or “Sincerely Yours,” especially when writing to a bigwig, though I find them a bit clunky. After the first e-mail, I think “Best” often serves the purpose.
A good rule of thumb that I generally try to follow is: If writing to a superior (whether a supervisor or someone with a higher position/reputation than you), then always sign off one degree more formal than they did in their last message. So, if you get “Best,” then respond “Sincerely,” or “Best Wishes.” If you get just their first name, then “Best,” and your first name is usually appropriate. If you just get their initials, then you can probably just use a dash and your first name.
Best, or simply
Are all perfectly appropriate and not at all overly formal.
I’ll second #10. I’m a grad student and a TA. I don’t know if undergrads at my university just think since I’m a grad student I’m not important enough to warrant respect, but I get too many emails the tone is very entitled and presumptuous. I’m MUCH more likely to be helpful if the initial email is courteous and acknowledges if the request might require a fair amount of my time.
On #1 I’ll object a bit. I’ve got a gmail account that’s not email@example.com or anything of that sort. If it was something super juvenile like matt_the_stud13 or something I would change it, but I’m sticking with my non-standard email name for now!
In defense of people who insist on “Dr.” – it gets a little old when you’re young and female and you get your 40th “Ms.” or “Mrs.” email referring to all your male colleagues as “Dr.” I have anecdotal evidence, although nothing systematic, of male undergrads referring to their professors as “Ms.” as a means of refusing to acknowledge their position, and conveying, in essence, that the professor is still “just” a woman.
Seriously. Although I’m inclined to think it’s more of a habit leftover from high school, where most of the teachers are “Ms. Something-or-Other” because most are female. My students catch themselves doing it and profusely apologize pretty frequently, especially the freshmen.
Also, do not list all of your campus organization positions in your signature. Nobody cares that you’re the third vice-president of the Snail Watching Society.
That’s a great list, but you missed the “Reply to All” epidemic. People need to understand that “Reply to All” & “Reply” are different. Other issues I have are incorrect or irrelevant subject lines (subject lines help me decide whether I want to read the mail then or later, so it is highly irritating), using chain mails that start with discussing rocket science and digress to discussing the pretty girl in the next cubicle, forwarding mails without any consideration for what is on the chain of mails below & mails that assume I know what the sender is talking about – a little background would be required on most occasions.
Please accept my apologies in advance for being pedantic, but that’s kind of the point of your post, right? Anyway, item 3: you could not care less. People use that cliched statement incorrectly (like you did) quite frequently. Perhaps you should add the recommendation to avoid that phrase and ones like it to your list.
True. You might want to avoid common but controversial idioms in a formal email or letter, but if only “could care less” were the least of the offenses. As for me, if it’s good enough for the OED (which lists it as an American idiom) it’s good enough for this blog…
I actually think using exclamation points (wisely) is important in emails. They convey more clearly what is intended to be taken lightly as opposed to seriously. But that’s more when you deal with colleagues than bosses.
Good morning!! My take on exclamation points is that you should almost never use only one. I rarely use one for genuine enthusiasm (and thank heavens no one will care enough to dig up online examples that show I’m lying), but often use two to mock enthusiasm. But then, this goes along with first name usage and other signs of increasing familiarity.
There might be an exception for communication with people you supervise. I used to follow all of these rules closely, particularly the one on exclamation points, and for the reason you provide. A few years back, though, I had something of an intervention from a few staff I supervised and who were willing to give me some feedback. My short, direct emails weren’t adequately communicating positive, supportive energy to people who looked to their boss for support and encouragement. Saying what I thought (“Thank you, that was a great job today”) just was not enough. They asked, specifically, for more emotive communication through punctuation. I obliged, and I’ve been grateful ever since for their ability to ask for what they needed. (!)
One can add a development twist to this. In at least one LDC (the one where I work) officialdom is still struggling to get to grips with email as a means of communication. Official invitations to official events need to be officially signed by Mr/s Big. So in place of a 10kB simple email to say please come to our little meeting, you get a 3MB monstrosity which consists of a simple cover message along the lines of pleased see the attached, and then a poorly scanned in printed (and signed!) official invitation, usually multi-paged, hence the large file size. Unfortunately, being in a LDC our internet connection is rather slow (getting better tho!) and it can take an hour or more to download said invitation. But at least it beats sending it in the post; those invitations tend to arrive about 2 weeks after the event concerned.
I work at a community college in NY, and we have the same issue, but even for ‘informal’ meetings. To make it worse, the sender will send one email to a list like ‘full time faculty’ and another to ‘full time staff’, and apparently those lists have the same emails on them so you get two copies.
Maybe some of this depends on where you are. I’m at university in England, and I would generally use first name rather than a title when emailling a professor, unless I’d never met them before. I think this is fairly usual, certainly in reply emails my supervisors/professors would sign off “Best wishes, Bob” rather than “Best wishes, Prof X”. Perhaps I’d be more inclined to use titles if it was the first email I’d ever sent the person, or back when I was a undergraduate rather than postgrad. Using full titles sounds a little clunky. Perhaps it’s a USA/UK thing?
I’d say all apply to emailing a professor for a first or second time, and this was the main aim of my advice.
What about a professor whom you know reasonably well? In the US, practice varies from campus to campus, but I’d advise undergraduates to err on the side of formality (i.e. last names). If an instructor signals that you should use a first name, then fine. But I personally waited for strong signals.
Grad students, in my mind, are more like junior colleagues and ought to be on a first name basis with their professors. Again, not all feel this way and so again I urge people to err on the side of caution until you know them well.
I agree, though I don’t think the signal need be all that strong. My rule of thumb was to use “Prof _____ ” on the first email. If they replied back and signed the email with their first name of nickname, I then considered myself to be on a first-name basis. That has never failed me.
Another point of advice for undergrads, don’t refer to your second-year graduate student TA/TFs as “Prof ________”
Until not that long ago, I would have agreed with you (European upbringing…), but I have been told in no uncertain terms that I was overly formal for Australian mores. So it is not as universal as you make it sound, and it’s best to check first what is locally acceptable and normal.
My adviser signed every single email with her initials all seven years. There’s a point at which you just have to ask.
Burke: “ather than “Best wishes, Prof X”.”
But what if you’re a student at a school for mutants??
Do Bible quotes qualify to also be lumped in with famous quotes? Please say yes.
One more. Sign your full name or have a signature. I’ve had several along the lines of: I’d like to come talk to you about my assignment. -Mike There’s usually lots of Mikes out there.
The famous quote in the signature is getting to be my pet peeve. Not sure why that grates so much.
Hmmmmm….I remember some of the emails Professor Dr. Blattman sent me when HE was a student. Got to dig those up right away!
Bring em on. Sadly I lost my old emails, so my first to you are in oblivion. Unless you still have them…