Monday, January 17, 2011

Email Etiquette for Undergrads (and Grad Students)

US News has a post that is now going viral since it is a comprehensive and reasonable guideline for undergrads as they prepare to email their professors.  I am just going to highlight a few, and you can go to the piece for the entire list.  Before I go on, I should mention that McGill students are actually pretty good in the way they email, so much of the list does not really apply that often to me and mine.

1. E-mail is forever. Once you send it off, you can't get it back. Once your professor has it, he or she owns it and can save it or, in the worst case, forward it onto colleagues for a good laugh—at your expense. [Indeed, not really a bad thing as it helps me remember who asked for extensions] 
5. Subject lines are for subjects. Put a brief explanation of the nature of the e-mail (like "question about paper") in the subject line. Never include demands such as "urgent request—immediate response needed." That's the surest way to get your request trashed. [Yes, urgent stuff goes in trash, as only spammers use headers like that] 
6. Salutations matter. The safest way to start is with "Dear Professor So and So" (using their last name). That way you won't be getting into the issue of whether the prof has a Ph.D. or not, and you won't seem sexist when you address your female-professor as "Ms." or, worse yet, "Mrs. This and That." [Grad students can call me Steve, undergrads--I don't know you that well, and you don't know me that well] 
5-Star Tip. Never e-mail your paper as an attachment in a bizarre format. ... Stick to Word. [Or send it as PDF.  And don't send a virus or that will be the last time the prof accepts a file from you] 
10. No one really likes emoticons and smileys. Trust us on this one. :) [ Disagree ;(  If one is using humor, it is not entirely a bad idea to use one.  Using more than one is a bad idea] 
12. This is not IM-ing. So pls dun wrte yor profeSR lIk ur txtN. uz abbrz @ yor own rsk. coRec me f Im wrng. (Translation thanks to, which features a neat little Facebook widget.) [Not an issue yet, but absolutely, please don't] 
18. Don't lay it on too thick. It's one thing to be polite and friendly in your e-mail; it's another thing to wind up with a brown nose. [Absolutely, profs that I know mind more brownosers than students who just go along and don't make a splash]

I would add:
  • don't use email to ask questions that require more than a few lines of answer.  Professors do not want to elaborate about a theory in an email.  If a question requires significant explanation or a give and take, then use email to make an appointment.
  • don't expect all profs to respond at the same pace.
  • don't expect profs to respond quickly the night or weekend before something is due.  Most profs are not as attached to their computer as I am.  And I don't like students begging for extensions or seeking feedback at the last minute. 
Any additions other profs would like to make?


Ellen Saideman said...

First, read the syllabus, course policies, and other materials to see if you can figure the answer out yourself before you ask your professor!

Steve Saideman said...

Good one. Especially read the syllabus part. Made a bit more complicated these days as we no longer give out paper copies due to budget cuts. Instead, they are posted online....