E-mail Etiquette - Adapted for Academia

The following email etiquette tips are derived from personal experience and are prompted by a NY Times article: "To: Professor@University.edu Subject: Why It’s all about me". If you are really curious about the phenonomonology of electronic communication among the current generation, read Generation Me by Jeane Twenge, Ph.D.

These guidelines are meant as professional advice for all your email, SMS and chat communications but are tailored to your current and future academic environment.

  • Don’t email your professor to ask for materials that are already posted to your course management system. If you need something, either your professor anticipated it or someone else has already asked for it. It is probably already available to you. Check for it!
  • Don’t email your professor and tell them you won’t be in class. Bringing unnecessary attention to your absence only wastes your and your professor’s time. Unless your absence impacts a grade component, just miss the class. Your professor many not know you weren’t there. If a grade component is involved, you will need a university-approved excuse anyway. Telling your professor you wife is sick, and you have a meeting, and the kids are on vacation is inappropriate. Professors have families and personal lives too, and work hard to make sure we don’t inconvenience your academic life.
  • Don’t email your professor asking for their notes. Your professors work hard to prepare and deliver their lectures. If you fail to take notes, miss class, or lose your notes, contact your peers first. Odds are there are 10-20 other students in that class that have notes. In today's environment, most professors post draft notes before and fina notes after lectures.
  • Don’t email your professor asking (or complaining) about your grades. Unless you have been specifically told to use email for specific grading topics or issues, don;t do it. If there is a problem with a graded assignment, or you need to find out what you made on an assignment, make an appointment with your professor or go by during office hours. If you want to keep your grades confidential, don’t ask your professor to send them in an email. They won’t be confidential for long. Any time you want to discuss graded assignments, go talk to your professor face-to-face. There is a much smaller chance of misinterpreted intent when looking them in the eye. Also, don’t email your professor asking if they have graded your assignment. They will let you know when they have. Pinging them at 10pm after a 5pm exam will only make things worse.
  • Don’t email your professor and copy the Dept Chair, Program Director or Dean. Unless you are emailing a glowing thank you, or congratulations message, any message you would need to copy a professor’s supervisors on should be delivered in person. Emailing and copying their supervisor will only make your position tougher to defend, whatever it is.
  • Think about what you are asking for before emailing. Your professors are busy people too. A quick email asking their opinion on type of school supplies you need, or to whether to bring their textbook to class may be trivial. “I need to know this and you need to tell me right now” may be the message you are sending with a trivial email.
  • Treat your faculty (and fellow students) with respect, even in email. Your professors are dedicated to your education. We will attempt to create a supportive learning environment that is conducive to your degree pursuits. Don’t misinterpret this “kinder, gentler professor” model with an offer of friendship or an invitation to treat us as peers. Always use your professors’ proper title: Dr. or Prof. and unless specifically invited, don’t refer to them by first name. Respect us, and we will respect you.
    Also refrain from bad-mouthing any of your professors or even any fellow students by email or out loud in the presence of any member of the faculty. It’s just unprofessional. Remember Email is forever, and professors have been known to compare notes and talk to each other! Do not assume that two of your professors are not close collaborators on a research project or see each other socially.
  • Don’t email a draft of your assignment to your professor for review. Your professors make assignments to assess your learning. Asking them to grade an assignment twice is unfair to them and to your peers. If you want guidance on completing an assignment, make an appointment or come by during office hours. Emailing your assignments to your professor asking for an informal review is a way of saying, “my time is more valuable than yours, tell me EXACTLY what I need to do to get a good grade”. That having been said – some professors encourage it, so check with your professor before emailing the assignment – in fact, email them about it!
  • Don’t expect an immediate response to your email. Emailing your professors at 2am is fine. But don’t expect an answer by 8am. Each professor has a different work schedule, and probably has a personal life as well. Email is a great way to get your question to your professor, but realize they may not be able to answer until they have time. In some cases, they may not have access to information about your question, unless they are in the office. 24 hours is a standard window for an email response, during the business week.
  • You are what you email. Your emails to your professor help shape their professional opinion about you. In some settings, email is the dominant opportunity for the professor to form an opinion about you. You may be one of those individuals who is quiet and respectful in person, but a flame troll behind the keyboard (look it up). Every email adds to the professor’s profile. Read each email twice before sending.
  • When in doubt, your professor will delete. If your professor receives an email they don’t feel is appropriate, the standard response may be to simply delete it. So if you send an email that you don’t hear back from quickly, reread what you sent, then visit the professor face-to-face to get an answer. The professor may have simply been out of the office.
  • When in doubt, email. Now that this rant has been delivered, when you have a question, email first – after reviewing the above guidelines. Immediate feedback may be more beneficial than any possibly misinterpretations. Professors like to know how the class is going, and email may be the best mechanism for relaying that. Anything that is time sensitive should be emailed first, and then followed up in person.

Further email etiquette tips are given below:

  • Be concise and to the point. Do not make an e-mail longer than it needs to be. Remember that reading an e-mail is harder than reading printed communications and a long e-mail can be very discouraging to read.
  • Answer all questions, and pre-empt further questions. An email reply must answer all questions, and pre-empt further questions – If you do not answer all the questions in the original email, you will receive further e-mails regarding the unanswered questions, which will not only waste your time and your professor’s time but also cause considerable frustration.
  • Use proper spelling, grammar & punctuation. This is not only important because improper spelling, grammar and punctuation give a bad impression of your education, it is also important for conveying the message properly. And, if your program has a spell checking option, why not use it?
  • DON’T Make it personal. E-mail be should personally addressed, but not overly personal. Maintain your professional attitude when communicating with your professors.
  • Answer (and expect an answer) swiftly, but intelligently. We send an e-mail because we wish to receive a quick response. Each e-mail should be replied to within at least 24 hours, and preferably within the same working day. Note the emphasis on WORKING DAY. Don’t expect your professor to respond quickly late at night and on weekends.
  • Do not attach unnecessary files. By sending large attachments you can annoy your professors and even fill their email boxes. Only send attachments when they are absolutely necessary, and then be conscious of their size.
  • Use proper structure & layout. Since reading from a screen is more difficult than reading from paper, the structure and lay out is very important for e-mail messages. Use short paragraphs and blank lines between each paragraph. When making points, number them or mark each point as separate to keep the overview.
  • Do not overuse the high priority option. If you overuse the high priority or urgent option, it will lose its impact when you really need it. Moreover, even if a mail has high priority, your message will come across as slightly aggressive if you flag it as 'high priority'.
  • Do not write in CAPITALS. IF YOU WRITE IN CAPITALS IT SEEMS AS IF YOU ARE SHOUTING. This can be highly annoying and might trigger an unwanted response in the form of a flame mail. Therefore, try not to send any email text in capitals.
  • Don't leave out the original message. When you reply to an email, you must include the original mail in your reply. Leaving the thread might take a fraction longer in download time, but it will save the recipient much more time and frustration in looking for the related emails in their inbox!
  • Read the email before you send it. A lot of people don't bother to read an email before they send it out, as can be seen from the many spelling and grammar mistakes contained in emails. Apart from this, reading your mail through the eyes of the recipient will help you send a more effective message and avoid misunderstandings and inappropriate comments.
  • Do not overuse Reply to All. Only use Reply to All if you really need your message to be seen by each person who received the original message.
  • Take care with abbreviations and emoticons. In business emails, try not to use abbreviations such as BTW (by the way) and LOL (laugh out loud). The recipient might not be aware of the meanings of the abbreviations and in business emails these are generally not appropriate. The same goes for emoticons, such as the smiley :-). If you are not sure whether your recipient knows what it means, it is better not to use it.
  • Be careful with formatting. Remember that when you use formatting in your emails, the sender might not be able to view formatting, or might see different fonts than you had intended. When using colors, use a color that is easy to read on the background.
  • Take care with rich text and HTML messages. Be aware that when you send an email in rich text or HTML format, the sender might only be able to receive plain text emails. If this is the case, the recipient will receive your message as a .txt attachment. Most email clients however, including Microsoft Outlook, are able to receive HTML and rich text messages.
  • Do not forward chain letters. Do not forward chain letters. We can safely say that all of them are hoaxes. Just delete the letters as soon as you receive them.
  • Do not request delivery and read receipts. This will almost always annoy your professor or classmates before he or she has even read your message. Besides, it usually does not work anyway since the recipient could have blocked that function, or his/her software might not support it. If you want to know whether an email was received it is better to ask the recipient to let you know if it was received.
  • Do not ask to recall or delete a message. Biggest chances are that your message has already been delivered and read. A recall request would look very silly in that case wouldn't it? It is better just to send an email to say that you have made a mistake. This will look much more honest than trying to recall or request your professor or classmates delete a message.
  • Do not copy a message or attachment without permission. Do not copy a message or attachment belonging to another user without permission of the originator. If you do not ask permission first, you might be infringing on copyright laws.
  • Do not use email to discuss confidential information. Sending an email is like sending a postcard. If you don't want your email to be displayed on a bulletin board, don't send it. Moreover, never make any libelous, sexist or racially discriminating comments in emails, even if they are meant to be a joke.
  • Use a meaningful subject, and include your Course Number and Section Number. Try to use a subject that is meaningful to the recipient as well as yourself. For instance, when you send an email to a professor requesting information about a class or program, it is better to mention the actual name of the program, e.g. 'BS-ISA' than to just say 'major question' in the subject.
    Avoid using URGENT and IMPORTANT. Even more so than the high-priority option, you must at all times try to avoid these types of words in an email or subject line. Only use this if it is a really, really urgent or important message.
  • Avoid long sentences. Try to keep your sentences to a maximum of 15-20 words. Email is meant to be a quick medium and requires a different kind of writing than letters. Also take care not to send emails that are too long. If a person receives an email that looks like a dissertation, chances are that they will not even attempt to read it!
  • Don't send or forward emails containing libelous, defamatory, offensive, racist or obscene remarks. By sending or even just forwarding one libelous, or offensive remark in an email, you and your organization (business, school, association, etc.) can face court cases resulting in multi-million dollar penalties.
  • Don't forward virus hoaxes and chain letters. If you receive an email message warning you of a new unstoppable virus that will immediately delete everything from your computer, this is most probably a hoax. By forwarding hoaxes you use valuable bandwidth and sometimes virus hoaxes contain viruses themselves, by attaching a so-called file that will stop the dangerous virus. The same goes for chain letters that promise incredible riches or ask your help for a charitable cause. Even if the content seems to be bona fide, the senders are usually not. Since it is impossible to find out whether a chain letter is real or not, the best place for it is the recycle bin.
  • Use cc: field sparingly. Try not to use the cc: field unless the recipient in the cc: field knows why they are receiving a copy of the message. Using the cc: field can be confusing since the recipients might not know who is supposed to act on the message. Also, when responding to a cc: message, should you include the other recipient in the cc: field as well? This will depend on the situation. In general, do not include the person in the cc: field unless you have a particular reason for wanting this person to see your response. Again, make sure that this person will know why they are receiving a copy.