Over the months and years in my job, I notice that I often don’t get around to answering all of my emails from students, externals, interested parties, etc. A closer look shows that this mostly concerns emails that are clumsily worded and do not communicate exactly why I am being contacted, who the contacting person is or what exactly they want from me.
Because implicit selection based on habitus, class or origin quickly sneaks into academic communication, I would like to share a few observations from my perspective and put together tips for making contact. These are all things that I also take into account when I contact others by e-mail.
1. Contact regarding courses and examinations
If you have taken part in one of my courses, name it and also mention the respective semester. If it is relevant for the process, also state your matriculation number, the course number, the examination date, the degree programme in which you are enrolled.
- Not: “In your seminar you said …”; “I still need the certificate for attending the lecture.” – But rather: “I was a participant in your lecture ‘Introduction to the Ethics of AI’ in the winter semester 2021/22.” Or “I was a participant in your seminar on ‘Data Ethics’ in the summer semester 2020 at the TU Berlin.”)
- Make sure that your full name is clear from the email. You would be surprised how many students have neither configured their full name in the sender header nor written it below the email. See more on this below.
- If you want a certificate of participation (“Schein”), please send the pre-filled form with it. The background for this: There are different forms for each degree programme and each home university. You know better than I which one you need. Please send it along as a PDF file and fill in everything you can.
2. Proactive contact making
If you contact me, for example, for a professional exchange or to supervise theses or dissertations, please note the following:
State exactly what you want
Make your e-mail “actionable”. An e-mail is easier to answer the clearer it is what exactly is requested, so that I can decide straightforwardly and without many queries whether I can fulfil that or not.
Often it is also crucial that your question or objective gets clear in the first paragraph – so put your request before the more detailed explanation.
Negative examples from practice:
A person who is working on “similar topics” or likes a certain text of mine contacts me with the question whether we want to “get into an exchange”.
This is too vague - it is not clear what “exchange” is supposed to mean. What format? Where/how/when? What communication framework? Why? Do you want to give me feedback on my paper or do you want me to give you feedback? Do you want to write a proposal together, invite me to a panel discussion, or …?
A person writes to inquire “about opportunities to work in the research group” or to “have their thesis supervised”.
With such proactive approaches, everything hinges on whether you offer a concrete idea. What do you want to work on? Why with us? What exactly do you want from me (supervision? a job? strategic advice?) and in what form? Make it clear why we are a match, that is, how I/we would benefit from you and how you would benefit from us.
If you would like me to be a second supervisor or committee member for your dissertation, you should briefly describe what your dissertation is about (in the majority of such requests, candidates do not write anything about their projects). I only accept supervision requests that are within the scope of my expertise. I only accept second supervisions if the request comes sufficiently early in the process such that there is still time for me to co-create the project.
State who you are
Introduce yourself briefly if we don’t know each other: Study background, place of study, professional interests, etc. It is really common that completely unknown people from other universities contact me, inquire for example about jobs or theses, and not say a single word about who they are.
If we have already been in contact, establish that reference
If we know each other or have seen each other somewhere at some point, establish that reference.
If it is about a course or examination, please refer to the item “Contacting us regarding courses and examinations” above.
Attach the previous email exchange (if it was on the same topic) as a quote below the email.
Make it clear why you are contacting me and not someone else
In the case of proactive contacting, it is important that you make the recipient feel that they are specifically the right addressee of the email. Why are you contacting precisely me?
- The impression is created that a copy-paste version of the e-mail was sent to many other professors as well;
- I do not feel professionally responsible because you have not looked into my specialization and my topics of interest in more detail and therefore contact me with a matter about which I can say nothing.
3. General notes on the form
Choose a meaningful subject line
The headline speaks for itself. Negative examples: “?”, “Question”, “Supervision”.
Configure your sender header correctly
It often occurs that e-mails do not have a meaningful sender and therefore look dubious or come into suspicion of being spam even before they are opened. By “sender” I mean the
From header of the e-mail. Usually it is
[first name] [last name] <e-mail address>. Examples of sender headers that often slip through (all examples changed for anonymity):
wpmue <firstname.lastname@example.org>–> Just change that to
Wilhelm Peter Müller <email@example.com>.
Lisa <firstname.lastname@example.org>–> Just change that to
Lisa Müller <email@example.com>.
Eli <firstname.lastname@example.org>–> Just change that to
Elisabeth Müller <email@example.com>.
As a general rule:
firstname.lastname@uni-XY.deis more professional than
- Put in your full name, not just your first name, no nicknames.
- e-mail address from your university account is more professional than other sender domains.
- Note that in my case the following also applies: If you want to apply for a PhD in the field of critical philosophy of digitalization, for example, and you contact me from
@hotmail.com, then that catches my eye (and not in a particularly positive way).
Please send file attachments as PDF files (no Word files, etc.) and make sure the total file size is appropriate.
Keep it brief
Try to describe your request in 1–2 paragraphs and on a maximum of one screen page. Put the most important thing first (what exactly it is about), only then elaborate on the details.
I recommend using a sign-off salutation / closing appropriate to the context.
Anything from “Best (wishes)”, “Sincerely”, “Thank you”, to “(Kind) Regards” is appropriate.
Use of academic titles
If you are unsure, please inform yourself about the proper way to address professors and academic faculty members concerning the use of academic titles.
This is not, however, particularly important to me and you do not have to address me as Professor.
Having said that, there are some colleagues for whom including titles is important. If in doubt, I recommend using a formal form of address (including title) when first making contact, then switching to the simple form of address in follow-up communication.
In the German context, you may refer to the Guide by Michael Ahlheim and colleagues which essentially state the following:
Addressing people with titles is increasingly going out of fashion. Nevertheless, many people implicitly place importance on mentioning their title, even if they do not explicitly indicate this. It is easy to make a faux pas here without realizing it. Formally correct is the following:
If you are writing to a professor for the first time, write
Dear Professor Meyer
The professor title is always written out in full in the salutation, but in an address field or similar, it is abbreviated (e.g., “Prof.”).
The doctoral title is not listed in addition to the professorial title in the salutation. In the (written and oral) form of address, only the “highest” title is mentioned, in this case the professorial title. The situation is different in the address field of a letter or with impersonal mentions (such as “Chair holder of the Department is Prof. Dr. Brigitte Meyer”).
Analogously, start a letter to a research assistant with:
Dear Dr. Meyer
Unlike Professor, the doctoral title is always abbreviated, also in the salutation.
Other academic degrees (M.Sc., M.A. etc.) are not included in the salutation.
You can, if the correspondence becomes more informal, later omit the professor title or the doctoral title, especially, of course, upon request.
First or last name?
Unlike in German, it is more common in English to use only the first name of the addressee, even if they are a professor or have some other title. I am generally happy to establish this less formalised form of communication with my students and collaborators.
If we know each other from a class, you can safely address me in English with my first name. If we were never in touch before, I recommend using first name + last name in the first email (e.g., “Dear Rainer Mühlhoff”). You should then observe how your recipient signs their response and if they use only their first name, you are safe the address them by only their first name next time you write to them.
Will I use your first name? Upon answering to students or collaborators, I usually proceed in a similar way: By default I would use first name + last name as I don’t know about the other person’s preferences. Signs that I can switch to first name only in the second email are whether you signed your email with only your first name and whether you addressed me in your email with only my first name.
4. And if there is no reply?
Please grant me a reasonable period of time to respond. I get about 8-10,000 e-mails a year, it’s often not easy for me to keep up. Feel free to resend me your e-mail after a week if I don’t respond. It doesn’t bother me at all and is often just the right nudge.
If you are in a hurry or have a complicated request, it may also be useful to come to my consultation-hours instead of sending an e-mail. It can also be accessed online, so you don’t have to be in Osnabrück.
Is it better to call?
No, in general it is not better to call, especially if we do not know each other. The only exceptions are:
- if the request is urgent (i.e. needs to be handled within the next few hours),
- if the request is very confidential
- if we already have an established communication relationship.
Related Guides in English:
- University of Melbourne Email etiquette guide
- “Emailing a Professor”
- Gender inclusive language: https://www.lgbtq.pitt.edu/education/resource-gender-inclusive-language
- Gender inclusive language: https://www.grammarly.com/blog/gender-neutral-language/