Email etiquette for the socially oblivious
September 28, 2017 4:55 PM   Subscribe

I sent an email to a professor two weeks ago and have not heard back. He is very nice, and I think he just missed my email. How should I politely phrase a follow-up email? Assume I am so oblivious about this sort of thing that I need to be asking this question.

About a month ago, I met with a professor about my thesis project. He was absolutely great to talk to, and he offered to serve as a second advisor. I didn't answer at the time because I wanted to speak to my main advisor, but I got busy and didn't follow up for a couple weeks (I later learned that this is not a great way to handle things). I finally emailed him, but it's been two weeks and I haven't heard back.

I'm worried that I was unintentionally rude to him by not accepting his offer on the spot, but everyone who knows him has assured me that he is an extremely nice person (one person said "he's not high maintenance like that"). They assure me that I should just write him again (my main advisor said "you don't need to ask me, you're a big boy," which of course gave me the shot of confidence I needed).

The problem is that I am extremely oblivious when it comes to social stuff that isn't face-to-face, and even then, I can still put my foot in my mouth sometimes.

How can I politely follow up with him? People have suggested saying "I'm emailing you again in case you missed my last message," but because of the difference of authority between us, I can't help but think that comes across as rude or pushy. I'm trying to tread lightly here because I respect him a lot, and because I would really like him to be one of my thesis advisors.

Finally, it sounds dumb, but is there some sort of book of manners for emailing? I will take any advice I can get.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk to Human Relations (14 answers total)
Best answer: Dear Professor,

I'm just following up on my email below.

I apologise for the delay in getting back to you re your offer of becoming my second advisor, but I would really like to take you up on that offer if it's still available.

I look forward to working together.


You should keep it really simple, no need to stress about it.
posted by Youremyworld at 5:01 PM on September 28, 2017 [19 favorites]

Forward your last message to him and add at the top, "Hi, Professor X, Thank you again for meeting with me recently; it was great to talk more about [topic]. I would love for you to act as my second advisor as we had discussed, and Main Advisor thinks it would be a fit as well. Of course I understand that you have other commitments as well; please let me know if that's the case or if you need more information from me before we can proceed! Thanks again for your time, shapes that haunt the dusk."
posted by Snarl Furillo at 5:02 PM on September 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I am a professor and I tell everybody to please, please pester me about stuff because I lose track of emails and deadlines and it's really helpful to me when they remind me of things I need to react to. So you should totally just go ahead and email him again. Youremyworld's script is a good one.
posted by heatherlogan at 5:09 PM on September 28, 2017 [19 favorites]

I'm a professor and a department chair, and I often get over 100 emails a day. Fortunately, most are things I can just skim and file, but I often find myself thinking, "I don't have time to reply to that now, but I'll do it in a day or two"; then, a day or two turns into a week or two as new emails come in over the transom.

My recommendation is to forward/resend your original email with a note at the top along the lines of "Dear Prof. X, have you had a chance to think about this yet? If you'd prefer to talk in person, let me know. Sincerely, Name." That acknowledges that Prof. X might just be really busy but also allows for the possibility that they've simply forgotten while not explicitly stating that.
posted by brianogilvie at 5:14 PM on September 28, 2017 [6 favorites]

I'm a professor too and stuff totally gets lost in the shuffle. I actually tell my students to email me back if they haven't heard back from me in 48 hours if their email required a follow-up from me. It's not pestering. I find it helpful, and I know nearly all of my colleagues feel exactly the same way.

I would forward the original email with the suggested new text from Youremyworld on the top.
posted by sockermom at 5:27 PM on September 28, 2017

Best answer: Since you like scripts and clear rules, there's something here that other people have hinted at that I'm going to make explicit: academia has really weird norms around email and deadlines.

Any rules you've learned in other contexts about when it's okay to double-text someone or whatever? They don't apply here. Any rules you've learned about how to interpret it when someone ignores your message? They don't apply either.

It is very, very common in academia for people to just sit on emails like your professor is doing. People might get annoyed about it, but it isn't seen as rude or insulting, or even sloppy or unprofessional, the way it would be a lot of other places. This is very unlikely to be your professor's way of gently hinting that he doesn't like you, or doesn't want to talk to you, or doesn't think you're worth his time — even though those might be reasonable messages to read into his behavior in another context. It is very likely that he really, honestly did just forget, or that he's putting it off (and maybe kind of sucks at task management) but wants to get back to you and will appreciate a nudge.

It is also very, very common in academia for people to do the email equivalent of double- or triple-texting. It doesn't come across as obnoxious or desperate the way it might in a social situation, or as bossy or like "I'm trying to create a paper trail documenting that you aren't doing your job" the way it might in a professional situation. It's just a normal fact of life — because everyone sits on emails like this, everyone also has to pester each other to do things.

It is weird. It was a big culture shock to me when I started grad school and nobody replied to anything for days, and then it was another big culture shock when I left academia and got a professional job and everyone replied to any reasonable request right away. I'm a scripts-and-clear-rules person too and I spent a lot of time fretting about it before I figured it out. Shit genuinely just operates differently there.
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:32 PM on September 28, 2017 [13 favorites]

You are overthinking this! Life in academia is hectic and this professor probably just forgot to respond. Send a polite follow up reiterating that you’re interested.
posted by ancient star at 5:32 PM on September 28, 2017

I'm a professor and get to the bottom of my email on a regular basis and so hate "reminders" because they usually just make it more difficult. But I'm definitely in the minority—there are even faculty who basically have a policy of not responding to requests the first time as a way of triaging people who really need something from them specifically. So if it's been two weeks, email again, no question.
posted by grouse at 5:40 PM on September 28, 2017

I am a professor and I have had "email [former student]" on my daily to-do list for a week now, and it's not going to get done today. This is a student I adore and am excited to help with his project, but I've worked until at least 9pm every day this week and just haven't had time to sit down and write the very short email I need to send him. If he emailed me right now to check in, I'd likely get back to him within minutes. Instead, I'm going to do it tomorrow, and right now I'm going to go get a drink because it's 8:45pm and I'm done with my workday, and that's something to celebrate.

Which is all just to say: yes, email again.
posted by dizziest at 5:47 PM on September 28, 2017 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I'm a professor. We're bad at email. I would not think it pushy at all if you followed up. Youremyworld's script is very professional, I think you can go with that and not worry another minute about it.
posted by frau_grubach at 5:55 PM on September 28, 2017

If you're better at face-to-face and the prof has regular office hours, pop in and accept his offer face-to-face.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 7:02 PM on September 28, 2017 [2 favorites]


Telephone. Or office hours. Synchronous beats asynchronous every time.
posted by JimN2TAW at 7:59 AM on September 29, 2017

The first answer is the correct one. I've worked in academia for 17 years and even the "good, nice" profs are notorious for ignoring emails. I've sent many, many "just following up" emails, and those usually get a better response than the initial message.
posted by storminator7 at 10:23 AM on September 29, 2017

If you don't want to go with the previous scripts, I really appreciated this askme for polite professional phrasing for "bump".

You're not the only one who struggles with this. It's so hard! If you find a book of manners like that, please do follow up!
posted by mosst at 11:59 AM on September 29, 2017

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