As a postdoc, students sometimes ask me for advice on how they should communicate with their Prof/PI (Principal Investigator). Having sent and received 1000s of academic emails, here’s what I’ve learned about how to be effective in communication with senior faculty.
1. Academics are busy. Open-ended requests run the risk of being chucked onto the endless to-do pile. So give a timeline. This helps your PI organise their schedule and can be a motivator by itself. “Please see attached manuscript to be submitted on the 30th. If possible, I’d love to have your input by the 26th...”
2. No ‘side notes’. Keep to a single topic per email, clearly stated in the subject line. NEVER finish an email with “By the way, can you please approve my trip to…", etc. These secondary requests can often be overlooked and forgotten; instead send a new email with a dedicated subject line.
3. No preamble, no ‘how are you?’, just get to the point. “Dear Prof, Our XXXX instrument is down. To help us get it fixed, can you please sign the attached as soon as possible…?” Brevity is the soul of a quick exchange.
4. Lower the activation barrier: do as much as you can yourself. If it’s a form, fill it all out, bar the signature. If it’s a cover letter, give them a first draft and let them edit it in their own style. An academic is to a draft of text as a dog is to a nicely thrown stick.
5. You don’t always need express permission. Requiring approval for every trifling thing will paralyse your PhD as you stare at your inbox waiting for Godot. Instead, state your plan and ask "Any objections...?" Give them a few days then treat their non-response as approval.
But you DO have to keep your PI in the loop on what you’re up to (especially meetings with new collaborators, media interviews, competition entries…). There can be sensitivities / IP issues / politics in the background you are unaware of. Blindsiding a PI can cause problems down the track.
6. Write it, send it and try not to worry. Don’t agonise over phrasing like an adolescent messaging their crush. That just eats up time and energy. Similarly don’t ‘read in’ too much to a PI’s response. If they seem gruff, they are probably just on a deadline. I'm sure they still like you!
7. Getting crickets? It’s totally OK to send a follow-up a few days or a week later. Did I mention academics are busy? Despite the best of intentions, sometimes emails can fall through the cracks. Just politely check if they have received it.
8. If you need to elaborate a complex topic (e.g. troubleshooting or data analysis), use numbered points. In the first place this will help you organise your own thoughts. And this point-wise organisation will help clarity through the subsequent email chain.
On that note, ask yourself if email is the best medium for this conversation. Ask to schedule a quick phone call instead. Sometimes that 15-minute chat can save you hours of email writing, and literally days in the lab.
9. Crossing cultures. This is big subject worthy of a topic all by itself. A lab is a melting pot of people from all backgrounds, all with different ideas of the PI–student relationship. Should you say ‘Dear’ or ‘Hi’? Should you sign off ‘yours sincerely’ or ‘cheers’? Easy answer: match whatever they do!
10. This goes without saying, but be polite and respectful. Your supervisor is not your boss, but neither are they your servant. Say please and thank you. Be appreciative of their time. They should be equally respectful of yours.
This list is adapted from a Twitter thread by the author (@iCatHalo).