There’s one thing you can’t do without when you’re studying: communicating with lecturers. Not only in times of Corona does it mean composing emails. And that can be quite intimidating at times. How to find the right tone? What (unspoken) e-mail etiquette is there? And what do I do if I don’t get an answer?? We asked two lecturers and an expert what to consider when communicating digitally with lecturers and what are absolute no-go’s.
The sociologist Dr. Thomas Schmidt-Lux is a research assistant in the field of cultural sociology at the University of Leipzig. Prof. Dr. Dr. Antoinette Maget Dominice, lawyer and art historian, is junior professor for values of cultural assets and provenance research at the Institute for Art History at the Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich. Daniela Weber is the author of several guidebooks on the subject of studying, including "Erfolgreich studieren fur Dummies" (Successful Studying for Dummies), and is herself a lecturer in scientific work at the University for Sustainable Development in Eberswalde.
Dr. Dr. Antoinette Maget Dominice is a lawyer and art historian.
Dr. Thomas Schmidt-Lux works at the University of Leipzig.
Daniela Weber is the author of several guidebooks on the subject of studying.
1. How to start the e-mail? Should I mention all academic titles?
Antoinette Maget Dominice
Basically, you should use the campus account for every e-mail that is written in connection with your studies. If you don’t have a university mail account, it is important to use a serious sounding sender address and to fill in the subject line.
You should also send the email to the right contact person: This shows that you have read up on your studies and know who is responsible for what. If you don’t know the professor you’re writing to, you’re on the safe side with "Dear Professor". Name" on the safe side. It is important to use the right title, even younger colleagues don’t like to be contacted without a title. In addition, you should avoid spelling mistakes in the name.
In no case all academic titles! I find this already very, very formal. To write "Dear*r" as a salutation is completely ok for me, even if you don’t know each other. I don’t find that at all encroaching, but really friendly. I find "Huhu" too informal – I read that a lot right now. My favorite form of address used to be "Hello Schmidt-Lux!". This made me laugh a lot. I don’t really care how you say goodbye. Unless you already wrote on Thursday "Have a nice weekend!" wishes. In general I would say: Better unspectacular, but without misunderstandings.
Professors are a wide-ranging species. This is once due to the incredibly wide age range, but also the specialties are very different there. If I address a renowned professor, the address is certainly "Dear Prof. XYZ", however, I would leave out the often multiple doctoral degrees there as well. In a more friendly atmosphere, a "hello" is also an option. You can say goodbye in the classic way "With kind regards", in case of greater familiarity also with "Many/heartfelt/best regards". In most cases, students can tell from their first conversation with a lecturer whether he or she is being more formal or friendly.
2. The* lecturer does not reply to my mail. When can I follow up without seeming pushy??
Antoinette Maget Dominice
Some e-mails are not answered because they were addressed incorrectly. One should also check whether one has met certain requirements, usually published on personal websites: Perhaps one has asked for a review at too short notice, or the attached file is not in the desired format? After a whole week, one may politely inquire whether the person has received the request. You can resend the previous e-mail with a new subject line, greeting and a very concise summary of your request. In general, it makes sense to pay attention to periods such as lecture-free periods, research semesters or visiting professorships of lecturers, in which professors are less accessible.
I sometimes have mails marked in my inbox for weeks, because it is important to me to answer them, but I don’t want to do it between door and door. Then I am almost grateful for a friendly inquiry. The demand period depends on the urgency. Some things have a week, for others you can ask earlier. If someone doesn’t get back to you even when asked, you could check with the office. They know if someone is sick. In the worst case, if you know someone just doesn’t feel like answering, you can either call in the student council or inform the executive director. But I think that is only legitimate after a really thorough effort.
I would always give lecturers two to three days as a minimum. After five to seven days, you can politely follow up if there is a deadline, for example registrations of papers or seminars, refer to it, and otherwise write something as friendly as possible and preferably add a hoped-for end date that gives the lecturers another two to three days. If a lecturer refuses to answer, this could also be an incentive to reconsider whether the person should really be responsible for supervising final theses, for example. Because such behavior is often not an isolated case.
This is how it is to start your studies under Corona conditions
Find a flat share on the phone? Getting to know people at a distance? And what if the wifi goes on strike?? A student in her first semester kept a diary.
3. My boyfriend broke up with me, I have stress with my flatmate and I feel sick – so I have to ask for an extension for my exam. Should I describe my situation in detail in the email or keep it short and just write "for personal reasons"?
Antoinette Maget Dominice
These formalities are usually regulated by the respective examination and study regulations. But if you have to ask professors personally for a deadline extension, it’s in your own best interest to describe the reason briefly and succinctly without rambling on. Basically: When stating the reasons, you can refer to counseling centers of the university as well as pre-register the case with the study center and/or the examination office. The same applies to signing out of seminar sessions.
I am in favor of a middle way. I don’t need to know all the details of your private life, after all, it’s painful for the people involved to describe them. When students do that, I think it’s brave and honest, sometimes I really understand certain things better too. But if it’s only a matter of postponing the deadline by a few days, you don’t have to do that. However, I also find an overly casual reason like "Couldn’t make it" too meager. So gladly a short, but a little more precise signal.
"The student kept citing her mother as a source in the paper"
On Reddit, professors tell of strange student failures. This is sometimes really sad, but often just very funny.
This also depends on how personal the relationship with the supervisor is. If there were no direct conversations or meetings, then the reasoning probably doesn’t matter. Personally, I have never heard of a service that was accepted despite late submission because the reasoning was good enough.
4. What is an absolute no-go in communication with lecturers??
Antoinette Maget Dominice
I’m left stunned by students who ask for help and later don’t thank me. There is certainly no need for bouquets of flowers as thanks. Recognition that the other person has taken the time is, however, a sign of respect. Equally annoying are students who ask me for assistance before a paper and don’t follow either what was discussed or the recommended readings. In this case I am uncompromising, as time was wasted by both parties concerned. But such cases hardly make up five percent of all the e-mail traffic I receive – and much more often I can be pleased about cleverly thought-out requests, interesting messages or thoughtful words.
I find it tedious when students call in on time during the first week without lectures with questions that we have already discussed before or that should be clarified during seminar time. Lecture-free time is important for faculty to get more research and writing done. Even though we are of course there for the students during this time, I am more "sensitive" to things that could easily have been clarified beforehand. However, I very rarely have communication, which I find annoying.
What really annoys me is when students think they know better than the lecturers. Last semester, for example, I corrected some homeworks. When one person asked me how the grading was done, I answered with a detailed explanation and tips. Thereupon I received some very long mails, saying that I would see everything wrong and that the rating must be better everywhere. I had a slight vein, but I answered politely several times. Ultimately, the person addressed the review board. It came out that she had used a term paper graded by a colleague as a reference, which the person had entered incorrectly in the system. What annoyed me most was that I made the offer of a face-to-face meeting several times, but always got pages of emails back. Here I would have wished that the direct conversation was preferred.