I recently had the experience of overhearing a few faculty discussing a particularly annoying grad student habit : the sending of a really bad email to a faculty member. As we are all well aware, the majority of our work is done over email. Figuring out email etiquette is an essential skill as both a grad student and as a co-worker. I believe I’ve struck on some successful strategies for doing just that (but do check the comments: wondering if I’m going to find out now I’ve been annoying my faculty for the past three years with my emails. Heh.).
1. Read the Email Charter . The email charter bills itself as “10 Rules to Reverse the Email Spiral” and I stand by all of them. My favorite tip is #8: “Give these Gifts: EOM and NNTR.” NNTR= no need to respond. This is perfect for when you want to update a Principal Investigator on doings on the research or just make someone aware of a situation. EOM (End of Message) allow you to use the subject line like a text message + [EOM]: your recipient doesn’t even need to open the email. On that note:
2. Write succinct and clear subject lines. For goodness sake, please stop with the subject line of “Question.” I see this way too often—it’s such a mystery! What could the question be? Instead, try starting the email off right with the question written out in the subject line. My recent subject lines include “Results of Office Hours” written to the instructor for whom I TA, and “Skip our meeting this week?” when it was clear there was no need to have a meeting. When people know what I am asking of them, they tend to respond promptly. If it’s a question about a class, also be sure to include the course number in the subject line.
3. Get to the point quickly. No one likes to read a long  email, especially when there are so many competing demands for our time. Help the person out by using the fewest words possible to get your point across. When I have a number of questions, I will use bullet points. This way the reader’s attention is pulled to what needs the response. I also will indicate how time-sensitive the request is—if my questions can wait, I’m fine going to the end of the pile. This respects my email receiver’s ability to prioritize.
4. Write with a respectful tone. Listen, I love using emoticons. I love being lazy and writing just the way I speak. But I do neither of these things when I am writing to professors. I begin with formal titles and tone, but these can be relaxed if I know the recipient well. If you aren’t sure, feel free to check with an older graduate student about the protocol. I end with a respectful “Thank you for your time,” or just sign my name. I include an email signature with my contact info that isn’t too long . And I spell check. Please, please spell check. It’s an easy way to be dismissed if the spelling, grammar, and capitalization are all over the place.
5. Send reminders. This is the trickiest tip to master. Email gets lost and buried or accidently deleted (I do this all the time looking at email on my phone). I will just reply to the email I sent with a very quick, “Hello, just making sure you got this. Let me know if you have any questions. Thanks so much...etc.” That’s usually all it takes. If it’s a less pressing matter, I will take the same tactic, but I will wait a full week before employing it. If I haven’t specified a response time, I am willing to wait and be patient. Finally, follow the golden rule of email: respond to emails in the time you yourself would like your emails responded to. Bottom line: I have a 24-hour email response policy—even if it’s just to say “I got this, working on it, more later.” I figure it’s good email karma. It’s important to balance persistence with respect.
6. Be careful of CC, BCC, and Reply All. All three of these email features are immensely useful when they are used under the correct circumstances. BCC should be used when you are emailing lots of people and you want to avoid that long list of emails at the beginning. Be careful that you are CC’ing only those who need it when you do. And finally, remember that a LOT OF LISTSERVS default to REPLY ALL. I managed a listserv with this function once and every time an intended single recipient went REPLY ALL we would hemorrhage members. This was often due to the delightful “Please remove me from the list” REPLY ALL cycle. Please don’t do this. And if you do: don’t send a REPLY ALL apology. In my vision of listserv nirvana, we would all agree that we understand it could happen to anyone.
7. Start new subject lines when email threads go too long. Speaking of listserv conversations, I want to add the reminder that it is possible to edit a subject line once you’ve hit reply. As the conversation shifts, so should the subject line. I don’t have hard rules about this for myself, but I do try to sense when an email thread has shifted and then change the subject line. That way you get the thread appended to the email, but the recipient(s) understand what’s coming next, per #2 on this list.
Following these tips will go a long way to helping make the email world a more manageable place for both yourself and your recipients.
- Chris Blattman: “Students: How to email to your Professor, employer, and professional peers” http://chrisblattman.com/2010/11/08/students-how-to-email-to-your-professor-employer-and-professional-peers/ 
What tips do you have for handling email? What annoys you most in an email? Let’s hear from you in the comments or tweet it with #ghmailfail!
[Image by RambergMediaImages, used under Creative Commons License]