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This question is about maintaining email records when changing institutions. I’m writing it here because it seems to be a problem quite specific to the academic context of managing long-term relationships within the context of a series of short-term posts which seems to typify post-doc life.

Now I’m in a new post-doc position, my student email has about 6 months left to run before everything is deleted when the account is closed, and which probably contains several thousand carefully filed emails (academic collaborations and correspondence, supervision and PhD project, university milestones, passwords, agreements...). Probably about only 30-40 of them will be crucial to me over the next couple of years, but it’s difficult to know which ones. I’d like to keep a fairly complete paper trail. I am also preparing to encounter this problem again when my post-doc post finishes in 18 months' time.

A colleague who was in a similar fix ended up mailing hundreds of emails to her new account, which is clearly less than ideal. Another colleague just prints everything and stores it in paper files. If I wasn’t in academia I would switch emails to a more permanent one, but it is essential to use the proper address for work correspondence, so this doesn’t appear to be an option, unless if anyone has any ideas.

(Technical bit: The previous system used Outlook and exchange on the web; the current system uses Outlook and outlook.com; the next system could use anything. To complicate things, Outlook has been auto-archiving files which means there are multiple .pst files, so this option looks a little nightmarish. I'm a mere social scientist, so eager to avoid a very technical solution.)

Has anybody found a reasonable system for handling this sort of problem, whether manual or automated, other than finding a permanent academic post?

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This may sound a wee bit techical but have you tried "backing up" your email using thunderbird? I remember that being quite straighforward. I could download all my emails as .txt or .rtf files into one single folder. –  drN Mar 3 at 13:48
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I don't know if this question is relevant to Academia.SE (it is about migration/backup of e-mail from different accounts). Anyway: use gmail (or any other similar service) to download emails from your previous account (for working account you can do it in the other way: autoforward), OR export emails from web client (as mbox, csv or anything sane). In any case, don't forget about it, because emails are very valuable. –  Piotr Migdal Mar 3 at 15:42
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I would recommend that you look into this option presented by Amit Agarwal on his blog How to Transfer Mails from one Email Account to another for Free. He addresses all your points. Good luck! –  Emme Mar 3 at 16:41
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@PiotrMigdal email usage in academia is different in at least 3 respects: (1) university email accounts are often used for both personal and work reasons, (2) we generally claim a stake in the IP contained in the email, and (3) we often have short appointments making changing email accounts more frequent. –  StrongBad Mar 3 at 16:47
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This might be a better fit on superuser. It is essentially a technical question about email handling. In my experience horrible proprietary systems like Lotus Notes are particularly problematic. –  Faheem Mitha Mar 3 at 16:59

6 Answers 6

up vote 6 down vote accepted

There are two distinct problems: having a permanent email address so that others can reach you even if they don't have your current details, and keeping an archive of your past emails.

Email address

I have an email from my alumni association that's pretty much guaranteed to be for life. If you don't have this chance, you can rent a domain name for your own use for around $10/year (if you aren't picky about the choice of top-level domain). It's impossible to predict what the Internet will be like in the 40 years or so that an academic carrier lasts, but it is plausible that such methods of contact will remain relevant and affordable. At this price, you get the opportunity to make http://your-chosen-name.tld/ point to some website and whatever@your-chosen-name.tld redirect emails to some email provider; hosting the actual website and storing emails is a distinct service. You would typically set a web redirection to http://example.edu/~lplatts and an email redirection to lplatts@example.edu and update when you change institutions (or redirect to some other service of your choice).

Some institutions may insist that you write the email address they provide on papers that you publish while they're paying you. Journals often allow you to specify two email addresses, though this can be crowded if you're co-financed by several institutions already. If you don't have your permanent email address in your published papers, a web page that's easy to find by typing your name in Google (or whatever becomes the de facto standard search engine) is helpful.

Email archive

I strongly recommend that you keep an archive of all your academic emails on a computer that you personally own. Keep your emails also on an online service to be able to access it anywhere, but don't leave your data at the mercy of an institution that you'll be leaving sooner or later or of a commercial service that could fold or become unusable (e.g. due to an unacceptable change in the terms of service) at any time. In other words, uploading all your emails on Gmail isn't enough.

Most academic institutions consider that academic emails are related to your academic career and therefore your property. On the contrary, most companies consider your emails to be company property and won't let you walk away with them. If you have some data that may be considered confidential to your institution, they may not like you to walk away with it. Make sure to check your institution's policies. If you're only allowed to retain some of your emails, classify them in separate folders and export only those.

I recommend making sure that all your email is available in Thunderbird. Thunderbird is the email client from the Mozilla Foundation that also makes the Firefox web browser. Thunderbird runs on the major desktop operating systems (Linux, Windows, OSX) and has a decent GUI.

You can import Outlook's .pst files into Thunderbird. This way, you won't depend on a proprietary tool, you can move your archives onto any machine that has Thunderbird installed. Do this regularly even if you keep using Outlook. On your last day at an institution, import your last emails into Thunderbird and burn your mailbox to a CD. When you arrive in a new institution, either use Thunderbird or export your old emails to whatever the standard format there is.

You can additionally upload your emails to a service such as Gmail (currently free and with a practically unlimited mailbox size). This has two benefits: you can access your emails from anywhere, and Google's search is better than anyone else's. Once you have your emails accessible in Thunderbird, you can upload them to Gmail by configuring Thunderbird to access that account and copying the emails to Gmail. Do this only if you're willing to trust Google's privacy (depending on your field, you may not be willing to allow a potential competitor to process your emails, for example if you're researching search algorithms).

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You can use a permanent account while still having the emails sent to your official address. I do this by getting gmail to check my university email accounts for me (Settings > Accounts > Check email from other accounts). I am then able to reply to those emails directly in gmail, while having them appear to come from my university address (there is an option to always reply from the same address to which the email was sent).

I'm not sure whether this solution can be any use for the emails you have already received (you may be able to use it, if you can for example mark all your emails as unread, so that gmail maybe sees them as new), but it might be worth starting now to reduce future hassle.

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Disk space is cheap, so you might as well archive (almost) everything. You never know when you might need it later. But I think the technical details of how to do so are outside the scope of this site.

One consideration for academics, though, is that some of our email may have confidential information: student grades, or correspondence about disciplinary issues, or search committee business. Your institution may not want to you to keep a personal copy of such emails after you leave. If you keep them, and they later leak out, you could conceivably have legal problems.

Before archiving a personal copy of my emails, I search through them to purge information that should not leave the institution, or is otherwise too risky to save.

There's a similar issue if you want to keep your email in the cloud (gmail or similar); you and your institution both have to trust the provider to keep the data private. I know some institutions forbid users to forward their email to gmail for this reason.

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Yes, that's a good point about some institutions forbidding forwarding work email to gmail. –  Tara B Mar 3 at 20:33

In Outlook, your best bet is to export all of your mail.

  • Click File, Open & Export. Select Import/Export.
  • Pick Export to a file and click Next.
  • Pick Outlook Data File (.pst) and click Next.

You can export a particular folder, or select your account if you want to save everything. (Make sure Include subfolders is checked.)

Export Outlook Data File

Outlook will save your data into a single PST file you can keep and open in Outlook at any time. Everything is saved in the PST file; you need not have access to the original email account.

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I've had similar problems in the past. I think for the future, @TaraB's solution is the best one, given that gmail's reply-to features and identity management are quite good, and they also permit archiving of email.

But for the past data, if you're technically savvy, it's not hard to write a small script that can ping your server, download all the email and store it locally. I in fact run such a script once a month to flush out my mailbox and organize emails in monthly folders.

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This is a quite different answer than all others, but many email services are accessiable via IMAP. Via offlineimap one can synchronize between two IMAP servers (say old and new university) as well as your computer and an IMAP server.

This allows for moving mails, keeping a local backup of all mails, as well as using this as a general-purpose email solution.

I synchronize between one IMAP server (my universities') and three different computers.

The disadvantage is that this requires some knowledge of unix-like tools, and reading the offlineimap manual.

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