I am a graduate student in the U.S., specifically California although I am not sure it matters.

After three months in the American university system I am almost convinced there is an organizational level plot to ignore my emails, or people's emails in general. From Health Centre personnel to personal advisors it seems no one manages to answer an email.

Over the course of four weeks I emailed this employee at the Student Health Centre, not once, not twice, but four times. Each time I would receive an automated response "We are very busy bla bla bla will reply in 48 hours", and each time I patiently waited a week without response...After a month I decided that the only way to get an answer to my question was to corner said employee in their office and ask them!

Later during the quarter, I attempt to get in touch with my advisor. I get an half baked reply to my first email (it seems they couldn't be bothered reading past the halfway mark), and then nothing to my several other emails. (Just to be clear, I am not spamming anyone. We are talking about one email per week at most) As it turns out, said advisor went on sabbatical leave between my first and second email - and didn't bother to inform anyone or set up automated email responses...

Even later during the quarter, I get a new advisor. I email said advisor asking to set up an appointment since they need to sign one of my forms. As you can imagine...nothing, no reply, nada. Send another email a week later....nothing, tumbleweeds in my inbox.

Over the four years of my undergraduate degree, I think only one of my emails did not receive a reply. Given that my undergraduate was in the U.K., is there something about the American system that makes people not reply to their emails?

I am aware that most graduate lecturers have outside jobs, but it seems even in person some staff have little to no clue as to what their task is, they are slow in getting back to you, and are not helpful in general.

I was just wondering if the issues I am encountering are related specifically to my university of if it is an American issue?


  • 1
    When you cornered the employee of the Student Health Center, did you ask them about the unanswered emails and if so, what did they say?
    – Allure
    Nov 8, 2018 at 2:01
  • The health center and other issues probably can be decoupled. Privacy rules have been interpreted as providers not being able to respond via emails but through “secure systems.”
    – aeismail
    Nov 8, 2018 at 2:02
  • I did not confront the person regarding the unanswered emails, and the contents of the emails were not patients specific. The person was the employee to contact regarding health insurance enrollment and the automated reply confirmed the question was valid.
    – user91198
    Nov 8, 2018 at 2:04
  • 2
    Since you mention that people can't be bothered reading past the halfway mark, are you regularly writing long emails? You may also want to read How to get people to reply to emails and what to make of a no response?.
    – Anyon
    Nov 8, 2018 at 2:43
  • I am condifent my emails are courteous, concise and to the point. If I need an appointment I will include my availability so the recipient can simply pick what suits them best.
    – user91198
    Nov 9, 2018 at 2:19

3 Answers 3


Is there something about the American system that makes people not reply to their emails?

I've spent my education and career in the American system (including California) and haven't had any particular problems with people being unresponsive to emails. This is probably specific to your institution and/or the individuals involved.

That said, in your academic life you will certainly encounter more people who don't respond to your emails, so you need to be comfortable with other forms of communication, and to have strategies to handle such cases:

  • Call by telephone

  • Visit in person

  • Talk to an administrative assistant

  • Find another person who can help with your issue

  • Escalate to a superior

  • Ask a colleague if there is a particular reason why the person might be unreachable (e.g. sabbatical, leave of absence, vacation, has quit, medical problem, is dead, etc)

And as mentioned above by Anyon, it is also an important skill to write emails that minimize the effort needed for the recipient to read, comprehend, and respond. This also will improve your chances of a useful response.


It sounds strange that so many people do not answer your emails. Are you sure you send emails concerning important issues, clearly and concisely written?

If this is the case, after two or three unanswered emails you should complain. There are different levels of complaint. You can either complain specifically against a person to his/er manager (e.g. the head of department) (you may be able to find staff's line managers on the staff directory) or, if you think it is an general problem, delegate a representative such as the grad rep or student lyason officer, who takes part to the department meetings. If the problem issue is not taken seriously you can escalate the complaint up to the president (you know what I mean).

Surely, before complaining against your advisor you should make an effort to clarify the problem with this person. Maybe knock on the door and ask politely. But do not underestimate the effect of complaints, at the annual performance review they can create problems to a person.

  • I always send emails as a last resort. I actually get frustrated when I see emails that can clearly be answered by a google search. When I do resort to contacting someone I always make sure I address them properly "Dear Mr/Prof/Dr X [...] Kind regards, Y" and such, I keep things as concise as possible as well.
    – user91198
    Nov 9, 2018 at 2:17

I wonder if we're at the same institution as this is something that I've noticed too. Have personally been ignored by the registrar, project accounts, housing, the health center, facilities, IT, the book store, the computer store, department managers, payroll etc. On the flip side, I get too many emails just saying "Thanks!" and dozens of emails about topics or events that are so unimportant that you wonder how anyone has the time to organize or write about them. Personally I put it less down to a conspiracy or culture, but some combination of admin staff being overworked, having higher priorities, and being too inexperienced to deal with something properly instead of putting it in the "too hard" pile. I have emails from over a year ago that are important to address, but still aren't at the top of my to do list. So unfortunately for those people waiting on my replies, it probably won't be soon the way things are going. Uncommunicative advisors, well, that's just a whole other topic.

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