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We know that professors are busy, and more often than not we (students) do not receive quick replies from them. However, the tables have turned (sadly, and just once).

This summer, I'm working on some advanced reading and possibly research under the guidance of a professor not at my institution (given the pandemic, all interaction is online, i.e. via email and scheduled Zoom meetings). After one of my meetings, I wrote to the professor summarizing whatever was discussed in the meeting, and heard back from the professor within a few hours (probably two). The reply also contained some information unrelated to the meeting, to which I may have been expected to respond to. At that point, I was in the process of completing certain work that was assigned to me, and I decided to reply back only after I had made some substantial progress to be able to give an update. So, I replied after approximately 60 hours with updates on substantial progress (as I had expected), and also replied to the extra bit in their email which was essentially some information besides what was discussed in the meeting.

In retrospect, I feel a little awful for sending in a late reply to the professor's email, though 60 hours hopefully isn't too big a deal. Could this possibly be interpreted badly/negatively by the professor? I intend to respond swiftly henceforth - but I am wondering if anything went wrong this time around. I haven't heard back from the professor in about two days now (that's probably okay, but still enough to trigger anxiety).

Please let me know in the context of the above situation if everything seems alright and if replying ASAP to professors is the way to go. Since many people here are at advanced stages in their careers (PhDs, postdocs, professors, etc.) - I hope to gain some valuable insights. Thank you for your patience and for reading this far!

Lastly (though somewhat less important), as the title suggests: Is it considered bad if a student replies late to a professor? (just in general, without context)

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  • P.S. I'm not sure what location tags to use since the professor and I are in different countries. Should I go ahead with the professor's location? May 21 at 19:06
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    Frankly, being busy I'm rather happy if students take their time to reply. Usually my work is not dependent on what the student does, but the student may be dependent on me. No reply from the student => no work for me caused. Meaning that I have no problem if I don't hear from the student quickly, I have enough other things to fill my time. The only person who could have a problem is the student themselves, if they for some reason need a reply to continue. (Except if they don't respond at all, because at some point I have to chase them up, but that requires weeks not 60h.) May 21 at 19:55
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Firstly, take a deep breath. You are fine. I know it's hard, but try not to overthink the situation

There is no "normal" or "expected" response time set by the laws of academia (those don't exist). Sixty hours is a perfectly fine response time, especially if the email from the professor was giving lots of detailed information which you needed to think about before answering, or as you say, you needed to make progress and report on it. Email is not instant messenger and should not be treated as such. Many people in academia only check their email once a day, so wouldn't notice a "slow" reply at all. Furthermore, as a recipient, I'd rather get a slow, correct response than a hasty one with mistakes.

If you are worried about this in the future, it's fine to ask the professor how quickly they would like you to respond to emails. In my new job, my bosses and I discussed this openly, in fact. We decided that a week is a good maximum response time, excluding holidays. It's good to have these honest conversations about expectations for any collaboration, and it's not too late for you to do the same.

Another option is to reply to the professor's email soon after you have seen it (not interrupting your work or concentration, of course) to let them know that you have read it and are working on it and will reply with a full answer tomorrow/next week/other timeframe. However, I think this could be a bit redundant (the sender will probably assume it anyway), it unwantedly adds to the sender's email traffic and is bad for the environment.

In summary, try not to worry and don't think of email as being like Whatsapp. It's more like sending a physical letter.

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  • Got it, thanks! The email did contain information I'd have to think about in detail (and do some research online, etc.) before responding. May 21 at 19:27
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    Upvoted, in particular (though not exclusively) for your first sentence. ;-) May 21 at 21:34
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    In addition, even if the response were considered late (unlikely as that is): OP, you did your best. You're not perfect; none of us are. Stuff like this happens to all of us. It really is ok. May 22 at 4:44

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