18

I recently joined a research group as a postdoc. I wrote the professor an email to ask quick but important questions including asking him when when he wanted me to start. It's been over a week and I haven't received get an answer. Other emails I've sent previously have also gone unanswered for long periods as well.

With that background, my question is: do professors sometimes (intentionally or otherwise) not respond to emails in a timely manner?

  • 4
    Have you seen Is it acceptable to ignore emails in academia? This seems to be a duplicate question. – ff524 Jul 2 '14 at 15:07
  • I get that professors are busy, as a student that also works on campus using three different emails, I really get it. But a professor usually hands out their preferred way of contact and when they’re in their office. As well, because our emails at universitys are our main source of communication it should be checked daily. I myself happening to be dealing with a professor that only looks at emails and doesn’t usually respond. Which is maddening when you need a response for matters like needing a paper extension or you need to bring your child to class. – Person Feb 14 '18 at 2:27
23

I wrote him an email to ask quick but important questions, like, when do you want me to start. I didn't get an answer even after a week. And similar things happened before as well.

Some professors are notoriously bad in answering emails. This does not necessarily mean anything. Don't fret about it.

So I want to ask that as a professor, sometimes will you (on purpose) to NOT answer emails in time?

I'm not a professor, but, no, this is not how I would expect an adult person (in a management position, none the less) to behave. If the professor is indeed having second thoughts about you and decided to just not answer anymore, I would say you dodged a bullet there.

However, I really think that this is unlikely. Just send a polite reminder, or propose to have a quick chat e.g., over Skype, at a time of the professor's convenience.

  • Would you explain how to propose to have a quick chat ? By e-mail or by phone? Or some other means? If by e-mail, how would the OP know the e-mail won't be overlooked again? – scaaahu Jul 3 '14 at 8:40
  • I see no other way than to do it per mail. If he consistently ignores your mail, you should start worrying. – xLeitix Jul 3 '14 at 10:46
  • 2
    As a professor, I will second the quick chat suggestion. Sometimes I will spend an hour writing an email that ends up less productive than a half-hour (or even less!) conversation. Knowing that kind of email in advance makes me more likely to put off responding to the original email. So I am likely to respond to the follow-up with "Sure, call me at x time and we'll sort it out." – Matthew Leingang Dec 12 '14 at 17:53
  • If one is deliberately ignored, it's not the right place to work at, anyway. – Captain Emacs Dec 1 '16 at 20:25
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Unlike other professionals, academic faculty have multiple competing tasks of wildly varying natures and deadlines. Broadly divided, we need to balance:

  • Teaching: Two to four courses a semester with dozens, scores, or hundreds of students; a handful of TFs; and occasional irate deans and parents. One or two or three independent readings with students outside of that. Letters of recommendation. Trying to find internships and grad programs for advisees. Handling postdoc requests. Working with academic review committees. Working with course of study committees. etc. etc.

  • Service: Serving on several unrelated college or university committees. Serving on the steering committees of affiliated programs at the university. Having the provost scout you out for a pet committee. Running a search committee. Doing grad admissions. And this is just university service. If you do service work on your national association, then there is considerable committee work there. Not to mention doing peer reviews of journal articles, book manuscripts, grant proposals, etc. etc.

  • Research: And if you can find time after all that, there is your own research. Trying to keep several articles in the pipeline, tracking down an editor to listen to your book proposal, getting around to writing the conference paper you promised, etc. etc.

The way some faculty handle the multitasking is by singletasking. They only do postdoc intake work on Friday mornings, for example. Others give up and have a mailbox from hell.

In other words, things can easily get lost. While a simple questions such as yours might seem to be simple, it might require the prof to have to e-mail the department chair (who is even more busy than the average prof) for an answer, which then gets lost again.

I'd give it a week and then politely ask again. Use the same e-mail title (or reply-all to your own e-mail) so as to bump the e-mail thread back up to the top of the prof's e-mail queue. It's important to try to keep e-mail threads together as faculty have limited brain resources and we rely on our e-mail as our offline memory extension.

10

Since it has been a week, I think it would be acceptable to email them again just saying that you just want to make sure that they did get your email and that you would appreciate their opinion/response/whatever regarding your questions.

Professors receive tons of emails daily, and it isn't uncommon for them to miss important ones that get buried in their email.

2

I know the problem very well and had to wait very long for an answer. It should not be understood as an impoliteness. Professors get a lot of emails and answering every email can be a lot of work. If they just do not have time and read the email, then they forget often to respond later. This issue is not specific to academia.

I would first of all not write email, but call him. Another email could also be overlooked.

  • 4
    I disagree with both points in this answer. First, if the mail contained rather simple questions, the probability of an answer arriving after a week approaches 0. In a busy inbox, such mails are typically either answered quickly or not at all. Secondly, I would advise against calling out of the blue and wanting to discuss organisatorial matters right then. Send a polite reminder, and let the prof decide when to answer. – xLeitix Jul 3 '14 at 7:34
2

Visit or call.

For a while, I used e-mail as a rough to-do list - if there was something in my inbox, it was a task - once I sent a reply, the task was done (in my mind - acting as though a reply was guaranteed). Psychologically this worked well for me, as it let me off the hook. And, this may work well as a student, if you receive only a few dozen e-mails a week, of which many will be group e-mails.

But, as everybody has said, professors get a lot of e-mail.

So I came up with a new system. As early as I could, send the briefest possible e-mail, with a succinct subject, and add it to a list. Whenever I see my advisor, or whenever the list gets a bit long, or whenever a deadline is approaching, I corner my advisor and go through the list. In most cases I find that he's seen the e-mail(s) and didn't get a chance to respond, because he gets hundreds of important emails each week.

0

Timely manner differs for everyone. Also, some professors do not regularly check their email, or they may have a specific email address they use aside from their college/university address.

I have found it is usually best to ask a professor which way they prefer to be contacted, than to just send and email and expect to hear back in the same amount of time that, say, my parents would write me back.

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