41

Most people in research probably have first-hand experience regarding how difficult it is to get some people to reply to emails, e.g. (but not limited to) some reputed professors. It is also difficult to establish how to interpret a lack of response, because the person can be just busy and miss your email (i.e. "save for later" then forget about it) or might be purposely ignoring the email. I find the lack of response particularly annoying when contacting a listed "corresponding author" about their paper.

I have experienced several extremes: professors who reply within hours (or even minutes!); professors who failed to produce any response at all; even once I sent a job query and didn't get a response until after 2-3 months later, when the professor apologized about forgetting to reply and said he was very interested in my application.

The latter case almost cost me a job (luckily I had already secured a position elsewhere), and as it turned out later I could have resolved the situation by sending the professor a reminder that he had not replied to my earlier email. But how could I have interpreted his lack of response as either forgetfulness or disinterest?

The situation is usually better with postdocs and graduate students, who tend to reply, and when they do their replies tend to come faster.

Hence, my questions are:

  • How to improve the chances of getting a reply to one's email besides the obvious "be brief and to the point"
  • How to interpret the lack of response
  • When is it appropriate to send a reminder and tips to avoid annoying the recipient with it

Edit upon request:

The typical content of the emails I'm referring to would be regarding the work done by the email's recipient or at their lab (questions about papers published by them, for instance). Non-spam job applications or surveying possible collaboration could also be included here.

  • 2
    Currently this question is rather broad, and there are several questions on the site that deal with certain situations. Can you narrow down the kind of email situations you have in mind? – Kimball May 18 '15 at 10:08
  • 6
    If you don't know the professor, you should not interpret the lack of response, as it could mean many things. – Kimball May 18 '15 at 10:09
  • 8
    As a professor, I would sometimes get mail from cranks. I replied to one once: it seems I am even now on his mailing list after 20 years. – GEdgar May 18 '15 at 14:31
  • 6
    I think even secondary school kids get emails from Gabor Fekete. – Miguel May 18 '15 at 16:21
  • If your question is about work done in their lab, then also realise that the professor might not be in a position to respond, e.g. when the first author of the paper was a PhD student and has moved on since. Particularly in large labs i would not expect this to occur more often. – CrepusculeWithNellie May 20 '15 at 8:35
38

If you want to know why you get faster responses from grad students than professors, just take a look at this comparison of email volume when transitioning from student to professor. Afterward the load just continues to rise (the number of emails I get per month is now much greater than anything shown there).

Many researchers -- particularly faculty -- have an email address that is publicly listed on the internet. That means that anyone in the entire world can contact them about anything at any time. Some well-known researchers get a huge amount of email, and could not possibly respond to it all even if they did nothing else. Even a fairly ordinary mid-career professor with some research funds gets a pretty high volume of email from total strangers. I'm not referring to outright spam but to things like applications for student/postdoc/researcher positions; requests for research assistance, or inquiries about research collaborations and so forth. Replying to such email cannot trump essential duties like research, student advising, and teaching, so the time for it is limited.

Initial message

Given a queue of tasks (emails) that perhaps cannot ever be completed in the available time, one must prioritize. If you are emailing a complete stranger, your email is not likely to be at the top of the queue. The best way to make sure your email stands out is to

  • Ensure that it does not look like a form letter. Currently, the only messages I don't reply to at all are those that look like the sender could have sent identical messages to everyone in my department (usually, they did).
  • Show that you have done your homework. If you're applying for a job, do you have some research ideas that the professor would be interested in? What makes you especially qualified for the job? If you're looking for a collaboration, reference specific things in the contact's papers that are of interest to you.
  • Along the same lines, don't email a stranger asking them to do (home)work for you (yes, it happens a lot) or requesting information that you could find for yourself on the internet.
  • Be polite. Recognize that you are interrupting a complete stranger without having been invited to do so. You are not entitled to their time; you are requesting it.
  • Write clearly and concisely. If it's a first contact and you want to ask questions, try to ask just one question.

Lost messages

It does happen that messages get lost, due to spam filters or by being buried under other newer messages. If you don't get a reply, there is no way to know whether the message was lost or just didn't make it to the top of the queue. If it was lost, a reminder may be appreciated by the recipient.

Reminders

Typically, I would wait at least a week before sending a reminder. I feel that a reminder to a total stranger after 2 days is not polite. In your reminder:

  • Be extra polite.
  • Do not blame the recipient. A good strategy is to say you are sending a follow-up in case your original message went to spam, or something similar.
  • Remember that you have no idea what is going on in the professional or personal life of the recipient, and you are certainly in no position to judge their actions.

If you are corresponding with a collaborator, the above rules still apply. Last month, a friend and collaborator suddenly stopped replying to emails just when we had nearly completed a manuscript. I waited two weeks, then sent a message just asking if she was okay. In fact, it turned out that a major personal issue had arisen that -- among other things -- prevented her from doing any work during that time.

  • Yes, indeed, especially worth emphasizing that every single work-day one may have a queue of new emails too long to go through even if that's all one did all day long. So, yes, again, addressing the recipient by name, specific-explanatory subject line, etc., to distinguish it from bulk emails. – paul garrett May 18 '15 at 13:03
  • 4
    It's not just time-limiting though - receiving so many emails means that some legitimate emails (especially from unrecognised senders) will be deleted by accident. This may be masde worse by an overly-aggressive spam filter intended to keep some of the cranks at bay. The net effect is that your message may have been deleted for some reason (and it's worth assuming that no-one checks their spam folder unless looking for a message they were expecting). – Chris H May 18 '15 at 15:57
  • 3
    One hint that I found useful: having only one question - if there is a question - doubles the chance of getting a reply compared to having two. If the answer can be short, that will be better . – Paolo May 19 '15 at 9:45
  • Thanks for the good comments; I have incorporated them into the answer. – David Ketcheson May 19 '15 at 19:28
17

First, I never shy away from the brief polite reminder 2-7 days later, depending on the urgency of the issue. Being polite is important: introducing the email with "Dear [title, name]," and ending with "Thank you, [your name]".

For example: "Dear Professor Jabberwocky, I'm writing to follow up on the below email. Thank you, Lewis."

You already wrote the professor once. No need to add details and make them read more than necessary.

Second, if the issue is important and I do not get a response, I will ask a colleague or advisor who personally knows the person I've emailed to connect us. That has never failed.

Third, if possible, a phone call or in-person meeting is always much more reliable than emailing, even if (or because) it takes a bit more physical and social effort on your part.

  • 4
    Good points, I would just add a fourth: cover your bases. Do not rely on any one person for a reference, particularly if that person is known to be non-responsive. Or put differently, check your potential references for such issues. – Peter Jansson May 18 '15 at 10:14
  • @jabberwocky, I am interested in your advice on this too. Could you give us an example of what you might put in between the salutation and the closing? Thanks. – aparente001 May 18 '15 at 12:38
  • 1
    Yes, politeness is important. A salutation using title and name never hurts! An actual closing, identifying yourself, is very good. Maybe phone calls are not so good... – paul garrett May 18 '15 at 13:01
  • 2
    @aparente001 Simple is good. "Dear Professor Jabberwocky, I'm writing to follow up on the below email. Thank you, Lewis." – Dr. Beeblebrox May 19 '15 at 9:37
  • @jabberwocky Thanks for filling it in. I will try your text. – aparente001 May 20 '15 at 5:07
1

In addition to the excellent answer of David Ketcheson I would add:

Make a specific request in your mail. Ask for some bit of information or the answer to a question. Otherwise the mail may just be interpreted as a "For Your Information" note, not requiring a reply. Many busy people won't respond with just "thank you for your note" assuming that no thanks are necessary and not wanting to take the time to compose it.

Make the request clear, such as at the very end, rather than burying it in the text. Make it simple (as the linked post suggests).

Then, after a suitable delay, a follow up is warranted.

protected by Community Jun 25 at 12:38

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.