I wrote an email to Prof. X to ask about a PhD student vacancy and talk about a topic in one of his papers. He refused to accept me because of his retirement and replied with a warming email. In that, he cc-ed two others that he thought might be interested in me, Prof. Y and Prof. Z. Prof. Y refused because his area is somewhat distinct to mine; Prof. Z hasn't answered yet. I haven't responded to anyone yet. I also want to ask Prof. X's opinion about Prof. T's work, who is actually the one that I want to follow.

How should I respond to this? My feeling is that if Prof. X cc-ed others, this means that he wants to create a group discussion. As a group, everyone should have the right to hear each other voices. Should I reply to the group with a generic "thank you" email?

But if I do that, then I have to send another private emails to Prof. X and Prof. Z. I just worry that this will make me looks sneaky because I don't have the courage to discuss this in public.

What should I do?

2 Answers 2


The key factor here is that the professor X is retiring. He is not attempting to initiate a group discussion, he is trying to pass you off to the other CC professors and give you an introduction to them.

The correct way to respond is to send a nice single-addressee thank you note to original professor X only, perhaps also asking your query about Professor T, then send a single-addressee email to each individual Professor listed in the CC.

The key here is that you won't be working with the group, you'll only be working with one of them.

  • But professor Y also replied in the group. Should I still reply in single-addressee?
    – Ooker
    Nov 23, 2015 at 17:22
  • @Ooker...yes. single addressee. UNLESS Professor Y expressed a query or suggestion TO THE GROUP. Here's the rubric: "I'm out" is a GROUP response. "I'm interested" is a SINGLE response.
    – dwoz
    Nov 23, 2015 at 17:27
  • I understand why "I'm out" should be a group response, but why "I'm interested" is a single response?
    – Ooker
    Nov 23, 2015 at 17:30
  • 2
    @Ooker: consider these scenarios: Professor M responds to GROUP, "I like this applicant, but I'm currently overloaded. Anyone else?"...scenario 2: Professor Q responds to GROUP, "not my area of expertise. Thanks for considering me."...scenario 3: Professor A responds to GROUP, "this guy looks like a good fit for our XYZ program focus." In scenario 3, you would continue the discussion in GROUP. For scenario 2, you would thank that professor individually. For scenario 1, you would stick to that professor like a bad smell. scenario 1 you would take to private.
    – dwoz
    Nov 23, 2015 at 17:48
  • Isn't Prof A (scenario 3) saying "I'm interested", and should get my response as a group?
    – Ooker
    Nov 24, 2015 at 4:34

Semantically, if he wanted to create a group discussion, he would have put professor Y and Z in the To field, and would have addressed them and you in the first few lines of the email e.g. "Dear Y, Z and dwoz,..."

If he wanted to let Y, Z know about his correspondence with you, i.e. keep them informed, he would, as he did, put them in the CC field, (For the interested reader later CC=Carbon Copy). He is just ensuring they have knowledge of what went down.

If he wanted to ensure they had knowledge, but you did not know they knew, he would have put them in the BCC field (Blind Carbon Copy).

However, people do not always use the fields "correctly".

  • 1
    I don't think the distinction between To and CC is relevant, as the rules of what goes where is not universally agreed upon, and even then, most people don't even care.
    – Davidmh
    Nov 24, 2015 at 9:13
  • Indeed, I agree. See my list line, and the scare quotes around "correctly". Indeed it is not universally agreed upon so correctly is not clearly defined (thus the scare quotes). Also note the second half of the first sentence, after the "and he would have address them and you..." Nov 24, 2015 at 9:21

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