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When needing to ask a professor about something important and potentially delicate, what is an appropriate way to phrase the question or write the email?

Examples include:

  • Requesting a recommendation letter
  • Asking for exceptions to policy (e.g., ignoring a course prerequisite, rescheduling an exam)
  • Asking if you can do research with them, join a group, get into a program
  • Scheduling a meeting, exam, or defense
  • Letting them know about a change of plans
  • Letting them know about a life event affecting your work or studies (e.g., wedding, funeral, sickness, vacation)
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    I like this idea. Now we can close as duplicate a million and one "how do I email" about this or that. – aparente001 Jun 10 '17 at 3:07
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Professors are people too.

There are generally no magic words or special formulas for talking to professors. That said, it is understandable that people often feel very nervous in communicating with professors because how the professor responds can sometimes have a big impact on your future. Here are some ideas about what works well.

Make your communications polite, direct, and succinct.

You don't need to be fancy or tell your life story. Professors are busy people, and most will highly appreciate a simple, polite email telling them what you want and why you think it makes sense.

Here is a template for such an email to a professor:

  • Put the topic in the subject
  • In approximately one short sentence each:
    • Tell them / remind them who you are (unless you interact frequently)
    • Give the context for your request
    • Ask what you need to ask or tell them what you need to tell them.
    • Invite further communication or discussion if useful.

Examples:

Subject: Request to ignore Programming 101 prerequisite for Algorithms

Dear Prof. Brown:

I am a freshman in the computer science department, wishing to take your Algorithms course. I believe that it is reasonable for me to do this even though I have not taken the Programming 101 prerequisite, because I have previously built and released two Android cell-phone apps, demonstrating that I know programming basics. Would you be willing to sign the department form so that I can take your class? If you'd like more information, I am happy to meet or to answer questions over email.


Subject: Letter of Recommendation

Dear Professor Patel:

Your may remember that last year I took your Advanced Topics in Advancement seminar, and did a project on pico-widgets that you liked very much. I am now planning to apply to Ph.D. programs. Would you be willing to write me a strong letter of recommendation? I am attaching an informal transcript. Please let me know if there is any additional information that you would need.


Subject: Out sick

Dear Professor Xu:

I am sick with the Martian Spotted Flu, and the doctor says I should stay in bed for a week. I'm sorry, but somebody else will need to take care of the mice while I am out. If they need information, they can call my phone and I'll answer when I can.

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    +1 for Martian Spotted Flu. (Seriously though, this is a great question and answer!) – astronat Jun 10 '17 at 7:43
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    Do people really ask for a "strong letter of recommendation"? Seems so rude; I can understand that the reply might be "no, I don't feel comfortable recommending you strongly", but the request doesn't need to be so abrupt for that. If I received the request, I think I'd refuse it purely for being so presumptuous. – OJFord Jun 10 '17 at 15:02
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    @OJFord Personally, I am quite comfortable both asking for and receiving such requests. In my experience of US academic culture, you really don't want any lukewarm recommendations. – jakebeal Jun 10 '17 at 15:17
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    @Walter ... and this is why people ask innumerable variations of this question, because they are afraid that professors are judgmental alien power figures who will destroy them if their communications are not perfectly worded. Most actual professors will not even notice the difference between wordings, much less respond any differently or take offense at one they believe is imperfect. – jakebeal Jun 10 '17 at 18:22
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    For those academics who are moving on to industry after graduation, this is the same protocol for dealing with superiors at work. Give them the information they need, no more, no less. No emotional commentary, no excessive apologies. Think of the immortal words "I'm sorry I wrote you such a long letter but I didn't have time to write you a short one." – corsiKa Jun 11 '17 at 22:12

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