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I'm doing a PhD related to my supervisor's research area. Sometimes, I think about problems that I do not immediately know the answer to. Naturally, I come to Stack Exchange and other forums and ask :) But on some occasions, the question is rather specific so I email my supervisor instead.

How often do you generally email a supervisor about research questions? I know he has other PhD students plus his own research to do. I have a weekly 45 min meeting with him, so I try to save questions for that and give a report to him about what I did in the previous week. On very rare occasions, he comes down to the lab and we talk in person. I usually email him when there is some administrative stuff we need to talk about, but I'm asking about research questions here or about giving updates about the progress of my research.

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    I know he has other PhD students — Have you tried asking them first? – JeffE Apr 12 '13 at 14:15
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    Be very glad you talk with your adviser weekly. – enderland Apr 12 '13 at 18:35
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When you email him, at your current rate, how often do you get responses? Has he indicated that it bothers him? (either directly or by showing signs that it annoys him) If not, why are you worried about it?

I'll add that the right question to ask is probably not how often can I email him?”, but rather “am I emailing him with the right questions?”. What will definitely annoy your advisor, and pretty much any other person, is if you ask them series of questions to which you could have found the answer yourself, or questions whom they are not the right person to ask.

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    On the other hand, use the weekly meeting for the important stuff; email is best used for things that are either too low-level (e.g., administrative matters), or too complex for a face-to-face meeting (deep problems that require a lot of thought, or several handouts or attachments to explain). – aeismail Apr 14 '13 at 20:35
  • Good answer. Depending on the question it should be addressed to the (vast) Internet (stackexchange, search engines, etc.), the colleagues, the supervisor and even sometimes to the duck. If there are many questions for the supervisor he will probably be happy to see so much progress, work, questions, etc. (that should mean lots of quality papers as well), on the contrary he will be annoyed by questions that are a waste of time, even if those're only a few, you should not try to find the thresshold of annoyance for your supervisor. – Trylks Jan 14 '14 at 16:08
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You mention a weekly meeting with him. At the very least this means that when you have a research question you will have to wait 6 days before having an answer. My 2 cents is that you can wait, you cannot ask for help with only a few days of work on a research question.

If what you call a research question is not really a research question (for instance how to make a specific experiment), you may consider asking to other students and postdocs.

edit : and as for the updates, if your supervisor decided on a weekly meeting, don't send him email about updates, except if you have a revolutionary breakthrough.

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    No problem being downvoted, but maybe the downvoter can add a comment? – Sylvain Peyronnet Apr 13 '13 at 11:37
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    I didn't downvote you, but considered it, so I can comment: your answer is not generic, since not all research groups and adviser/student relationships are the same. Your approach is very typical of “big US groups", where the group leader is mostly inaccessible. Some people do recognize that fast exchange of information speeds up the process of research, and act appropriately. Sure, if you can learn the information from another post-doc, you should not ask… but if not, better to ask than wait 6 days (which can be valuable if you have time-limited access to specific equipement, for example) – F'x Apr 14 '13 at 7:32
  • In my mind there is a difference between having very frequent exchanges with someone you are working with compared to a weekly exchange with someone you only supervise. For those of my students that work independently on some topics, I am here to advise them, but I am not here to do their work (which is what happens if they ask me research questions every days). – Sylvain Peyronnet Apr 14 '13 at 9:38
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The simple answer is:

Not more than he wants.

You must be very sensitive to when you annoy him, and don't annoy him.

Even if he wants his interactions with and about you not to be flavored by his (occasional) annoyance, which is rare, he's still human, and they will be.

Any other answer will be defective, not knowing how much will annoy him. Many don't mind, or even enjoy, responding to one email per day, and some will find that obnoxious. You might even try asking him something like "if I have questions between our meetings, and want to email you, is that OK?" You can probably judge from his response a good starting point.

Also, realize that NOT ALL EMAILS ARE THE SAME.

A 2-sentence email that is clear, concise, to the point, and asks a single question with a definite answer that he already knows and can give you a 2-word answer "counts" much less than a long, rambling mini-essay that asks him to analyze, or worse, research something and give a multi-part reply.

Personally, I try to make sure each email asks a single question, and can be read and answered in 2 minutes or less (preferably 30 seconds). I also find I get a lot more (and more useful) answers to such emails than when I let them get longer. Also, I find that as long as I keep to that format, even 2 or 3 emails in a day is not too many for most people. OTOH, even one rambling email per week is too many for most.

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