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As a grad student, I just find it tremendously frustrating when emails are ignored by faculty (both at my institution and at other places). Is this acceptable? I'd be content with a simple response with one line along the lines of "I have read this email and am busy right now, will respond in X days when I can write a more detailed email." I understand that, as a first year student in my field, I'm not really in a position to request anything of anyone, but it just seems like common decency.

Instead, I never hear back, as if my email has been jettisoned off into oblivion.

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    There is a profound difference between something being acceptable and commonplace. Just because something happens often does not mean everyone is OK with it. – posdef Apr 22 '13 at 5:56
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    I think it really depends on the type of email. I ignore almost all cold call emails asking about positions in my lab. It would be nice if I responded, but it would also be nice if the university HR handled them. – StrongBad Apr 22 '13 at 9:04
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    How is this a real question and not just a rant disguised as a question? Do you have any evidence that ignoring emails is acceptable in academia or are you just looking to vent about your personal experience? – KennyPeanuts Apr 22 '13 at 15:35
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    No offense, but your time as a grad student is essentially free, and time of the people you ask is prioritized, filled, overfilled and double booked. It is easy for you to sit down and write an email; the professor's emails are tucked in between committees, classes, research, grant writing, reviews, editorial work, and (believe it or not) families. As @enderland puts below, you have to SELL your email to the prof to even read it, let alone respond to it. – StasK Apr 22 '13 at 19:31
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    Why was this question reopened? Maybe it should never have been closed in the first place, but at least the close voters gave a reason. What was the reason for the reopen votes? – StrongBad Apr 23 '13 at 11:37
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I agree that it can be frustrating, but this is not uncommon in a big organisation (I don't think this is specific to academia). People get a lot of e-mail, and are very busy. Answering each and every email can be a lot of work in an already fully packed day. This either leads to people forgetting, or simply ignoring their e-mail to some extent. Also remember that something might be a really high priority for you, but a relatively low priority for the person you mail. So I don't think ignoring mails is acceptable, but sometimes understandable.

I think the best way to deal with it is to try and work with the system. If you see that professor X is very unresponsive to his mail, approach him in person. If a department does not return your mails, give them a call. This kind of personal approach makes it harder for those persons to ignore you, an email is very easy to ignore.

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    I think this issue is not specific to academia. If person X is too busy to reply e-mail, then it's likely that you won't be able to approach him in person easily. The way I deal with it is to make an appointment via some ways such as electronic calendar or department secretary. Then go to catch him at the appointment time. This doesn't always work, but better than just show up at his office. – scaaahu Apr 22 '13 at 7:14
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    @scaaahu I agree that a busy person might also be busy in person, but sometimes people just tend to ignore email, and then a personal approach might yield better results. I agree that making an appointment is also a very good idea. – Paul Hiemstra Apr 22 '13 at 7:30
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    Another advantage of a personal approach is that you can have a lot of interaction: you talk faster than you write, you get a faster answer. – Konerak Apr 22 '13 at 11:40
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    @O.R.Mapper you can always confirm your conversation with an email. This is especially important if decisions where made. – Paul Hiemstra Jan 24 '15 at 19:28
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    I do think this may be more common in academia. Industry connections seem to reply to most emails, though their replies might be short and non-committal (e.g., "Thanks. We'll let you know if we can fund this."). On the other hand, some faculty members do seem to ignore virtually all emails, even from their own trainees. – Matt Feb 16 '16 at 23:09
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Within limits of my experience as an administrator, who regularly asks large numbers of academics for responses by email (eventually, by deadlines, or immediately with harsh consequences):

  • if you directly address correspondence on a topic to a person who has no competence or responsibility for that topic, they are likely to ignore your email as spam.
  • emails can cover both "please action X" and "please action X in a manner which requires response." Some email cultures do not respond to the first, as a response is not implicitly or explicitly required; other email cultures explicitly respond to the first.
  • your email may lie within your correspondents' area of discretion, for example, in my University system requests to discuss research are normally considered to be discretionary—people are unlikely to discuss research with members of the general public, and most likely to discuss research with colleagues in coaligned fields. Your correspondence may fall into the gap between "must answer" and "don't have to."
  • my experience of general society is that most cold calls fall flat; this tends to be true in academia unless you have something to give someone.
  • academic work is a high stress and "sweated" industry in Anglophone countries at the moment. Out of the hundreds of things academics are obliged to do, answering emails often comes last out of the immediate obligations. The penalties for not answering email are low and eventual. The penalties for failing to deliver coursework or publish research are more immediate and severe.
  • following on from the above, one long term coping mechanism for many academics is to push deadlines and delay. Some academics rely on these time bargaining tools. Email is an easy victim.
  • "that Guy" still exists in the academy. Your correspondent could just be that guy.
  • even the harshest consequences for failing to answer emails won't necessarily summon a response from someone on sabbatical or funded research relief from teaching. An academic's line manager in the immediate chain of management can't always summon responses.
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The Problem

People who are super busy don't have the time to spend minutes first reading, then processing (and/or rereading), then responding to your email. This is simply life, there is only so much time in a day, and some people have way more constraints on their time.

Spending lots of time parsing/processing/understanding/formulating responses/replying to emails from people they don't know or have reason to care about? Probably not high on their list of priorities - which for the record is probably already completely overloaded anyways.

The Solution

Write shorter emails (or electronic content) which are easy to answer. This ability is an art, get used to practicing it if you want responses.

Make it easy for someone to respond.

Practical advice from this question

Notice that even in this question, the important part

Why is this acceptable?

was buried in a large paragraph (assuming this is even your primary question, which I'm assuming it was). Plus, it was filled with irrelevant information which suggests other things are what you are interested in.

If I'm a really busy person getting hundreds of emails a day, you just made me read, then reread the email after finishing to figure out what you want a response to. You can't do this if you want responses consistently - and this is relatively SIMPLE with minimal text.

I just find it tremendously frustrating when my emails are ignored by faculty (both at my institution and at other places) and I don't hear back at all. I understand that I'm not really in a position to request anything of anyone, but it just seems like common decency to respond rather than say nothing at all

  • Why is this behavior acceptable?

This is considerably more clear and makes it easier to respond to.


tl;dr

If you are not naturally able to write clear, concise, and easy to respond to emails, practice and spend time rewriting them until you feel they are.

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    One excellent article on how to craft emails that invite response is artofmanliness.com/2012/03/01/… . It also makes the point that a sender does not create an obligation on the part of the receiver just by sending a message. – Alan Shutko Apr 22 '13 at 17:16
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    +1 I get emails all the time about the papers or statistical software that I wrote, and reply to probably 10% of these when I see how I can reply with one line. Negative replies are often the easiest ones (the most recent one: "Can I come study with you?" - "No, I don't teach at this university any more."; typically, "Can your software do this?" - "No, although that would be a reasonable feature to add; not going to happen any time soon"). In some questions, I just see the lack of homework, as in "[downvote] This question does not show research effort, it is unclear or not useful" here on SE. – StasK Apr 22 '13 at 19:27
  • Another tip that has worked well for me is to put what you want in the subject line. Instead of - SUBJECT: Paper X. Put - SUBJECT: Can you send me Appendix A listed in paper X? – user4383 Apr 23 '13 at 0:53
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E-mails are not easily ignored in all systems. In Sweden, e-mails sent to public agencies and organizations must be answered in "due time" (mostly meaning within days). Since many or most of our universities are public, we as faculty fall under the same rules and must answer all mails sent to us. In our case, this of course only concerns matters dealing with university matters, no need to worry about spam etc. We are even requested by law to file all correspondence although there is no clear indication on how this should be done with electronic correspondence.

I have kept tally of my e-mail correspondence for years and receive about 10k mails per year and send about 2-3k. If I do not respond to mails relatively quickly they may soon become forgotten even though they are marked as not read. But, I do not miss more than probably around a few tens of mails every year, a pretty ok "percentage" in my own opinion. I believe all senior staff have similar numbers regarding e-mail harvest.

In my department I have colleagues who's e-mail discipline ranges from "may occasionally answer" to "seems to use e-mail instead of a telephone". In the first case, the persons are by no means not answering out of malice. The persons in the latter category are simply annoying. So regardless of the circumstances, some people are notoriously poor regarding answering, even to relatively close colleagues.

So as was stated by Paul Hiemstra, try to catch the person who is unresponsive in person. it may turn out this is their preferred way to communicate.

10

For a grad student/young people/etc the amount or received mail counts in dozens per day (100 emails a day is something that I've never ever seen in my inbox)

However, people with larger academic networks, industry links, or just a bit older, receive thousands emails per day (this is actually common place, not strange exception). It means that just reading them all may take hours each day, not to say writing an answer. (Even hundreds emails is a bit too much to handle)

And even among those who are not flooded by emails, there are many that do not 'catch up' with technology - they have a default email address but never or seldom use it.

Some people use smart tools to help them manage the deluge (automatic filters, canned responses, secretary, etc)

Some are simply overwhelmed, and just ignore most emails, except those for a weekend beer with an old friend.

Now, you cannot blame them (you'll be in their shoes soon). What you can do about it is to follow some of Paul Hiemstra's recommendations and use some other, less busy channel to contact them.

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    "thousands emails per day". Are you exaggerated that? – Ooker Jul 4 '15 at 8:40
  • @Ooker Thousands of emails a day would be quite a bit on the high end, but certainly within an order of magnitude of correct. – 6005 Sep 29 '16 at 21:03
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This is an old question but one that speaks to me as a former graduate student who was puzzled and very frustrated by the same thing. Ignored emails are the norm in graduate school--unless a faculty member wants you to email something of course. Yes, it is frustrating to turn in a dissertation proposal or chapter and not hear back for months in spite of several friendly reminders. You need questions answered, problems pointed out, or just a few words of reassurance that you are going in a good direction before working six more months on what might be wrong. (And the blame for not getting finished in a timely manner will only fall on your head.) As a new student, you also probably have scores of questions about the program, policies and procedures, and many other things and you, too, have a busy schedule of classes, teaching, perhaps another job, maybe even family, and deadlines of your own. However, as others have said, answering students' email is not high on the list, even if it is possible. Sadly, many faculty do not have time (or inclination) to help you.

So my advice is to memorize the handbook. Then get friendly with other graduate students, especially those who have been there longer, for they can be valuable sources of information. If the issue is very important and can only be answered by a faculty member then drop by during office hours and see if the person can spare a few minutes or make an appointment. It is hard not to see the blatant ignoring of one's communication as just rudeness and arrogance--and maybe it is. But that's the way it is and there is nothing to be done without risking your career so your option, until you have that diploma and job recommendations, is suck it up and not complain. Good luck with it.

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From my experience in industry, one reason I think many emails go unanswered is that it's become common (though, in my opinion, not acceptable) for a lack of a reply to mean "no"/"I don't know"/"I can't help"/"I don't understand your request". If I analyse the emails I sent which never got replies, it seems that around 40% of such cases could be explained by such a phenomenon.

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