Writing an e-mail should ordinarily be a simple task. But while writing an e-mail is nothing to lose sleep over, a message to your thesis professor or supervisor inquiring about research work deserves careful planning and appropriate choice of words. If not written properly, your e-mail might end up making a wrong impression on the professor which can influence his judgment of you when the research work eventually commences.
To make sure your e-mail gets a reply and your research work takes off according to schedule, writing a well structured inquiry e-mail is very important. Quite often students don’t pay the attention it requires to carefully frame the content of the mail. There are some important tips, and dos and don’ts to be followed while writing a formal e-mail. Writing an effective mail plays a very important role in securing the position you want.
This article looks at the various aspects of an official e-mail and proffers some useful advice on how to write it effectively.
Keep it formal
Try sending the mail to the official address of the professor since it is an official rather than a personal matter. While it is common practice to send the mail to the professional account of the professor, some students may want to make it personal. While it is not a crime to send a private mail, sending your mail to the professor’s university-approved address seems more logical and sensible and can make the professor perceive you as such. Such impressions can help your course in several ways.
Make your subject clear
It is probably the most important part of the e-mail and also, quite often, the one least attention is paid to. Most professors are usually very occupied with various kinds of official tasks on a simultaneous basis. This means that they might not always be in a position to read every mail in its entirety. Therefore, clearly stating the subject of your mail (rather than leaving the space blank) will enable the professor to quickly have an idea of the message you want to convey.
One sentence is usually enough to achieve this. For example, the subject of your mail can be – “inquiry about when to commence my PhD thesis for the 2021/22 session.” With such a heading as your subject, the professor immediately has an idea of your message and can even send you an instant reply without bothering to peruse all of your mail.
It goes without saying that you need to follow the conventions of formal writing when sending an e-mail to a professor. Hence, you should also avoid writing anything that might make the professor see you as disrespectful and arrogant. Some countries are stricter than others when it comes to whether or not you should adress your professor by their titles or their names. In the Nordics for instance, it is extrememly uncommon to adress anyone by their title, and instead one is very informal using the persons first name. In many other countries, it is seen as disrepectful not to use the title in adressing the person. In some countries, such as Germany, it considered a serious faux pas to omitt the persons title in formal messanging. If you live in a country like that, you should avoid addressing the professors as Mr/Mrs and instead use their title or an abbreviation of it. For example, Good morning Professor Jones.
“Dear” is also an acceptable form of salutation for formal letters so either dear or hello can be used. Using a colon after the salutation instead of a comma is also ideal since it is a formal mail.
You could write a small greeting like “I hope all is well with you and your family” after the salutation. The first thing you need to do after that is to properly introduce yourself. Clearly mention who you are. For instance, “I am_______, a PhD student in your department ________ studying ____.”
The main body
The main objective of your mail is to inquire about a timeline for your proposed research work. This should not take more than a few words so do not bog down the professor with an unnecessarily lengthy story. The shorther and to the point, the better. It’s not uncommon in academia to be buried in work and the last thing someone wants to do is read through an email message that reads like a novel. If you are emailing a professor who has been assigned to you and there is a formal document about his/her selection to supervise you, ensure you attach a copy of it to your mail. You can then politely inquire about how they intend to co-ordinate the project, including when to commence the research work and possibly a holistic timeline for the entire thesis. Also, ask for the possibility of a face-to-face meeting and a likely date for such a meeting if it is possible.
If you are intending to message professors you do not know about a potential research position, my advice would be to instead find someone you have worked with before who can vouch for you, or someone with whom you share a mutual connection. Warm introductions work a lot better than a cold emails, as these tend to be discarded.
Having provided the main thesis of your mail, your closing formalities should follow the same polite tone as other sections. You can start by thanking them for finding time to read your mail and then kindly appeal for their assistance in areas like choice of topic as well as provision of research materials and overall guidance throughout the course of the thesis. You then end by wishing them a nice day.
You can sign off by following the standard conventions of formal writing.
- Ensure that the mail is focused on the topic of research
- Be polite and respectful
- Keep the e-mail short, simple and specific
- Take care of the time zone the professor is in (if necessary). Try sending the mail during office hours to avoid the risk of the mail going unnoticed
- It may not be a good idea to send the e-mail on a weekend since there is a chance of it going unnoticed
- You can consult a senior colleague who has conducted similar research work with the same professor previously to learn more about them
- Use formal language
- Be polite and respectful
- Be honest – do not give any false information
- Revise, proofread and edit the mail to avoid any logic, typing, and/or grammar mistakes
- Avoid slang words and/or emoticons
There are a number of reasons that may necessitate an email to a professor inquiring about research work. For instance, your mail could be because there is no face-to-face access to the professor since your institution is on a holiday break (but about to commence a new semester). It could also be because you live in a city far from your post-graduate institution and hence do not frequently travel to the campus. Lastly, in these days of the coronavirus and lockdowns, an email mail might be one of the few opportunities of interacting with your thesis supervisor. Whatever prompts you to write, the guides/tips above should help you craft an ideal mail.