Answer your students’ emails!

We all get tons of email. We all need some system to deal with it. That system should not include ignoring emails from graduate students in our own departments. A student should not have to send multiple messages. A student should not have to beg for something reasonable. A student should get a signature in a timely fashion. A student should not have to run interference between staff members needing rules followed and faculty who are too busy.

It seems so simple. A grad student emails you about something that requires action.
Read the email and respond. If it is complex or you are not sure how to respond, just let the student know. Don’t ignore the student. Ever.

Emails can chew away at our productivity. If you don’t have a good system for handling email, it can overwhelm. But most of the cases I hear about involve professors who have read the email, then failed to answer. I’m sorry, but I don’t get it.

What is reasonable? I think emails from graduate students should be answered when they are read, even if the answer does not solve the problem, but just lets the student know you are aware of it. I think 24 hours is a reasonable time frame. Emails do not have to be answered at night or on weekends, though you will get an answer from me.

Our students should not have to guess at what we think. We should tell them. Our students are precious. They are taking on a risky and exciting endeavor, one that we ourselves took on. It is our job to guide and mentor them through this process. We should share our joys and our failures, our papers and grant proposals. We should give them the freedom to explore and the support to keep excessive failure away. We should do many, many things for our students. Playing hard to get is not one of them. So answer those emails!

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About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Group leadership and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Answer your students’ emails!

  1. Well as a graduate student, I should thank you! I cannot tell you how difficult it is to get a hold of some faculty.
    Although in the past year, from the perspective of instructor-undergraduate relationship, I have spent a moderate amount of time searching some of the pedagogy literature and have come up mostly empty handed on the subject. For some reason, we seem to think that we must make ourselves available to students as much as possible. That, coupled with email technology, has really transformed the instructor-undergrad relationship, as undergrads can literally contact an instructor any time and expect an immediate response. In my experience / I believe / I am under the impression / etc. that sort of relationship harbours more dependency, intensifies expectations of the undergrads, and places less importance on independent learning and discovery. Well, those are my interpretations based on six years of TAing as a grad student. How does that sit with you? Are these observations ever made in grad student-faculty mentor relationships?

    • Thanks for your thoughts. I focused on grad students and lab members. I find in undergraduate courses at Rice University there were only a few students who abused email. I simply told them that I could not handle the deluge. There were others that I think finally got the confidence to write on their own just because they could bounce lots of stuff off me. There was one woman who wrote so many drafts of a short paper. She went from not knowing what a paragraph was to being an empowered writer. It made me feel good and she needed a ton of help and to get past being shy about it. I would be different people have different experiences at different kinds of colleges and universities. I’m not really in favor of strict rules, but I think if you are in town, checking email, anyone giving their lives to work in your lab deserves an answer within 24 hours. For undergrads, just try to be clear. Does that make sense?

  2. Ellen Simms says:

    I tell our graduate student instructors to treat undergrad email (from students in a course you’re teaching) just like office hours. Set a time of the day (or week) and duration you’ll be available; let your students know when that will be and stick to that schedule. Of course, if it’s an undergrad doing research with you, then it’s more like the situation described above regarding grad students.

    • Having a time for email is a great idea. I don’t usually do that because my waking hours and those of my students do not overlap much. I haven’t taught yet at Wash U, but at Rice I handled much email through a Wiki. We also had all the student’s papers posted there, along with our comments on them. That way everyone could learn from everyone else. Of course, the students understood that this would happen. We did not post the actual grades. I felt that this helped everyone learn from each other. I asked them if they bothered to look at other student’s papers, or at the Wiki comments and most of them did. The class had about 40 students. I don’t know if this would work with much larger classes, but I bet a modification would. If one person wants to know something, probably they all do.

  3. Jeremy Fox says:

    Answer your grad students’ emails promptly? That’s so far below the minimum that students ought to be able to expect from a supervisor that I’m kind of scared to ask what prompted this post! 😉

    I have four graduate students, and this past year I also had two undergrad honors students. So not a huge lab, but not a tiny one. Probably a fairly typical size for an ecologist or evolutionary biologist, I’d guess. And I have what I’d guess are fairly typical teaching and service duties for someone of my seniority at a research university. So with that background: during term time I meet with each of my students weekly, one-on-one. That’s the default; it’s sometimes less frequent (or non-existent) if for whatever reason weekly meetings aren’t useful (e.g., the student is currently focused on candidacy exam prep, so there’s no reason to meet). The meetings take as long as needed for us to talk about whatever needs talking about. Could be 1 minute, could be 1 hour or more. Those meetings are in addition to weekly lab meetings. And outside of those times, my door is (literally) always open if a student wants to pop in to chat.

    I emphasize that the purpose of these meetings isn’t so I can tell students what to do. It doesn’t compromise their independence (which my students have a *lot* of–only one of them is doing a project at all related to my own research!) Nor is it intended to put pressure on students (“Uh oh, I’d better accomplish something so I can tell Dr. Fox about it this week!”) It’s simply a way for us all to keep in touch and talk about whatever science or ideas or problems or etc. need talking about. As I said, if there’s nothing that needs talking about, then the meetings are really short.

    I answer undergrad emails promptly too, though I don’t get a huge number of them as I don’t teach any really big classes.

    I operate this way because it’s basically the way my supervisor, Peter Morin, operated, and it worked well, for him and his students.

    Now, I know there are people, especially really prominent people with big labs, who don’t operate this way. But among “garden variety” mid-career ecologists and evolutionary biologists based at research universities, is my approach really all that unusual?

    • You won’t be surprised not to hear what prompted this email, but I bet we all have colleagues who are challenged in this way! It sounds like your students are lucky! I think we all need to figure out what works for us and for our groups. I’ve often thought it might be good for them to anonymously let us know what is not working, and what is. I also think different things work for different people. The bottom line is that both freedom and access are important. Nurture your students. Encourage them to collaborate with each other. Help them discover the depths of their creativity and brilliance.

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