Once upon a time, I received an e-mail from one of my M.A. students asking me to review her essay and provide her with feedback…except that it didn’t actually ask, nor indeed did it clarify that what she wanted was feedback. In her defense, she had previously mentioned the essay to me in person, but there are really no circumstances where “Here is my essay” constitutes an appropriate example of collegial communication. I took the opportunity to offer her some mentorship on the conventions of communicating with colleagues and advisors, and I thought I’d share my advice here.
While this advice is particularly important for grad students, it represents best practices in e-mail communication for students of all levels.
Regarding e-mails to advisors, professors, and colleagues:
Always ensure that any e-mail communication is clear, complete, and professional.
Written communication provides an excellent opportunity to reiterate and clarify in-person interactions, and e-mails need to be written with those goals in mind. You shouldn’t assume that your professors will necessarily remember everything they discuss with you in person (some of them will be very old, very busy, very absentminded, or all three), and you also can’t assume that they’ve always understood you properly.
Furthermore, courtesy is crucial. When you are in grad school, you are building relationships with people who may become extremely important in your professional life. You may need to rely on them for introductions or letters of recommendation. You may want to work with them on future projects. The more relationships you can build and maintain, the better. So you always want to use your interactions with faculty to both demonstrate your good character and deepen the ties of your collegial relationship.
This means always expressing the appropriate amount of regret and/or gratitude in the situation: if you’ve inconvenienced your colleague(s) in any way, always be sure to apologize, and if you’re asking them to do anything, always be sure to say thank you.
In this case, an appropriate e-mail would read something like this:
As we discussed in our meeting, I’m submitting for your review the rough draft of my seminar paper for our course; any comments or suggestions you may have will be greatly appreciated. Thank you for agreeing to help me revise this essay. I look forward to your feedback.
This would be the minimum. Even better would be an e-mail that actually points to problems, or questions that you have about your own work, so that you’re not expecting your colleague to do all the thinking for you. And if you have a reason that the feedback is particularly important to you–like you are interested in developing the topic of your essay in a later project, or the ideas expressed in your paper may become important in your later work, etc.–that would also be good to include.
Remember that every communication between yourself and a colleague is an opportunity to build your relationship with that colleague. When you dash off a one sentence e-mail, you don’t make use of that opportunity.