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My guest co-blogger this week is Hannah James, a doctoral candidate in the Research School of Earth Sciences at the Australian National University where she traces ancient human and animal migrations using oxygen and strontium isotopes. She also works in the Research Skills and Training Unit and in Research Management admin where she spends a lot of time reading and writing emails to and from doctoral writers.

By Hannah James and Cally Guerin

One writing genre that is often overlooked in research communication is the humble email. In many universities, email is still the main communication channel for correspondence between supervisors and their PhD candidates. As we know from other contexts, email can be a complex communication where misunderstandings can result from rushed or simply ill-conceived messages. The following offers some advice that we think is useful for supervisors and doctoral support people to pass onto doctoral writers.

1. Put the key information into the email subject heading. When faced with a long list of unread emails, it’s impossible to open every message and find out what each one is about. Recipients are likely to scan through the list to see who the author is, and what the topic is, in order to prioritise which emails to read now and which can be ignored for the time being. Since the subject heading might be the only thing read by busy supervisors, this is the crucial moment to communicate the main idea. Is it a request for a meeting, or some paperwork that must be completed by a strict deadline? Is a complicated decision required, or is it simply an update that the research is running smoothly according to plan?

2. Offer a possible solution to your query. It’s the complicated email that gets left until there’s time to think through the various issues. PhD candidates then find themselves waiting longer and longer for a response, and that email can sink to the bottom of the pile as easier, quicker correspondence is tidied out of the way. If the request requires a complex decision, it can make a big difference to the recipient’s response if the email author can suggest their preferred way forward. Instead of just asking for help with a problem, it is more effective to offer a possible solution and ask if this seems appropriate. That way the recipient can quickly respond with ‘yes’, ‘no’, or ‘yes to that bit, but what about X for that aspect of the problem’.

3. Be polite but get to the point. The levels of formality in email correspondence will always vary according to the existing relationship between the correspondents. For some, a formal greeting is always required, using titles and honorifics: ‘Dear Professor Chen’; for others, daily contact in a relaxed environment means that emails will start with: ‘Hi Ani’. But regardless of the situation, it is important to keep the tone friendly and polite, recognising that respectful relations are central to maintaining good communication. Equally important, ensure that the message is direct and to the point: no one has time to read more than they have to. Make sure that the central idea or request is not buried under an onslaught of information that is not actually necessary for the reader. Clear, concise communication is just as important in emails as it is in all other research writing.

4. Consider breaking one long email into several emails. If you have a lot of questions and some require considerable thought or research, consider spreading these questions across a couple of emails. If questions can be answered easily or only require a small amount of research, you might have a higher chance of a quick response.

5. Create a new subject heading for a new topic. Sometimes it is tempting to continue a conversation under an unrelated subject heading. However, this can make it very tricky when trying to trace back to find information later on. It is much more effective to start a new thread with a fresh subject heading when starting a new topic.

6. Learn the art of subtle nagging. It’s not uncommon for PhD candidates to find that their emails remain ignored by supervisors for extended periods. In this situation, it can be useful to re-send the first email with a short note attached to the effect of ‘I know you are very busy – have you had an opportunity to read this yet?’ or ‘I wonder if this might have slipped off your radar’. A polite and deferential note acknowledging that your own message is not a priority is thus attached to the earlier correspondence which – usefully for the writer – has the original date on it. This can gently draw attention to the fact that the writer has waited for a reasonable length of time before asking again. It also means that there is a written record if there are other consequences for the doctoral candidate in not receiving a response to important requests or deadlines.

7. Include a useful signature. A major frustration for readers is receiving emails that do not include enough information to understand the context of the writer. It can be tricky sometimes to place a name and face to conversations that occurred some time ago, or in a setting where multiple conversations on closely related topics took place. Providing enough helpful information in the email signature can clarify much of this. But be wary of overdoing it – too much information can be just as debilitating for the reader. Keep it neat and relevant and remember you can also tailor your signature (add websites, publications, social media handles, addresses or phone numbers) to suit the situation.

8. Send a follow-up email. It can be very useful to follow up after a phone conversation with a brief email to confirm and clarify the outcome of that conversation. This written record is then available to check details later on. It also means that the conversation is remembered accurately.

Honing and refining email communication skills can be hugely advantageous to doctoral writers in the digital academy. Do you have any other useful advice we should pass on to PhD candidates and their supervisors to help them communicate effectively via email? We’d love to hear from you.