Emailing Your Dissertation Adviser: Four Tips For A More Productive Exchange

Woman wearing green dress and a gold bangle typing on laptop

When you started graduate school, you wanted a nurturing mentor, right? You wanted someone with whom you could discuss your deepest intellectual passions and explore your most tenuous ideas someone you could email questions when they arose, because after all, your dissertation adviser is the expert, correct?

Yes and no.  By the time you’re writing your dissertation, you’re less student and more colleague. This is why your advisers will often ask to see an actual draft of a chapter or at least a substantial part of a chapter before dialoguing with you very much about your work–and therein lies the problem.

It’s a catch 22 — you don’t want to send work because you’re not sure if it’s “right,” but your adviser can’t really help you that much until he or she actually has something to work with. So what do you do in the meantime? How do you communicate with your adviser until you have the draft in question?

Keep in mind that any email exchange with your adviser should be brief and professional, while in-keeping with the kind of relationship the two of you currently have. If you’re fairly casual and friendly with each other, your emails can be a bit more casual and friendly as well. However, if your adviser is a more distant figure, you’ll want to aim for an upbeat, but distanced professionalism. Either way, here are a few tips to keep in mind during the exchange.

Do include a greeting.

Text messages and social media encourage us to launch into conversations without greetings, but when you email your adviser, it’s important to be include a succinct, professional, personalized greeting.

You might try something like “Hi Professor Miller, it was good to see you at the ontological counseling conference a few weeks ago; I was impressed by your presentation.” Or “Hi Professor Miller, I enjoyed the talk you gave at the research colloquium on Friday.” It doesn’t have to be long, and it doesn’t have to include a compliment, but it’s great to remind your adviser that there is a context to the relationship beyond your dissertation.

Do take ownership of your situation, but DON’T be too apologetic.

One of the biggest pitfalls I see in emails from students to their advisers is that they are far too apologetic, and this puts them in a position of weakness. If you haven’t done something your adviser asked you to do, don’t grovel. Just say simply that you didn’t make the deadline, but that you have a plan for what to do at this point, and then briefly detail your plan. Do this professionally, factually, and without emotion. Most advisers understand that it’s very difficult to gauge the scope of a writing project, so they’re likely not surprised if you don’t make a deadline. But missing one is a good cue that you need to plan a little bit better. Taking the initiative to do so will help mitigate the fact that you didn’t make the deadline. (And then make sure you set a reasonable deadline so it doesn’t happen again and you can keep your word the next time)

Do proofread.

It amazes me how students will sometimes write the way they write in text speak, saying u for you and using grammatically incorrect language. You don’t need to stress over the grammar, but at least read it through a few times, and at least once aloud to see if you catch any awkward phrasing. If a professor has to parse your sentences, he or she may get frustrated and give up and mark the email to be answered later. Your goal with your communications with your adviser is always to get actionable results. Always.

Finally, do keep your emails brief.

My rule of thumb is that if I have to scroll more than once on a cell phone, it’s likely too long. That may seem extreme, but these days, most people are reading quickly and on their phones. You can say a lot in two well-crafted, short paragraphs. If you need more than that, you might consider whether or not it would be better to ask for a phone, Skype/Zoom, or in-person meeting with your adviser instead. Sometimes multiple questions or questions that will need to be answered at length are better handled in person or via audio.

Hopefully, these tips will help you have a more productive email exchange with your dissertation adviser. Just remember that advisers are people too, with multiple professional commitments and often families and aging parents to contend with beyond the academy. They may well care about you, but they also have to make and uphold their boundaries, because they are likely overcommitted. Thus, a brief, friendly, professional email from a student will have a much greater chance of being answered than one where they may have to sift through the email in order to understand what you’re asking of them.

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