How to email a professor without making a mistake that causes problems or makes a bad impression? What do we professors expect of such emails?
I sometimes forget that what seems simple to me now, like how to even start an email to a professor, can feel very different to students and other trainees. Even intimidating. Thinking back on my time as a trainee, yeah, there were times I was stressed about how to word an email to a professor. Yes, there was email when I was a graduate student. I’m not that old.
What do you say in such an email to a professor without it seeming weird?
Today’s post is me as a professor giving advice to students and others on how to email a professor.
How to email a professor: less is more
I’ve been a professor now at UC Davis School of Medicine for about 17 years. I’ve received many hundreds of emails from students and other trainees during this time.
These could be grad students or undergrads asking about research opportunities. Sometimes they write to ask about positions in my lab since they’re applying to UC Davis. I even occasionally get emails from high school students or younger people.
Generally, I don’t put much emphasis on minor details of such emails. I don’t judge trainees that way. In that sense, step one of my advice to email writers is to not overthink it.
Professors are super busy so less may be more when it comes to the emails we receive. A shorter email is better. We just don’t have time to read several pages of material in most cases. I would say that the ideal length is half a page or less. If we are interested in following up with you, you can add more then or we can look at your CV/resume, which should be attached to the email.
Spell-check your email before sending it. Many typos or major grammatical errors can make a bad impression.
Maybe give Grammarly a try.
Spelling the professor’s name right is kind of important too, although again I don’t hold misspellings of my difficult name against people. Knepfler. Kneopfler. Knopler….
How to start and end an email to a professor
Start your email to the professor formally.
Don’t address a professor in an email by their first name unless you are very confident that it is okay because you already know them well.
Begin with, for example, “Dear Professor Knoepfler” (filling in the appropriate name of the faculty member). You can also write “Dear Dr. Knoepfler” even if the professor is not an MD.
I don’t really care about formalities, but some professors do.
I have received emails starting with “Dearest” or even “Darling”. I don’t hold that against the writer but it’s not ideal. Yes, I did get an email starting, “Darling Paul” once. Some of this may be translation issues.
How to end an email to a professor? Again, keep it simple and formal. Something like “Thank you and best regards” can’t go wrong. You can also just say “Thank you” or “Best” too. Again, most professors I know won’t hold it against you if you start or end an email in a non-ideal way.
Why you’re emailing your prof
There are many reasons that a student might email their professor. You might be mentioning your interest in doing research with them. Or it could be that you need to discuss an issue about a class or a test. An absence? Maybe you want to ask a question about a lecture.
Regardless of the reason, the basic rules apply. Be concise and polite. Don’t waste hours agonizing over word choice. Most professors don’t care about that stuff.
When it comes to emailing a professor about research, focus on your interest and experience, if any. Don’t reiterate everything in your CV. Show that you are familiar with their research but don’t pretend to be an expert if you’re not. Just be yourself.
Emails in science more generally
Ten years ago I wrote about the ups and downs of email in research. One of the challenges for professors is what I called “signal to noise” in our in-boxes. You want your email to be signal and not noise. Also, keep in mind that we get vast numbers of emails so if you write about research and we don’t reply, don’t get down about it. We often just don’t have time and are buried in work.
Re-emailing once is probably okay just because we are so swamped. However, there’s probably no point in re-emailing a professor about research opportunities beyond that one extra time if you didn’t hear back. Most likely we saw your email and there’s just no opportunity that would work.
I have had people email me four or five times (not as part of a conversation) and that’s way too much.
Note that if you already know the professor you are emailing, then you can adapt the advice here accordingly.