The Basics of Professional Communication, Part 1

I received the following email recently:

Hello DrDrA,

I am in the process of putting together my thesis committee. I would be honored if you would consider being a member of my supervisory committee. Once I have a list of potential faculty members, I will, at a later date, arrange for a committee meeting early next year. If you have any questions, please feel free to email me, and I am readily available for a chat if you would rather meet in person.

Have a great day!


Nice, polite request for me to be on his/her thesis committee. Just one problem: I have NO IDEA who this person is, what his/her project is, or WHY he/she thought my expertise might be a valuable addition to the thesis committee, nor did (s)he give me any clues. The only details I removed from that email were my name and his/hers. I’m in the mood to be snarky today- but I’m going to hold back and try to be instructive instead. Here is what I’d like to see next time:

Hello DrDrA,

My name is Very-Thorough-Student, and I am a graduate student in the Widget Making Department pursuing my doctoral work in the laboratory of Big-Shot Professor (actually it doesn’t matter if she’s a big shot professor, as long as you tell me WHO your advisor is). I am a second year student and my thesis project is to understand the molecular basis for widget function (might elaborate on this just a touch).

I am in the process of putting together my thesis committee, and your expertise in widgetry would be very helpful. Would you be willing to be on my thesis committee?  We are tentatively planning to have my first committee meeting early next year. If you have any questions, please feel free to email me. Thanks for considering this request.



In this second version all the important details are included. Let the person you are making a request of know who you are, where you are from, what you are working on, and why you think their expertise is needed. If you do it this way you are much more likely to get a response.


17 thoughts on “The Basics of Professional Communication, Part 1

  1. It’s amazing that people even need to be told this.

    My pet peeve of the month (so far) is mis-spelled words in file names and email subject titles. If your email is titled “draft felloship proposal” and your file name is “researc proposal outlien draft.doc”, or “Figure 1 – protein traslaton” in another example I just got, you look like an idiot. I don’t care if you have English as a second language, this is just plain sloppy.

  2. C PP- I don’t actually mind that. In fact I prefer it to some alternatives.

    Cath- I know. That’s why I’m writing it down. My other favorite is when people title their attachments generically. Like when one takes out a position for a job, and gets 30 applications with the attachment entitled the same way: CV.doc. I mean, WTF. Put some identifier on there that lets people know what is actually in there : drdrA CV Jan 2010. doc. …. would suffice.

  3. YAY!! You’re back!!!! *herky*

    Alternative: “have a great fucken day :)” ?

    My pet peeve is getting an email from a student I had in a very large lecture class over a year ago emailing me that I am a reference for hir for a job that I know nothing about, no ad provided, no nothing. That email went like this:

    I was in your XXX class, and in the thrid [sp inc] row from front. Got a B and want to do work for YYY company. I put you down as a ref since you talked about ZZZ in class. You were a good teacher and thanks for help with jobs.


  4. Ooohhh. Now I see what my advisor kindly reminded me what to put into emails the first time I was contacting potential committee members. At the time I remember wondering why in the hell she was wasting our time by telling me something so obvious. Now I am wondering how many those emails she received before deciding she had better make sure her students didn’t send similar emails.

  5. I swear to god that every graduate program in any department needs to include a 1st year course in “how to communicate via email.” Hell, I’d teach it myself. You think this would count as one of my service requirements??

    Awesome blog; great stuff!

  6. C PP- I don’t actually mind that. In fact I prefer it to some alternatives.

    Well, maybe it’s marginally better than “Go fucke yourself!” But it still bugs the fucken shitte out of me.

    The person writing the fucken e-mail couldn’t fucken care less if I do or don’t “have a great day!” They want me to do something. Tell me what you want me to do, why it is in my interest to do it, and then shutte the fucke uppe!

  7. Hooray for the advisor of micorbiologist xx. I agree with Dr. Cynicism on the need for communication instruction.

    In quality assurance, it is frequently true that seemingly individual issues are actually institutional.

    Since this is a real student we are talking about here, I hope that said student is receiving some helpful guidance. After assuring that the students in one’s own department are perfect e-mail communicators, I think it would be appropriate to direct wayward e-mails back to the advisor and department heads involved.

  8. Look at the pathetic folk jerking off to some dumb email they just got, swooning over
    how smart they were and how they got everything right when they were in poor people
    shoes. I do not use university email on principle and so I still have access to all my email
    sent many years ago. If you can, pull out your sent email folder from the days you were
    in grad school and read the emails. I have a feeling you wouldn’t have a smirk on your face.

  9. SS- Meh. Read the internet much lately? This is all pretty mild, and generally instructive.

    And, well, when I was in grad school the internet barely existed, which meant we did things face to face, by phone, and by snail mail. I would never have walked up to a faculty member I didn’t know and said ‘hey- want to be on my committee’ without some kind of introduction to who I was, what my project was, and other background.

  10. Whatever “genius” was responsible for popularizing the insidious notion that better communication means enhanced productivity needs to be identified, located, and slapped. This student would certainly have put more effort in if he or she could only contact you by carrier pigeon.

  11. DSKS- I agree ‘easier’ communication doesn’t necessarily mean better, more effective communication- and probably means the opposite many times.

  12. C PP- While “have a great day” in an email is rather unprofessional, especially when you don’t know the person well, I don’t think one necessarily has to be overly cynical about the emailer’s ulterior motives. Chances are you don’t care about him/her either. Have a little sympathy and lighten up. Scientists should, in general, try to be more of human beings and less of ass holes.

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