How to email your supervisor (or, the tyranny of tiny tasks and what you can do about it)

Ah email… blessing or curse of contemporary academic life? The letter below describes a common email problem between students and supervisors. My response to this letter dwells on the importance of lunch, amongst other things.

Hi Inger

I follow your Thesis Whisperer blog and I have a question for you about email contact with supervisors.

I’m an off-campus student, I usually visit around once a fortnight for meetings (although not at all now that I’ve had a baby). Therefore I rely on email and phone for a lot of my discussion with my supervisor. 

I find it difficult when I don’t get a reply to an email, and I’m not always sure what the correct response is.

For example, I emailed 3 days ago asking to set up a phone call. I haven’t heard back, and past experience suggests I may not. So do I email again? How long do I wait before emailing?

I know he’s incredibly busy, but I’m waiting to start a new piece of work and I need some help with the direction, so I am waiting to have this phone call to progress things. 

Sometimes when I do re-email, it turns out he’s been doing Very Important Things and I feel like I’ve been hassling him by contacting too much! 

Any advice please?

Anonymous Emailer

——————————————–

Hi Anonymous emailer,

I sympathise – that must be very frustrating. Thanks for taking the time to write to me because it’s exactly the kind of mundane problem I like to talk about on the blog.

To get the attention of your supervisor you need to fight the ‘tyranny of tiny tasks’ that plague the life of a working academic. This is a phrase I picked up from this article in the New Yorker about cake mixes. Email is what the article calls a ‘convenience technology’, but it’s actually a ‘demanding technology’ because it triggers an avalanche of tiny tasks.

Every supervisor is different, but most of them hate email. Many people in academia, myself included, are drowning in it.

Screen Shot 2015-12-19 at 8.06.03 amThe problem with email is that it becomes a bit of a defacto ‘to do’ list – but one that never ends. Your supervisor has probably open and closed your email without answering it, saying to themself: “I’ll deal with this one later, when I have time”.

A student email that ends up on this ‘deferred task’ list can easily slip away from view. The reason is that PhD student emails often have no clear implied action.

All emails are a call to action of some sort. Sometimes the implied action to an email is a simple answer to the sender’s question – “yes”, “no”, “good”, “bad”, “maybe”. Other times the sender urgently wants an explanation of what has happened, or should happen. These are the emails are likely to get answered first because you can respond to in a single sweep through the inbox in the morning.

More complicated emails ask the receiver to take an action of some sort before answering. Some actions may be straightforward. An email from an administrator asking me for my publication list is easy. I go to my Orcid account, copy the link, paste it back in – this takes about 15 seconds at the most. An email asking me if I want to do a peer review will have a link I can click to say yes or no – maybe 3 seconds. All good.

Other emails, however, ask for more complicated actions, or a sequence of actions that need to be taking. For example, an email might ask me what I think about something, or to provide information that is not ready to hand. Your email to your supervisor asking for a phone call is a good example. It seems to ask for a simple response: “yes” or “no” – but there’s an action implied which is far from straightforward because it involves calendar management.

Like your supervisor, my calendar is always very full. If someone wants to see me I must pull my calendar up and scan it for gaps. Meetings disrupt focus, so I like to gang them together, so I’ll need to find a day that has some meetings in it already. Then I have to calculate the full effect of your proposed meeting on that particular day, balancing your request with the preparation time I might need, travel time and the likelihood that previous meetings will run over time. I will then need to look at the weeks before and after your meeting, to see if there are deadlines or travel that will affect my capacity to meet that day.

Calendar requests are especially problematic if more than one person wants to meet – like a supervisor panel. Usually the student suggests a couple of times so we can all match diaries. I must then find more than one amenable day, put placeholders in, wait for a response from two or more other people, delete the placeholders… you see the problem. An email chain like this can eventually eat up to an hour of my time in tiny chunks before it’s resolved and I’m losing focus on my other work every time. Someone invented Doodle poll for exactly this problem, but people often avoid answering the Doodle poll too in my experience.

The problem is, of course, that every time we defer responding to an email with a longer action trail we start accumulating what Mr Thesis Whisperer calls a ‘technical debt’. Sooner or later you will have to take what my fellow blogger Katherine Firth calls the ‘electronic walk of shame’ to the bottom of your inbox. All that time you ‘saved’ by ignoring the problem must now be spent. I’ve estimated these kinds of tiny tasks can add up to 10 or 12 hours of ‘invisible work’ in my week. Work I have not taken into account when I made my project Gantt charts.

Because of the way the email is presented, by date, I tend to answer the easy ‘direct action’ ones first each day and leave the deferred ones in their inbox. This is the defacto ‘to do’ list I was talking about earlier.

Deferred emails pile up like autumn leaves. Your email about a phone call might have moved to page two and have a mountain of other, seemingly more pressing, tiny tasks ahead of it.

Unbeknownst to you, your email has become digital fertiliser.

In fact, this email I’m writing to you, about email that you sent me is a good example (and pleasingly meta). I had to think about it. I didn’t have time to do that during the week, hence replying to you on a Saturday morning. To be honest, if it wasn’t such a good question with a potential post in it, your email might have become digital fertiliser too.

So how to solve your problem?

The last line of your email should always contain a clear ‘call to action’ so your supervisor knows what you want from them. It won’t necessarily help with a calendar management email though. I would hope that an honest talk with your supervisor about preferred methods of communication would help. Perhaps they would prefer you just call rather than email? Perhaps you can talk on chat? Can you share calendars so that you can just book yourself in?

And let’s not ignore the elephant in the room.

If this is a pattern that has annoyed you enough to write to me, it’s clear that you are not a priority to your supervisor – and for this I am judging him.

The literature on research education suggests regular contact is important to progress. I’m steeped in this literature, so I make sure to set a special time aside every week for each one of my students. I’ve found lunchtime and the hour immediately afterwards is the most productive way to handle it. Lunch allows us to have a chat in a relaxed way for at least an hour before getting down to business (with the important side benefit that I actually get to eat lunch at least a couple of times a week).

During lunch we can kick around ideas and my student can, if they want, tell me what else is going on in their lives. I don’t want to pry, but I do like to create the opportunity to share personal issues. PhD students are grown ups, with grown up problems. In my experience, grown up problems suck. What is happening in the rest of your life matters to progress and learning.

I’m not angling for a medal that says ‘supervisor of the year’ or anything, but I plan my week around what I see as my most important responsibility – you. I think your supervisor should too.

How about you? Does your supervisor respond to your emails or not? Have you found creative ways to resolve your communication problems?

Related posts

When supervisors fight

Feeding the crazy

 

34 thoughts on “How to email your supervisor (or, the tyranny of tiny tasks and what you can do about it)

  1. I could have sent you that same email! I have spent 2 years trying to get timely responses to emails from my supervisor. He is either completely engaged or nowhere to be found. I got very stressed out about it and was planning a complaint, when I realised that it wasn’t going to improve the situation and would leave me without a ‘very-good-when-he’s-there’ supervisor. I’m in my last year now and accept that I am not a priority against his huge competing interest. A lesson to pass on to other potential PhD students as I’m not planning to do this again!

  2. We use BaseCamp which is a web-based project/task manager in my lab. It’s a great platform to use and I can just create to dos for my PI with deadlines. It works well because we have implemented it throughout the lab. It had a bit of learning curve but after that it’s greatly reduced emails and I love that now I can just look at the tasks from everyone I’m assigned all at once vs. tracking down and opening each email requesting something. Also I create to dos for myself and it lets my PI see the steps I’m taking and when.

  3. Hello,

    I am sorry. I read your posts and sometimes, like this, i send to by brother.

    But this time i send it wrong, like you can see.

    And what i wrote in portuguese is the art of writing emails.

    Once again, i am sorry.

    Best regards,

    • [PT] É bom ver que há mais gente a ver isto em português🙂

      [EN] It’s nice to see that are more people seeing this in portuguese🙂

  4. E-mails can be a curse but I find texts and whatsapps on my phone, especially over a weekend even harder to deal with.

  5. Emails can be an ineffective form of communication. Many people will scam them, open them, but wait until later to respond. However, then they forget and you are left in limbo. The worst.

  6. I feel like I lucked out in the supervisor-student relationship. Over the six to seven years of doing my Honours and PhD with the same supervisor I cannot fault her. She was attentive, patient, observant, nurturing, caring, interested and kind. I have heard so many stories of unhappy S-S relationships that now I feel she may have went above and beyond her role. Or perhaps in an ideal world this is how it’s meant to be. There were times when if my supervisor didn’t hear from me she would send a kind email just to ask “how are you going?” She’d always be forwarding me relevant articles and ensuring we met or talked regularly. I wasn’t her only student. I’ve spoken to these other students and we all give thanks for having such a wonderful caring supervisor. When I tell her how amazing she was she tells me “but you were a dream student so it was easy to supervise you”. This makes me think how the perfect S-S relationship happens when the supervisor and student are in sync with one another. For me, attentiveness, kindness, understanding, respect and regular communication from both parties are key to a productive and fruitful relationship. I respected her so much that I never wanted to let her down. Since becoming an academic I have heard more sad S-S stories. What I’m seeing is that academics have too much on their plate and things are naturally going to fall off. They scramble to catch them before they hit the ground but often it’s too late. But sadly what hits the ground is often “people”. It’s awful. I aspire to be the kind of supervisor I was blessed to have but I fear that with all the demands and expectations placed on academics these days I may fall short and that deeply saddens me.

  7. Great post Inger. Exactly describes how emails get deprioritised for me in the present day even if a task is important to me. I manage my email by level of difficulty and “does this require a response from me right away?” Those red reminder flags on my email are a psychological burden that makes me feel buried in never ending tasks.

    To Anonymous Emailer: one thing my PhD supervisor taught me was to manage upwards, a skill that continues to serve me well in my career because there are always busy people in everyone’s management chain. So when I was a student, I had a regular standing meeting at the same time every month at the beginning of my PhD and then every fortnight closer to submission, to discuss my thesis with my supervisor. (Given you’re off campus monthly might be ideal.) It became weekly near the completion of my thesis because I was handing in and receiving various drafts.

    We had an agreement that we could skip a meeting if I felt I didn’t need to meet face to face and instead I’d send him an email to cancel. This worked well because as a very senior and busy academic, he knew that time was always blocked off for me. It was good for me because not only did this guarantee me time with him, it was a regular motivator to stay on track with my research and write up.

    Ahead of meetings I would also send him a very brief email telling him what I planned to discuss in dot point as well as a reminder of anything we’d previously said he’d do for me by the next meeting. I would follow up a meeting with a short summary of action points if he or I said we’d do something by the next meeting.

    You could always skip the in between emails I just discussed but they were written more as reminders and did not require a response. The main thing is that regular meetings make life easier. I hope this works for you! Good luck with your thesis.

  8. I have three supervisors, and email them weekly (or most weeks anyway). I am a part-time distance student (not even in the same country, let alone the same city). I email partly for their benefit but partly for my own, to track where I am up to.
    I had the ‘they don’t always answer me’ problems in the first three years of study and eventually put my foot down and said, ‘There’s three of you, I need one of you to send an acknowledgement of the weekly email, even if answering my questions comes later.’ They were pretty good about it, and simply hadn’t realised I needed something returned from their end.
    I also came to grips with the fact that my PhD isn’t as important to them as it is to me, and I should be a little more tolerant of their workloads. The last two years have been a lot better, and we’ve all made the effort to meet in the middle. I make ‘your response is needed’ points very clear in emails.
    The only thing that still frustrates me is being told that they are dealing with on-campus students in advance of me. One in particular often tells me this (‘I will get to your chapter/section/discussion after I’ve dealt with x and y students’ work and meetings’). That’s not good enough: they have responsibilities to respond in a timely fashion to all PhD students. It would be better if they simply said, ‘frantically busy, will get back to you in four weeks’ rather than ‘someone else is more important than you’.
    That aside, they are a wonderful in terms of quality feedback, interest, thoughtful critique, kindness and respect. I agree with Helene that it’s a two-way thing.

  9. Love the way that this post looks at both sides of the equation. There is no way that I could answer weekly emails – that’s not how email functions for me as an academic. But what I’ve found works best for me as a supervisor with both on and off campus students is to program in fortnightly contact in my calendar for around 3 months ahead. If the candidate is off campus, then the fortnightly contact can be by Skype (and although it’s Skype it’s a professional interaction so needs to be uninterrupted at my end and the candidate’s end). But I generally want to receive some writing a few days before those meetings or if that’s not appropriate for whatever reason, then I want to know a day ahead what the purpose of our meeting is. No purpose no meeting. Although if the candidate is experiencing difficulty of some sort then that’s a wonderful reason to meet. I’m sorry if it seems harsh to candidates who are engaged enough to read Thesis Whisperer regularly, but there is no way I’m going to respond to regular long emails – I simply don’t have the time to sit down and reflect and write enormous detail in response to enormous detail. For most academics from my experience, supervising is a passion as well as part of our job, but it always has to be remembered it’s a professional activity and we have to do it professionally which involves planning, reflection, timeliness and boundaries as the post suggests.

  10. I’m an off-campus student too with a supervisor who puts in as little effort as i allow him. So ‘managing up’ is important!

    Sometimes the way my email is worded can increase the chance of it getting answered. I always try keeping it short and with a single concrete action for the supervisor. For example, if i wanted to schedule a phonecall, i would not simply ask ‘When are you free to chat on the phone?’ because that opens up the floodgates of the tyranny of little tasks. The supervisor then has to go through his entire calendar looking for appropriate gaps.

    Instead, i would give two or three options as a starting point. I might say ‘Are you free next Tuesday at 2pm or next Friday at 10am for a half hour phone call?’ and i would probably add something like ‘unless i hear back from you otherwise, i look forward to calling you on Tuesday at 2pm.’ It’s easier to hold your supervisor to account for missing that specific arrangement than for not responding to email in a timely manner.

    As per the previous comments, it’s also good to scheduled regular meeting/Skype times well in advance and cancel closer to the date if a meeting is not necessary. It’s also a great idea to email a day or two ahead a dot-point agenda for the meeting – that will keep it focussed – and afterwards a brief summary of what was spoken about (e.g., ‘Thanks for speaking with me yesterday about my literature review. As discussed, i will re-write the conclusion and send it to you before our next meeting on the 25th’).

  11. Thanks for the great question and post!

    I have just started my Phd, but my primary supervisor is trying out “Slack” as a comms tools with his PhD students. It seems to be working well.
    It means I can communicate with my PhD peers in an open space or privately with my supervisor, as well as post updates like project timelines or new proposal drafts etc, and it is all captured to future reference (rather than vanishing into the everything email blackhole). My second supervisor is now on Slack also, so I can talk to message both of them at the same time, so even if only one needs respond, they both know what is happening.
    General experience with emails means I always try to keep it short, to one point with a call to action.

  12. The post and comments are interesting. My first thought was,’students are busy too’. Academics are not the only ones juggling emails and arrangements. There is a contract implied and actual in the supervision activity. If it needs confessing so be it but the accommodation cannot and should not be mainly on the part of the student, in my view. And then, there is finance. Someone is paying for something.
    In my doctoral programme the supervision time is set out as an aggregate. I keep that in mind but I am aware that my main supervisor is responsive and also proactive.

  13. I find that ending with a question is a good rule of thumb if you want a reply to something (supervisor or otherwise). At first it feels odd not to end with ‘thanks, etc.’, but having ‘thank you’ at the end (or anything like that, other than ‘sincerely, name’) closes the conversation, which is Not what you want. Plus, I am also the kind of person who sprinkles those everywhere in the email, so having one at the end is unnecessary.
    Ending with a question leaves business unfinished, for both parties. This might be over psychologizing, but people seem to want to close that conversational ‘move’. There’s higher response relevance, to use a conversation analysis term, which means that people feel pressure to respond.
    It’s also hard to finish with a question without simultaneously having some kind of specific action, so you accomplish that part as well.

  14. Hi,

    I am in a very similar situation too. I know my supervisor has other things on too, but a quick yes/no or email received would be really useful.

    Recently my supervisor told me he’d give me feedback by a certain date, and it’s two weeks pass that date, and I haven’t heard anything back. It’s a very awakard relationship because they have no one overlooking their supervisory role, and you can’t afford to go into their bad books or else the consequences could be disastrous. So you literally have to walk on egg shells even if they are ignoring you or treating you like rubbish.

    However, I must say I have found my supervisor very prompt to reply and give feedback on any journal papers I write up – because he obviously gets something out of it!

  15. FANTASTIC post. Thanks, Guru of PhD!

    I have also loved the great posts made by the followership. Entertaining, heart-wrenching and solution-focused in turns. Always a pleasure.

    Hey, Ruth Belling: I tried your link at http://www.evaluationworks.co.uk/25freetools, entered my details, but I haven’t had anything – no email, no nothing. Any advice?

    All this is timely for me, as I am currently in a situation where my PhD has just been completely derailed by my supervisor. They – after inviting me to undertake my PhD and supplying a topic, as my ‘client’ – have just informed me that they no longer have time to supervise me. And no time for the next three years, either. There seems to be ‘something beneath’ there, but I have no idea what it is.

    Poleaxed at the moment😦

    • Oh dear – sounds like you need to contact the people in charge at your university and ask for help. There are usually policies and processes for these kinds of problems. All the best

  16. I generally have scheduled weekly meetings with my students. And I try to have lunch with them whenever I can, and also say hello on the way past them to my office.

    If they need something extra I find that the easiest way to get things like meetings sorted is to give my students access to my calendar so that they can send me a meeting request to which i simply have to press yes or no to.

    This works both ways, (and god knows I was as bad at replying to emails as a student as I am know as a PI), and I will send them meeting requests I what I guess are the best times for them if I need to arrange something.

  17. When I started started with my PhD supervisor, one of the first things he did was schedule a weekly (biweekly?) meeting. If we had nothing to discuss, it was a quick check-in and then bonus time for both of us. If I had something important to ask or to show him, I had time to prepare. None of that, “How’s the project? Please come to my office now” stress.

    This answers the email question by taking away the need for email.

    Peter

  18. This was one of the issues I was worried about before I started my PhD. Will my PhD supervisor take me seriously or ignore my e-mails? Well, come to find out that we share the same office!🙂 This is extremely convenient for me but annoying for my him!😄

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  21. I’m also a distance student. I think it’s really important to get into the habit of arranging the next meeting while you’re at the current meeting – and then add this date to any official paperwork/report that you have to do after each supervision. At the same time I also try to confirm when my supervisors will need to receive the work that we’re going to discuss at the meeting. (They obviously need longer to read a full chapter – and it’s also helpful for me to know exactly how late I can send my work and still get it to them in time!) You can always move both dates later, if you need to. But having something already planned gives you a clear deadline to work towards.

    To the anonymous emailer, I would suggest that you maybe don’t need to get permission from your supervisor to start work on something – unless you are actually stuck. It’s probably better to email them to say “I’m starting work on X and I’d really appreciate some feedback. If I send you my draft/plans/chapter on Monday, could we have a phone chat later that week? Would you be free at X, Y or Z times?”

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  24. Thank you for this post.

    I have a different problem.. I’m too keen and email my supervisors too often about things they don’t really need to know about right that minute. I get excited reading a new journal article, or with some new insight from data analysis, and used to fire them off emails all the time, usually several per week. My supervisors didn’t usually reply (no surprises there) but I felt like I had to tell someone who cares.
    I realised that my emailing habit wasn’t helpful, and I came across this blog post through searching “I email my supervisors too much” to see whether people had tips to deal with excessive enthusiasm. I couldn’t find any advice but I came up with my own method.

    I keep a written ‘Insights journal’ that I add to whenever I want, as a place to capture my ideas and thoughts and links to new papers or interesting findings. I’ve got a pencil and paper journal too, but this is a Word document so it feels more like email communication ‘in suspense’. I can write in this journal every day if I want to. Then a few days before my (monthly) supervision meeting I can go through and condense the mass of musings into a coherent summary of what might be relevant for our in-person conversation.

    Just thought I’d put that out there in case anyone else shares my burden of excessive enthusiasm.

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