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?

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