How do I email my supervisor? Part two – the thank you note.

The best blog post topics come from emails like the one I got a couple of weeks ago, from an international student studying at an Australian university. Here is the student’s dilemma:
The questions might be naive, but I do want to learn more about the “Australian” way of sending regards to supervisors. My supervisor invited me to a formal business dinner this week with some other professors. As a PhD student who just started research, I felt thrilled about this occasion. He will be on his sabbatical leave soon and we will continue to contact via email, once a month.
From the culture of my own country, I should send my supervisor an email containing all the following items. However, I am also thinking about the concerns listed in the brackets. I am not sure whether such a personal email is too far for this more professional supervisor-student relationship in Australia.
  • Thanks again for the dinner. (I have already expressed my gratitude orally and in a previous email. Will this be tedious?)
  • Thanks for all his guidance and caring for the past several months. (But it sounds like a concluding remark, which might not be proper at this time.)
  • Have a safe journey. (A must-say in my hometown. But I was told it was considered odd, or even rude by some Americans. The main reason for this email.)
  • Enjoy the sabbatical leave. (Enjoy?)
  • I will work hard during this period. (Another must-say. But I have never heard students promise this in western countries.)
I am struggling between my rational brain and emotional brain, as well as two different cultures. Looking forward to hearing from you.

Warm regards,

Courteous Student

Here is what I wrote back:

Dear Courteous,

Inter-cultural communication is, indeed, delicate work. Add to that the stress of playing the role of ‘junior’ colleague in academia… let’s just say, it’s challenging. Even students raised in the same culture as their supervisor can struggle with this kind of communication task, which is why it is an excellent topic for a blog post!

Image by @craftedbygc on Unsplash.com

When we write a letter, we are playing a role. Think about a letter you would write to a friend while you are on holiday vs a letter you would write to a politician, complaining about Australia’s refugee policy. Want to sound happy and affectionate to your friend and angry and persuasive to the politician. You are a different person when you write each letter. You play the role through your choice of greeting, the words you use, expressive punctuation and so on. For instance, you would not sign off an angry letter to a politician with “with love”; the recipient of your letter will feel very weird, and you will have failed to communicate.

Unlike other parts of formal education, you do not have a ‘social ritual’ that will guide you in everyday interactions with your supervisor; the relationship will emerge and develop over time. Each supervisor / PhD student relationship is unique. I have a very different kind of relationship with every PhD student I supervise, even though I like to think I approach everyone the same way. When the communication is electronic, the interaction problem is magnified because you don’t have live feedback from the person to judge and adjust your performance. Too casual? Too formal? It’s tough to find the right tone, especially at the beginning of your working relationship.

The ‘meta’ problem here is that you do not have a well-defined role to play. Are you a student? A junior colleague? A friend? You can be all three at the same time, or just one, depending on how the relationship between yourself and your supervisor evolves. Even if you do get to the ‘friends’ end of the spectrum, there will still be a power relationship that is unequal; at least until you graduate and in all likelihood, beyond. Recently I met my delightful and supportive masters supervisor at a social event, completely by chance. I studied with her 18 years ago now (!). Back then we were in almost daily contact, even though now we speak but rarely. We certainly became friends, after a fashion. But I still feel like a junior colleague when I talk to her. She’s the most unthreatening, lovely person you can imagine, so this wasn’t from anything she did at the time, or since.

It’s tricky, so let’s tackle it one letter at a time. Here’s what I would write, based on your list of what you want to express. My explanation for every sentence is in square brackets. Reading these notes gives you a sense of how difficult it can be to negotiate the supervisor/student power relations, even in a very everyday piece of correspondence:

Dear [whatever you call him/her – in Australia, most supervisors are more comfortable with first names from PhD students]

I hope you enjoy your sabbatical [‘enjoy’ is an entirely appropriate here – us academics are nerdy and a sabbatical is a dream come true!]. I appreciate all your guidance and care over the last couple of months [keep emotional stuff short and to the point, but don’t forget to include it. If you’ve already thanked by email for the dinner, don’t do it again because in Australia this will feel overbearing. We are not good with gratitude. Maybe it’s a convict thing?]. I plan to work on [insert something general, but specific here like your upcoming milestone presentation. Being specific shows your supervisor that you are confident and have things under control and that you have listened to their advice] over the next couple of months. I’m looking forward to our emails/touching base [this sentence confirms your agreement about communication over the next little while, so he/she knows you understand. The second mode of expression ‘touching base’ is more casual, depends on whether you feel your relationship is moving in that direction or not] every two weeks. Do let me know if you need to change this arrangement for any reason [indicates you are flexible and understand the nature of his/her leave – gives them something to thank you for, an important ingredient of this sort of communication. In English, saying thanks demands another thanks and sometimes it’s hard to know how to stop the cycle. One reason why emojis are so useful in text messaging!]. Safe travels! [this is a casual way of wishing someone all the best on a journey – not offensive and entirely appropriate. you can choose whether you use the exclamation mark – makes it sound more ‘jaunty’ if you do, thus decreasing the emotional content].

[your usual sign off … mine is ‘best’ if I don’t know a person that well or just my initial in lower case: “i”, if they are a colleague-friend ]

inger

Have you ever struggled to find the right ‘tone’ to email your supervisor? What were you trying to say? Did you manage to communicate well, or not? Love to hear your stories in the comments – from your issues, more blog posts might come!

Related posts

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

Five ways to avoid death by email

2 thoughts on “How do I email my supervisor? Part two – the thank you note.

  1. I usually take my cues from the more senior person. As the junior person, I always start with ‘Dear Prof.’ to give appropriate acknowledgement of their rank. In their reply, let’s say they sign off as ‘Olga’, my next email would then say, “Hi Olga”. Eventually, they’ll probably drop the formalities and just say, “How’s things in the lab? Is the manuscript going OK?”. In that case, you can write back, “Lab is good. Experiment running smoothly. Latest version attached”

    In my experience, you will naturally see this over time. Formalities and even grammar and spelling will slowly drop out of your email communication and it will become less of a letter and more like a not-quite-instant messaging service.

    But don’t worry if you err on the side of being a bit too formal and polite in the beginning. Foreign students are extremely common in Australian universities and Australian professors should have basic experience or training in cross-cultural norms/issues – I received such training and I was just a class tutor. It is the norm in many cases for Australian academics to have spent some time overseas during their career, whether it’s just a conference in Asia or a postdoc in Europe. Your supervisor should forgive you minor differences in cultural practice (as you should forgive him or her).

  2. Hi Courteous, Inger and Tom,

    Great post. You are not alone in wondering whether your e-mail might be interpreted differently by someone from a different culture. Indeed, I often think about this when writing to people in different places, or who speak different first languages, or even people from my own culture and language (North America + English). Inger and Tom’s words of advice are both good.
    If I am worried about how my message is being perceived, I will try to use telephone or face-to-face conversations to follow up on the conversation. However, there are times when this is simply not possible – for example, when communicating with someone overseas. Sometimes I ask a local colleague to read over an e-mail before I send it off, just to see how they interpret it.

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