How to email your lecturer / professor

This is a quick guide for students who are unsure about how to email at uni. (Or you might have been sent this guide by your prof, in which case this guide is definitely for you too!) Because email isn’t quite like writing a letter, but also not quite like texting, there is considerable confusion about etiquette. Also, many academics have unspoken expectations! The tips in this guide should help you get as quick and as helpful a reply as possible.

TL;DR

  1. Start your email with “Dear Dr [family name]”. This is a formal opening that everyone will appreciate.
  2. Open with a paragraph that states the topic of your email in brief. Academics receive hundreds of emails a day/week, and you want yours to be easily understood.
  3. Be as brief as you can. Just stick to the main point without excessive detail. A wall of text will likely be triaged for later, whereas a short email will likely be dealt with more quickly.
  4. If you’re writing more than just a paragraph’s worth, don’t put all content into a single paragraph of writing. Space makes things more readable.
  5. End your email with “Best wishes, [your full name]”. If you would like to go extra formal, use “Yours sincerely”.

Example letter

Dear Dr Farts,

This email is to ask you for a reference letter for my application to the sea-staring PhD programme at the University of Men Epskop. Because of your international standing and your role as my project supervisor, a reference from you would really help my application. The deadline for the process is 29 February.

The programme at Men Epskop focusses on programming skills, and the ability to conduct high-intensity research while wearing a life vest. Dr Pfannkuchen has agreed to write the second reference, and they will focus on my life-vesting. I was hoping you could prominently feature our research project, for which I coded the experiments.

It would be a huge honour if you were to write this letter, although I would completely understand if you are pressed for time. If you do agree, my CV is attached for reference, and I would be delighted to provide any further information.

Best wishes,
Ariel Otterlover

Why should I care?

You might have never considered that emails are anything but quick ways to communicate. While this is true, many people have unspoken expectations about the format of your email. They might expect that you address them in a certain way, and that you organise your writing more like you would a formal letter.

Maybe you think this is stuck-up nonsense. However, while you may not care about form, many professionals do. So consider this pragmatic argument: If your email is too informal, you risk putting someone off, and you’re thus less likely to receive as prompt or as helpful a reply. Consider being polite as a way to make the system work in your favour.

Your opening

Email is less formal than letter writing, and especially when sending emails on your phone, you might be tempted to use the same tone as you would in any old message. However, starting your email “heyyyyyy” isn’t particularly professional. Furthermore, opening too informally could rub some people the wrong way, depending on local and personal preferences. In general, being polite is just good form, and makes it more likely people respond as quickly and as best they can.

The safest option is to go relatively formal: “Dear Dr [family name]”. This is the traditional opening in letter writing. Addressing someone by their formal title (“Dr” in most cases) and their family name is widely considered to be polite.

If this is not your first email in a chain, “Dear Dr [family name]” is still a safe option. However, in some circumstances, you could also go with “Dear [given name]” or “Hi [given name]”. Only do so if local customs allow, and if the person you’re corresponding with signs of their own emails with their given name. Many academics are quite informal in their communication, but it’s wisest to wait for them to show you they are.

Note on interpunction
In English, we often capitalise a title and drop the full stop, i.e. “Dr” and “Prof”. In many other languages you’d use “Dr.” / “dr.” or “Prof.” / “prof”. Honestly, people probably don’t mind about this, and will likely just appreciate that you’re being polite.

Note on titles
“Dr” is the title conferred to someone who has obtained a doctorate. It is also used for physicians. (This is a whole thing, see Wikipedia if you’d like to know more.) You’re very unlikely to offend someone when using this title, although it should be noted that it is formally trumped by “Prof” for full professors. In the US, the term “professor” is also used for basically anyone who teaches, but you can still address those people by their Dr title. (And if they don’t have one, they’ll likely be flattered rather than annoyed.)

Note on name-only openings
Starting your email with just someone’s name (e.g. “Jack,”) seems to be increasingly common in the US, but comes across as overly aggressive in many other places. Best to avoid this, and to include a proper salutation, even if it’s just “Hi”.

Content

Academics get LOADS of emails, and many will either respond straight away or triage your email for later. Shorter emails are more likely to be handled more quickly, so it’s best to be as brief and to-the-point as possible.

Another thing that helps people screen your email, is when you use the first paragraph to give a brief description of the situation, and clearly list any questions or action points. In the example above, the first paragraph is used to provide a summary (a reference letter is needed), and to list concrete action points (the letter should be submitted before a specific date).

Signing off

There are many local and personal preferences about sign-offs, and none of them seem to generalise well. The safest option for your letter is thus to go really formal or really kind.

If you’re wanting to be formal, you can end in “Yours sincerely”. This is the traditional sign-off for letters to recipients who you know. (“Yours faithfully” is the alternative for recipients who you do not know.)

If you’re wanting to be slightly less formal, but still professional and kind, you could end with “Best wishes”. Literally wishing someone the best is hardly objectionable!

Other options include “Kind regards”, which is generally fine. However, shortening it to “Regards” is fine for some people, but to others it translates to “a thousand curses upon you and your family”. More casual sign-offs like “Best” or “Bests” are usually also fine, although related options like “Cheers” are considered off by some. Note that this all comes down to someone’s personal preference, which can be hard to gauge beforehand!

If you’re wanting to be less formal in continuing email chains, it’s probably easiest to simply mirror what the recipient of your email is doing. If they sing off “Cheers”, it’s likely fine if you do too.

Conclusion

Some of this seems like a pain, but being polite is both nice to others and helpful to yourself. Using the more formal opening and sign-off are simply the safest way to address academics, and frankly everyone else too. It signals that you respect the addressee, and that you know how to be professional.

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