Email etiquette I’ve learnt as a graduate student.

email reply phd comic

Over the last couple of years, I’ve experimented with email reply etiquette and I’ve realized the following:

1. The best time to reply to an email is – as soon as I can.

2. There are some professors who I’ll send an email to and receive a reply in less than 24 hours. The best are those who reply within 3-4 hours and I know a couple who get back in about an hour. I find that usually an issue with such professors gets resolved faster or delegated. Either way, the topic is closed in under 24 hours. Not only do I have more respect for professors who keep up this etiquette, this is something I aspire to.

3. On the other hand, I’ve had professors who reply back after a week. Once after a month. I wonder to myself if they still think of email as regular mail. This is how I used to treat email. Not anymore.

4. About a year ago, I got an iPhone. I realized how much that changed my life. Earlier, the default unread email count in my inbox would by a three digit number. Now, the default is zero. I have tags, labels, folders and smart folders. Emails get archived, tagged, starred, deleted or marked spam as soon as they enter my email client.

5. Treat email as email. Not as personal handwritten notes. Earlier, I was unnecessarily polite, courteous and excessively apologetic. Now I’m prompt, brief and to the point.

6. Use bullet points. For any email longer than a couple of hundred words, I use bullet points.

7. I write short emails (albeit the personal ones). I respect the recipient’s time and don’t expect him/her to have the attention or the patience to read my long-winded story.

8. I have a spelling and grammar checking tool. It’s ON by default. I get turned off my misspelled words. So, I avoid sending them.

9. I re-read all emails before sending. If my emails are brief and to the point, this doesn’t take long. If I find myself being lethargic in reading my draft before sending, that’s hint enough for me to re-write it.

10. Always send  a short email now then a long detailed one later.

11. If I need something from someone, I email them. If it’s not in their inbox, then I don’t expect them to do it. And vice versa.

 12. A gentle email reminder is not a bad thing. I’ve found that in more cases than one, that a gentle reminder is more welcome than not sending one at all. People forget. And I’ve yet to meet someone who has accused me of sending too many emails.

13. Mass forwarding emails are extinct. But once in a while, I do get one of those forwarded emails sent to the entire address book. Needless to say, they have earned their place in my Junk folder.

14. When copy pasting and send similarly worded emails to different people, make sure to copy and paste in a text editor first. Gmail and other email clients change the font color of copy pasted emails, so it becomes obvious. The last thing you want to impress on the receiver is that they were at the end of a mass copy paste session. This usually applies to undergraduates.

15. Lastly, I use email as a networking tool. After I meet someone and get their contact details, I usually follow-up with an email. This usually helps when I need to contact the other person after months, as I can reply back on this initial email. This eliminates the need to reintroduce. This trick is very helpful with busy people. Which is everybody.


Share your lessons in the comments below !

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8 Responses to “Email etiquette I’ve learnt as a graduate student.”

  1. Nick October 30, 2012 at 7:12 am #

    I have to respectfully disagree with you on points 1-5. E-mail is the single greatest time wasting distraction in modern life. Your time is your most valuable resource. The way to minimize the time a task takes is to maximize concentration (usually). Checking your e-mail every time your Inbox/iPhone/Crackberry beeps is the antithesis of concentration.

    Try only checking your e-mail twice a day at 11:30am and at 4:30pm (NOTE: NOT first thing in the morning. The morning is when you get shit done). Deal with everything in two big batches. Every time your mind switches tasks it takes about 30 sec for it to get going on a new task and 30 sec to find your previous train of thought. If you get 25 e-mails in a day:

    Check each individually = 25 min of switching overhead

    Check all in one batch = 1 min of switching overhead

    I would also say it takes less total time because you are focused on e-mail and nothing else for those short bits of time you venture into your inbox. See here (

    In fact if I was getting only 25 e-mails a day I would probably only check my e-mail every other day. That gives me an extra hour and twenty minutes a week. Emergencies rarely exist and you can train people to not expect immediate e-mail responses. I doubt anyone could actually be offended by having to wait a day.

    I also think people use checking their e-mail as a mental crutch for getting stuck on problems. Whenever I used to get stuck on something, or just decided I was bored, I would go meaninglessly check my e-mail. You’re actively sabotaging yourself here! Train the mental discipline to stay on task and be more interesting 🙂

    Love the blog Saad! Just adding a little debate 🙂

    • Saad Bhamla October 30, 2012 at 3:47 pm #

      Nick – I agree with your methodology. But I also understand different people operate differently. There are multiple ways of success.
      Plus, I agree with you – I’m not very stringent on points 1-5. There is definitely scope for improvement. But I have yet to become as diligent to only check my email twice a day.
      Oh well.

      • Nick October 30, 2012 at 8:35 pm #

        Got to get a dumber phone Saad 😉
        Its fun to have a brick with LED’s in it lol
        I went for a run in Chicago this weekend! Thought about you when I started running about unshod.

        • Saad Bhamla October 30, 2012 at 9:50 pm #

          Dang. Must have been cold. How about we run all across the country soon boss?

  2. Pratap Hitendra October 30, 2012 at 10:39 am #

    I think you should include facebook widget, people can like your posts and others reading will have an idea of how popular particular post is. I read almost all posts of yours and generally don’t comment, but I would like to have a like button handy to like the posts.

    • Saad Bhamla October 30, 2012 at 3:49 pm #

      Thanks for the comment Pratap. I did incorporate the Fb and Twitter like buttons, but the page becomes too distracting. Plus, isn’t commenting more fun? This way we get a dialogue going. And I get a chance to learn from you as well..

  3. John October 30, 2012 at 2:55 pm #

    One of the biggest struggles I’ve had is giving personal email as much respect as professional ones. It’s so easy to mark emails from friends as unread and leave them for later (sometimes for months later), because emails from professors seem more important and more urgent, and we know that our friends will simply “get it.” Truth be told, professional emails are often also easier to respond to as well: they’re not thoughtful or emotional. I’ve realized though that these personal emails deserve just as much attention as the rest, if not more, and there is no reason to expect our friends to “understand” that everything else is more important. As it turns out, email conversations are also conversations: they’re not something extra, and just reading them isn’t enough (after all, our friends don’t actually see us reading and nodding, do they?). So not replying is the same as giving a cold shoulder or brushing someone off in person. Eventually it erodes communication when emails continually go into the ether. That’s why I block out time to respond to personal emails now, and purposely respond to them first. Easier said than done sometimes…

    • Saad Bhamla October 30, 2012 at 3:50 pm #

      Thanks John. I agree with you on personal emails. They are a weakness of mine as well. And I have to admit, this strategy does not apply to them. They are a whole different game.