Some things in college are hard to master. Conducting research, giving presentations, writing papers, solving problem sets—all of these can be difficult to get the hang of. But there are other things that no student should find taxing. Being professional in your written communications falls into this category.
I think that students sometimes forget that college is a professional setting. They forget that their relationships with staff and faculty are more like workplace relationships than easygoing friendships. And they don’t realize that how they act in college can have long-term repercussions for their own professional reputation.
In my view, the most egregious instances of informality can be found in emails. You might laugh, but I really do worry that my students will email prospective employers or future clients with the same casualness with which they email me. I can assure you, such a thing would not do wonders for their prospects of promotion.
1. Getting titles right
First, begin by using the correct title for the person being addressed. Never use a person’s first name unless you already are on a first name basis with them (e.g. they are a friend or classmate) or they ask for you to use their first name. Using the first name of your professor or a staff member can come across as rude and disrespectful.
Anybody with a PhD – so, almost all of your professors – should be addressed as “Dr. X” or “Prof. X.” I’d say that about 40% of students who email me don’t use my correct title. I don’t get offended, but I can’t help but notice the mistake. Other professors care a lot more than I do and will take a dim view of being addressed incorrectly.
Women who don’t have a PhD should be addressed as “Ms. X” unless you know for a fact that they prefer to be addressed otherwise. Never use “Mrs.” or “Miss” unless you are 100% sure that this is how your recipient prefers to be addressed.
For men without PhDs, call them “Mr. X.”
And if you’re not sure about someone’s gender or whether they have a PhD? Do a bit of research! Google their name or visit the relevant university webpage. It’s usually not difficult to find out the appropriate title. I do this all of the time and consider it a basic courtesy to the person I’m about to email.
2. Subject lines, salutations, and sign-offs
Give your emails a subject line. Make it professional so that your message doesn’t stand out like a sore thumb when it shows up in your recipient’s inbox. An email with the subject “WHEN IS THE TEST?” looks bad. An email with the subject “Question about the syllabus” is much better.
Begin your email with a proper salutation, too, as if you were writing a letter. “Dear Professor X” counts as an appropriate salutation. “Hey” does not.
At the other end of the email, conclude with a word of thanks (“Thank you for your time. I look forward to hearing from you.”) and a proper sign-off (“Best regards, Melanie” or even a simple “Thanks, Saul”). Don’t be obsequious or servile, but do be polite.
If an email chain begins between you and the person with whom you’re corresponding, you should keep using a salutation even if they don’t. As a student, you should resist the temptation to fire back one-line emails: you might come across as discourteous unless you’re on fabulous terms with the other person. This isn’t a text message or WhatsApp.
3. Think about what you’re putting in writing
Finally, you should think hard about what comments or requests you’re making in your professional emails. When it comes to communicating with your professors and teaching assistants, for example, you should avoid the following:
- Never ask a question that’s answered in the syllabus. It makes you look lazy and sends the signal that you don’t value other peoples’ time.
- Never ask for a higher grade. This is incredibly unprofessional and insulting, implying that your professor or TA would be willing to break rules for you.
- Never ask to miss class for reasons other than sickness, a family emergency, or an excused university absence. It indicates that you don’t value your education.
Does any of this sound pretentious or like nitpicking? I know that some people will think so. But it’s important to get into habits of professionalism now so that you don’t run into problems later on in life.
Of course, informality has its place even in professional settings. I’m a very casual person and like to be accessible to students. Barriers are bad things. But informality does become a problem if people are informal to the point of coming across as rude, careless, or disrespectful. Above all else, this is what you want to avoid.
(For more advice on writing emails, the writing center at UNC-Chapel Hill has put together a good resource for students.)
Other posts in this series:
Strong writing skills aren’t optional, 28 March 2017
Writing a great introduction, 21 March 2017
What good in-class participation looks like, 7 March 2017
Credible sources: Who to trust when doing research papers, 28 February 2017
How to study for an exam, 21 February 2017
“Showing up” to college: What choosing to succeed looks like, 14 February 2017
Taking notes, part two: What should you write down?, 9 February 2017
Taking notes, part one: In defense of pen and paper, 7 February 2017
How to manage your time effectively in college, 31 January 2017
How to get the most out of office hours, 24 January 2017
College is a team sport, 17 January 2017