tl;dr: If someone doesn’t answer your email, change media.
One thing that frustrates students and potential students is when professors don’t answer emails. Attribution theory predicts that you would think we’re blowing you off, or lazy, but the fact is, professors just get a lot of email, and this makes it hard to answer it all the way we want to because it has a cost.
I start with three stories, not so much to try to excuse email non-answering, but to give you a feel for the professor experience of navigating an email overload universe.
Story 1: Famous Professor X–who is super-helpful and cool whenever X has time–has told me that there’s a mailbox full of things that X wants to get to, thinks it would be valuable to answer for both X and the sender… and doesn’t, because there are so many other things that need doing. None of the options are good: write back two months later? Write back and say this is cool but you’re too busy to answer (which risks making you sound a little pretentious)? And so the default is to let them pile up, then quietly delete them. X’s estimate in 2010 was about 2-3 of these per week, and I bet there are more now.
Story 2: As a grad student, I sent an email to Famous Professor Y (name withheld to protect the guilty) who I actually worked with sometimes, with a specific question about a project. No reply. A couple of years later, F.P.Y. told me that because of high workloads and email volumes, Y’s general strategy was to wait until someone mailed twice, because that meant they were serious. At the time I was appalled; now as a professor I understand.
However, it’s not a strategy I’m willing to adopt, and my own story as a Not Famous Professor is that I get maybe 60-150 mails a day. I don’t know if this is a lot or a little compared to other folks, and I’m sure it’s less than X and Y get. But it feels like a lot, and it’s easy to spend an hour or so just on emails, not counting the to-dos that get generated by them. I do still try to reply to everything, but as my attention gets distributed the replies start getting shorter and less useful. They also get less personal and social, which I see as a bad thing. Finally, I (and many other people who are also attention-thin) also have a nasty tendency to only answer the first main question in an email.
Strategy: don’t email.
Still, knowing the landscape doesn’t help you, person-who-wants-a-reply. There are strategies for increasing your odds if you have to email, and I’ll talk about that sometime down the road as part of a discussion of getting profs interested in working with you. The tl;dr for that post will be something like “make it clear why it’s in their interest to answer your email“.
For now, I’ll just observe that we’re so used to email as a work communication tool that it’s easy to forget that you have other options and other media.
Version 1: In-person. For co-present people, find out when the profs you want to talk to are having office hours or teaching classes or lab meetings, and go there in person. It’s much harder to ignore someone who’s standing in front of you, and though sometimes you’ll fail because your target will have to run off to something else, it will often lead to at least some attention right then and there, and/or getting an appointment to talk later or a promise to answer an email. This feels risky, but despite being busy, most professors, most of the time, like talking to students. I think.
Version 2: Phone call. If you can’t be co-present, pick up the phone. Calls are not as good as in-person, but they’re more visible than an email. Call the professor’s phone, and if that doesn’t work, call their department (which can also get you information on office hours and other times they are often around). Think twice before leaving voicemails: some people, like me, almost never think to check voicemail because calls are so rare. But that’s another reason to call–it’s underutilized.
And, a bonus strategy: Don’t email the prof. Depending on your goals, you might email a TA (for classes), their administrative assistant or the department (for advising/administrative/admissions needs), or a student they work with (for research-related inquiries). These folks may be more appropriate to contact anyways, will often know things the professor doesn’t, have more time to invest in answering email than the average professor, all of which work in your favor.
These strategies all have some cost to you, and that’s a good thing. Email spam is popular because the costs to senders and receivers are so asymmetrical, and although your email probably isn’t spam, it’s going to impose a cost. Make sure it’s worth it, ideally, for both of you.
I’d love to hear other stories and other strategies that people have on both sides of the equation. At this tender, early stage, knowing that people are paying attention and getting value out of this is a Good Thing.