Be specific in emails!

Published May 01 2017

Be specific in emails!

A few years ago, I asked a senior colleague for feedback on something I’d written. He agreed and, a couple of days later, sent an email saying, “Is there a good time to discuss this?” I thought it must mean he hated what I’d written. I replied, suggesting a few times in the next couple of days. In his reply, he chose the latest of those times, saying he needed more time to mull it over. That confirmed my worst fears — it was so bad he needed extra time to figure out how to tell me how bad it was! After spending some time getting no other work done because I was so distracted, I decided to write to say that, based on his emails, I was worried that there was a major problem with what I’d written. He replied immediately saying not to worry — that it read very well and that he just had a few ideas that he thought would be easier to discuss in person.

I was thinking of this situation recently when I was emailing a student in my lab. She’d emailed about a proposal she was working on, laying out two options for a fellowship proposal. My thinking was that both of them could work but that there might be other options and it would be best to discuss the options in person. Looking at my schedule and comparing it with hers, I could see that we wouldn’t be able to meet until the end of the week, so I initially wrote a reply that said, “Can we meet Friday at 11 to chat about this?”

In the brief pause before hitting send, I realized that if I were in her shoes, I would spend the rest of the week trying to interpret what that email meant, most likely assuming it meant something bad. I realized that easily could be addressed by instead saying something like, “Both of these ideas look good to me, but there might be other options worth considering too. Are you free to meet Friday at 11 to discuss the options more?”

After writing about being a scientist who deals with anxiety on my blog “Dynamic Ecology,” one question I’ve been asked repeatedly is what faculty can do to make their labs friendlier to students with mental-health issues. I’m unsure of how to respond to this — so much depends on each situation. But avoiding unnecessary vagueness in emails is one straightforward thing that people can do to make academia friendlier to everyone, especially those with anxiety issues.

I tweeted about this, and it was clear from the response that I’m not alone in finding the vague “Let’s chat” or “Come see me” emails (or notes) anxiety-inducing. So please take a little more time to explain what you want to talk about and, if it’s not something major, indicate that. Another advantage of giving the person a heads-up about what you want to discuss is that it allows them to arrive more prepared for the discussion.

Similarly, another thing that can help reduce some of the unnecessary uncertainty is to be specific about when you’ll get feedback to folks. Especially earlier in my career, when I was waiting on feedback from a mentor or collaborator, it would be easy to check my email obsessively to see if anything had arrived. So, when possible, I try to be specific about when I’ll give someone feedback. Usually, I block off time on my calendar for it so I can let the person know when to expect feedback (e.g., “I think I’ll have time to work on this Monday morning”).

Neither of these things, on their own, will address the problem of mental-health issues in academia. But they will make things a little friendlier for academics who struggle with anxiety and for those who do not.

Meghan Duffy Meghan Duffy is an associate professor in the department of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Michigan. This piece originally appeared on the blog “Dynamic Ecology” on Jan. 23.