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Writing etiquette and effective communication
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taro_curly Offline
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Post: #1
Writing etiquette and effective communication
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I am not sure whether or not this thread was salvaged after the mess of that we found ourselves in a recently. I feel strongly about this, so I am posting it again with some revisions. The major addition was the section on getting the recipient's gender right in the salutation. Macsdev had pointed this out in one of the comments to the original post, so due credit to him.

[EDIT]: This post gets revised every now and again based on comments that I get from other posters which I think ought to be addressed. I'll try to prevent it from becoming like some Frankenstein-esque chunk of cannibalized text but if you ever see an obvious place where the continuity seems broken, it was probably a retrofit.

[EDIT]: Zodiac pointed out that some people use textese because they want to be "friendly" and I have addressed that as well.


Writing

Try and appreciate that as a foreign student, apart from email, you aren't really going to have any other contact with anyone at the university - faculty, staff or even other students - by any other means. This means that your only way of making a favourable first impression is with a well-crafted email. You don't really need to have the literary skills of Shakespeare to write a good email. All you really need to do is remember what your high school English teacher tried to drill into your head all those years ago while you stubbornly refused to listen. Honestly, when I see emails from other Indian students - people from other countries don't usually tend to write to me - I am very disappointed at the complete lack of etiquette in their writing. I am not looking for flowery prose or verbose expressions of gratitude at taking the time to read their emails. But what I often see is an absence of even basic courtesies and this can be very annoying.

Some generic tips when writing to people (these apply to everyone, staff, faculty and students):
  • Make sure that you start with a salutation. You can drop it after your first few exchanges - especially if you have created a thread of emails but when you send the first one, always, always have a salutation. Others might not mind, but I personally find it very annoying when I get a message that does not address me personally. I have talked about this more in the section on writing to graduate students.
    Invisible
  • Keep the message concise and to the point. Few people have the time or inclination to read wordy emails, especially when their value is as yet unknown.
    Invisible
  • Include all information that you think will be relevant, but try not to blindly include a whole lot. Take some time to think of what could be important and/or useful to the person you are writing to. For instance, if you have a question about the application packet that you have sent, the admissions staff probably don't care about your GRE score, but they might want to know your applicant number.
    Invisible
  • Avoid including attachments with email. Write in plain text if you can. If you must send a resume, try as far as possible to send that in plaintext as well.

When writing to staff

Often, you don't know exactly to whom you are writing these emails. The email address tends to be a generic alias which internally gets routed to the appropriate person. In that case, you can't really write a proper salutation so a generic Dear Sir/Ma'am might be appropriate. Remember that they don't have a lot of time and they have a lot of email to deal with so try and make their job as easy as possible. Also, before writing to them, make sure that your question has not already been answered elsewhere on the university website. Most of the time, it has been. If you are looking for a clarification of something on the website, mention this explicitly. Whenever you demonstrate that you have done your homework first, your standing will go up in the eyes of the reader and their willingness to help goes up. This holds for everyone.

When writing to other graduate students

For the most part, you are going to be writing to them asking for advice/information. They don't know you from Adam, and your hope is that they will take time out of their day to help you. In that case, the least that you can do is take the effort to write to them individually. Writing generic emails titled, "Hello sir" is guaranteed to piss them off big time. People in this country are very individualistic and they get very irritated if it seems like you are wasting their time. By not bothering to customize the salutation and writing generic emails like that, you are giving the impression that you are taking them for granted and they will not appreciate it. The same goes for Indian graduate students as well. Just because they are from your country, does not mean that they should condone your lack of decency. People will take time out to help someone they don't know (the fact that you are reading this on this forum should tell you as much), but only if it looks like you have done your homework and appreciate their efforts. By just including their names in the salutation, it shows that you have at least gone to the trouble of customizing the email to them and they will be more willing to help you. Like I said earlier, verbose expressions of gratitude are not necessary - little things will go a long way.

When writing to professors

This has been discussed to death in these forums time and again and I'll just summarize what is important:
  • My rule for writing to professors is "Don't unless you have something interesting to say." Unless you have relevant research experience and to a lesser extent relevant work experience, most professors are not going to be terribly interested. If you have done a good project during your undergrad and it seems a strong match to his research, you could write, but otherwise, it is both a waste of your time and his.
    Invisible
  • Read the professor's webpage completely before writing. and read a few of his research papers as well. Of late, more and more professors often have a section specifically for prospective students and how they should go about contacting them. Read it. And more importantly, do what he tells you.
    Invisible
  • If you do decide to write, read his research papers first. Writing generic "I am interested in your research" emails is going to have your email thrown in the trash. Mentioning the title of the paper or quoting the abstract is not going to work either. These people have a PhD. They are not stupid. They can smell a bogus letter from a mile away. The best way to get his interest is to make an intelligent technical comment about some aspect of that paper. Remember the old quip, "Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt" Don't say something for the sake of saying it.

Degree of formality

This is something which can get a little tricky. In general, Americans are not terribly fond of excessive formality, and often, you will refer to your professors by their first names once you get to know them. But when writing to them initially, it makes sense to be formal. But remember that we in India have a very antiquated way of writing formal letters which is probably not appropriate. Instead of the convoluted, flowery prose that we have in our formal letters, you should use crisp, short, matter-of-fact sentences. One of my junior college English professors would rail about using "Thanking you" at the end of a letter. She insisted that a simple "Thank you" made more sense and I suppose it does. The Americans also hate passive voice and prefer active sentences which is something to keep in mind too.

When writing to other graduate students, you needn't start the email with Dear Mr./Ms. LastName and it's almost always ok to use their first names. But don't for God's sake start an email with "Hi dude" or "Hey Buddy" or something stupid like that. Not only would you deserve to have such an email ignored, you would also richly merit a swift kick in your pants for it.

Getting the gender right

The salutation in an email is one of those seemingly innocuous places which can turn out to be a minefield when you least expect it. Assuming that you want to go with the slightly more formal route of Mr/Ms. [LastName], you have to make sure that you get the recipient's gender right. For foreign students who aren't necessarily familiar with western names, getting this right can be surprisingly hard. Nevertheless, it is one of those mistakes that you do not want to make. On a closely related note, it also makes sense to write your entire email in a gender-neutral way – especially if you plan to send more or less the same text to a number of different people.

Textese

if u r dumb enuf 2 wr8 lik dis, den plz dnt b sprzd wen u dnt gt ne rspns.

It is very, very bad form to write in textese - especially when you are writing to faculty or staff. It might be tolerated by some graduate students, but even that might be pushing it. There are many graduate students - and I am one of them – who hate textese and are going to be less than thrilled at seeing a pile of incomprehensible junk like this in their inbox. I know that you are addicted to it on SMS/chat/wherever, but it's time to break the habit. Textese is like body art - some might not give it a second glance, but others find it repulsive. You don't really want to unnecessarily get off on the wrong foot with someone, especially when it is not particularly difficult to avoid. Remember that even small indiscretions like using 'u' instead of 'you' can make a negative first impression on some people.

You don't have to write in textese in order to be friendly. All you have to do is write in an informal style. Let's say that you were meeting the student in person. When you speak to him then, you would be friendly, right? In that case, when you are writing to them, pretend that they are standing in front of you and write as if you were talking to them. The tone will automatically become informal.

Speaking skills

This is hugely important once you come here. I have seen a few students who, although they are intelligent and know what they are talking about, find it very difficult to even find an advisor simply because their spoken English is poor. I have heard of others who literally let job opportunities at places like Microsoft slip because of their poor communication skills. This is true even in India, I have seen many of my classmates who were quite skilled find it difficult to get a job during campus placements because they could not speak English very well and were not confident when using that language. On the other hand, there were guys who couldn't write code to save their life but who could talk an Eskimo into buying an ice-cube who were among the first to get placed. And it makes sense. If you cannot communicate with your team members, whether in a company or in a research group, the team on a whole is going to suffer which is why recruiters and professors are a little skeptical about accepting you. It becomes even more important in this country where English is the pre-dominant language. Having an extensive vocabulary of obscure words is not the point here. It is important to be able to clearly express your thoughts in English. If you are in your final/pre-final year, it makes sense to talk in English as much as possible, not just if you plan to travel to the US/UK/Australia for your Masters, but even to give yourself an edge during job interviews and later on, in the workplace.

After being on Edulix for some time, I have also noticed that often, the posts that get more responses tend to be those that are written well and clearly. Very often, these also happen to be the people who don't really need nearly as much help as others do. It might strike you as being unfair, but you can't really help it. That's the way the world works. Effective communication is vital these days, and it makes sense for you to hone those skills. If you are in research, you need very good writing ability (papers, grant proposals), presentation skills (for conferences and even lectures) apart from other things. If you are in industry, you need to be able to communicate clearly and concisely by email, over the phone and on a teleconference. You need to be comfortable and effective in both one-on-one and group situations. This applies to dealing both with team members and clients. Depending on your job profile, you might need to make convincing presentations as well.

Bottomline, if you have a Communication Skills class (I know Bombay University does, and ironically, in my college, I learned the most in that class (PCT) in all my 4 years of engineering), take it seriously. And learn to write proper emails.

I am not very active on this forum any longer. Most PM's will not receive a response.
(This post was last modified: 10-23-2010 08:15 PM by taro_curly.)
06-18-2010 10:31 PM
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RE: Communication is important
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I am bouncing this thread because I have received one too many PM's of the extremely annoying kind in the last few days. There are some rudiments of courtesy that I would have thought were obvious, but apparently, they aren't and so up this goes.

I am not very active on this forum any longer. Most PM's will not receive a response.
10-20-2010 02:58 AM
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RE: Writing etiquette and effective communication
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I urge all current applicants to read this. Email will be a very important source of communication between yourself and your profs/advisors/fellow graduate students. It is important that you develop some basic skills in this regard.

I have been receiving PMs written in textese. It is extremely annoying to read. One student said that he was trying to be friendly and therefore wrote the PM in textese Confused

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(This post was last modified: 10-20-2010 12:14 PM by Zodiac.)
10-20-2010 12:13 PM
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RE: Writing etiquette and effective communication
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(10-20-2010 12:13 PM)Zodiac Wrote:  One student said that he was trying to be friendly and therefore wrote the PM in textese Confused

Ah, interesting. If you don't mind I shall retrofit this into the post.

Some of my friends think that it is too formal to write email, which is really strange because the medium of communication doesn't make a difference - it's how you write whatever it is that you do. If you just write the email as if you were speaking to your friend in person, it automatically becomes informal. You don't need to resort to textese to show that you are friendly.

I am not very active on this forum any longer. Most PM's will not receive a response.
10-20-2010 06:00 PM
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RE: Writing etiquette and effective communication
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Quote:Some of my friends think that it is too formal to write email, which is really strange because the medium of communication doesn't make a difference - it's how you write whatever it is that you do. If you just write the email as if you were speaking to your friend in person, it automatically becomes informal. You don't need to resort to textese to show that you are friendly.

Precisely.

I also want to point out that writing PMs to graduate students on forums such as edulix is no different from writing emails to them. I, for some reason, get this feeling that students on edulix treat PM as an informal medium of communication (and therefore use textese).

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10-21-2010 02:07 AM
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RE: Writing etiquette and effective communication
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I agree with the same and me too am having requests for evaluation & advice in shortlisting Universities.I do agree that people need to learn basic PM/email etiquette.

I was given one such ppt during my first job and I think I should find that as well in addition to what has been mentioned in the thread.

Feel free to email me directly to my email via edulix and I should respond.

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(This post was last modified: 10-23-2010 12:25 PM by ashishdaga1.)
10-23-2010 12:12 PM
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RE: Writing etiquette and effective communication
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Amazing thread. Call for stickying this one.

P.S. The kind of posts taro writes, we should start a sub-forum full of taro-threads. Smile

I don't do profile evaluations anymore. Please send me an email in case of queries specific to TU Delft or other universities in Netherlands.
10-23-2010 06:49 PM
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RE: Writing etiquette and effective communication
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(10-23-2010 06:49 PM)santoshgoku Wrote:  Amazing thread. Call for stickying this one.

P.S. The kind of posts taro writes, we should start a sub-forum full of taro-threads. Smile

+1 to this. Smile
And some people just send me a Link in there PM's without basic formalities.Laughing I make sure that I don't reply to there threads as it does really piss me off.Confused

Back \m/
(This post was last modified: 10-23-2010 06:59 PM by theou huios.)
10-23-2010 06:52 PM
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RE: Writing etiquette and effective communication
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I am new to edulix and was looking for guidelines regarding writing to a professor when I stumbled across this thread. I did write to professors before when I was trying for an internship abroad and I got it too but I was just trying to see if I could gain something. Though there has not been much interaction here, I must write that taro's post is simply amazing. It is rally great and should be acknowledged if someone is taking out his time and writing on a general query in such an elaborate way.

11-02-2010 06:47 PM
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RE: Writing etiquette and effective communication
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So finally what should be in the subject line of the email?

03-04-2011 06:57 PM
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Yes, I would also like to know what should be the subject line of the e-mail.

Also, needed a bit of advice. I identified some profs in NCSU under whom RAs are going on. How should I go about getting in touch with them, apart from the usual yada yada that I am interested in research and all that? Just want to make sure that they will have an impression of me from the outset. I thought of telling them about my project. Am I wasting my time?

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03-30-2011 01:11 PM
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RE: Writing etiquette and effective communication
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(03-04-2011 06:57 PM)Girl_gaga Wrote:  So finally what should be in the subject line of the email?

Whatever you think will get their attention which also tells them what they can expect in the email.
(03-30-2011 01:11 PM)nishchintraina Wrote:  I identified some profs in NCSU under whom RAs are going on. How should I go about getting in touch with them, apart from the usual yada yada that I am interested in research and all that?

I don't have anything more to add than I have already said in the first post. If you think that your project is something that they might find interesting, then go ahead and write to them about it.

I am not very active on this forum any longer. Most PM's will not receive a response.
(This post was last modified: 03-30-2011 08:04 PM by taro_curly.)
03-30-2011 08:03 PM
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Hi

When writing to faculty/Adminstrators can we ever switch to using first names?

ex I will write a mail like this
Quote:Dear Mr. Thomas Edison,
........
And the reply would be
Quote:...
Regards
Tom

Does this means that I can address him as Tom in the next mail ?

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03-31-2011 11:08 AM
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(03-31-2011 11:08 AM)kukku Wrote:  Does this means that I can address him as Tom in the next mail ?

It's certainly opening the door for you to refer to them by their first name. But I would be conservative and continue addressing them formally until they tell you point-blank to address them by their first name (this usually happens when you meet them face-to-face).

I am not very active on this forum any longer. Most PM's will not receive a response.
03-31-2011 06:04 PM
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A very informative and comprehensive post.

I often hear my friends complaining of the non-responsive nature of the professors. However, I have had better luck in my prof-letting experience. Here are some guidelines that I stick to, which often lead me to replies; positive or negative isn't the concern here. If you write properly, your email should receive a response, well mostly.

When you write to a professor, you are trying to sell him a new product. Imagine you have a salesman at your door, who is advertising a new vacuum-cleaner. His only shot at you, is to quote something outstanding enough to catch your attention, thereby urging you to hear him out at least. If he says it's a new blah blah blah, you will simply tell him you've got one already and shut your door.

Same trick does the professors too. Since they can't simply shut the door, and have the whole email in front of them, even if not a highly attractive opening, it shouldn't be a complete put-off demanding the email to be trashed straight away.

I always start with a salutation, a greeting, and then a short introduction of myself – my degree, university, country and research interests.

2nd paragraph should specifically convey to the professor about the purpose of your email. Don't keep building up until the end to tell him that you want an RAship. Some professors don't even bother to read the whole email. Moreover, if they've got a vacancy, it will be worthwhile for them to read it, otherwise you are simply wasting their time.

Anyway, I describe why and how I find their research work interesting. I usually tend to relate my experience with their work, and mention my ongoing project in that research area. It is here that I mention the main highlights of my resume, such as journal and conference publications, award, and anything that I think will interest this professor specifically.

After the 2nd paragraph, I specify the particulars of my publications.

In the 3rd paragraph, I relate the technical skills that I possess, to the project that I find interesting, and close off with a thank you. I try to avoid attachments and I have hence created a website. At the end of my signature, I attach direct hyperlinks to different webpages on my websites, such as CV, Research, Projects etcetera.

I have had an opportunity to interact with professors from Virginia Tech, UCSD and berkeley during a conference in the US. Most of them said that they often receive frivolous and indecent emails from student, and thus find it hard to keep track of genuine students. So, if you know what you're talking about, and have a well-thought purpose of writing the email, you should write a very-short follow up email to remind the professor (Hit the reply button on the old email, instead of writing a new email). However, should you not receive a response, don't bother to follow up again.

One of the prof. from VT even told me that 2 of his 6 PhD students even called him to discuss the RAship opportunity. However, to do this, you must do solid homework and be ready to improvise. Clear and coherent speaking skills can be a real plus here.

That's all I have to share on prof-letting at the moment. Taro_Curly has already written yet another must-read post already, so we must keep his suggestions in mind.

Regards,

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04-07-2011 09:32 PM
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