Academic Etiquette and email- What do you think?

A few postgrads here were chatting ab0ut the etiquette regarding correspondences with academic professionals.  If, in your doctoral research, you are interested in contacting an expert on a particular issue, is it OK to shoot off an email to this person (you have not met personally) and ask a question?  What has been your experience?  Have you found anyone (no names needed) snobbish and rude?  Have you found scholars generally helpful?  If you are a professional, are you bothered by Phds (not at your institution) who send emails to you about reading their work or answering a question?  Please post a comment about your own experience (with relatively ‘big name’ scholars [please do not give their name either way]).

Here is my experience.  Most scholars are flattered, if you are very polite and tentative in your email (‘would you be so kind…I would really appreciate…if you are too busy and cannot comment I understand…).  I have emailed a handful of ‘expert’ scholars and overall the response has been very good.  Only one did not email back at all, and perhaps he has changed his email address.  I emailed a Philo scholar with a quick question and he was very kind and helpful in his response. I emailed a relatively new lecturer but a leading scholar in his field and he took a long time to get back to me (4-6 weeks), but the response was thorough. I emailed a very prominent evangelical scholar and he emailed back right away but didn’t really answer my question.  I emailed another prominent evangelical scholar and he emailed back with a really good and useful response.  So, its a mixed bag, it seems.  But, I sometimes feel bad ‘bothering’ him or her.  Here are some questions we all could dialogue about:

1. If you get a good and encouraging response, is it OK to email again with another question?  Or, is it a kind of – everyone gets 1 courtesy question, but after that it gets annoying???

2. Should you email them something they have to read (like a word doc of your research)?  Obviously it would be rude and a bit presumptuous to send a 50-page document!  But, what about 3 pages?  What about 1 page?

3. If they don’t respond within 2 weeks, should you email again, or take it as a sign that they do not want to be bothered?  BTW – I had someone who didn’t email for a long, long time and he simply forgot.  He eventually found it and emailed, but it seems that he would not have minded if I would have sent him a ‘reminder’ email.  But I didn’t.

As you all are thinking about this, I have a couple of suggestions.  First, you should try to dialogue with scholars in the field. Biblical studies is a small world and if you go to SBL you will understand that.  But, when you email, be polite without being obsessive – give them to option of saying ‘sorry, I cannot help you right now’.  Also, don’t ask them a question that anyone could answer – make sure they are really needed for this issue, or else you are just wasting their time.  Finally, use their institutional email before their private email – or else they may think you are stocking them!  Not really, but its like showing up at their house as opposed to their office.  I know I would find it a bit wierd.  Finally, make use of any connections you have – ‘I heard you speak at a conference at my undergrad’ or ‘We met the Eerdmans booth at SBL’.

I am anxious to hear anyone’s experiences – either from the end of the eager student or the busy (but gracious?) scholar.


5 thoughts on “Academic Etiquette and email- What do you think?

  1. I recently finished my MA thesis and contacted the three top scholars in the Psalms of Solomon, and all of them were very receptive and helpful. I received forthcoming material for one, had an extended email conversation with the other, and the final one ended up being my external reader.

    In thinking through what my PhD topic, I emailed one of the top Matthew scholars to ask for some suggestions, and have ended up talking on email at length with him.

    Only once did I ever really feel slighted, and it was funny because I was actually looking into studying at the school! It turned me off pretty quick.

    All this to say – email away! Most people are generally happy to help, and if they aren’t – well I usually don’t want help from those types of people anyway.


  2. Nijay,
    I would concur with much of what you suggest, and thank you for the helpful reminder on a topic not much discussed. These men are not gods, but certainly deserve common courtesy.

    In the several experiences that I have had emailing scholars who were not familiar with me, they were either super helpful, or not at all. Ironically, those who were helpful were not even NT scholars; they teach classics and ancient history I believe. Perhaps they were more eager to assist me because of my unique perspective, or because they typically do not receive many requests; although they teach at major universities, their specialties are abnormal enough that I would guess they are not frequently pelted with student emails. Also, I was asking about a topic that hasn’t received much scholarly attention, so they may have considered my questions appropriate for direct contact.

    The two NT scholars I have contacted were not as helpful, but then again they are ‘big name’ scholars at major universities and probably receive hundreds of such questions weekly. Also, my questions were not very specific and in the end were easily answered by a second and more careful reading of the work that they had already published… which is exactly where they directed me!

    One thing that might be helpful, however, when considering if, when, and how to contact a scholar is the amount of time that has passed since he/she wrote on the topic. One of the NT scholars I emailed very humbly admitted that he had ceased his research on the topic of which I was inquiring nearly 20 years earlier! Therefore, if you have questions regarding the dissertation of a seasoned scholar who has since progressed in his research, you may not receive much help from him… although it doesn’t hurt to try. In my experience, the gentleman simply suggested that I contact a scholar who had more recently written on the topic.


  3. My experiences have almost all been very positive. Recently I’ve emailed scholars in Germany, Canada and the US, each time receiving very generous responses (including pre-publication copies of work, including two US dissertations, one of which will be published later this year by an academic publisher). I didn’t quite ask for such generosity, though the spirit of my inquiry probably did hint in that direction.

    About two months ago I asked one scholar about his response to a critical review, a response I found referenced in a book. The response had never been published. This scholar did email it to me, apologizing for the delay (three days), noting that it had to be retrieved from a computer no longer in use. That’s certainly going out of one’s way!

    Since I cannot afford to attend SBL conferences, I seldom get to meet many scholars in person. Often, though, I’ll read through the conference offerings and contact scholars, asking if I could read their material despite my inability to attend the conference. I’ve seldom been declined. And if our email correspondence seems of interest to them, I’ll may ask if we could have a telephone conversation. Just last week I spoke for an hour (and I would definitely limit it at that) with a scholar in Canada. He’s in OT studies, while I’m in NT studies, but our interests converge at some very lively junctures. The conversation resulted in the offer to email some articles otherwise not immediately available to me, as well as a couple tables of contents for upcoming volumes he is co-editing, and an offer to continue the discussion.

    As you mention, it is vital to provide a way out of having to respond. It is also important to express authentic humility. I tend to write a greeting followed by something like, “Please pardon my unsolicited inquiry. Being familiar with your work, I thought it best to solicit your advice…” Also, engaging with something they have written illustrates the authenticity of the inquiry.

    In a few instances, I’ve found scholars willing to read through, and comment upon, something I’ve written. I don’t think I’ve ever emailed a piece without first eliciting their interest. I think that would be downright rude and presumptuous. It has happened a couple of times to me and I found it intrusive and distasteful.

    Now, there have been some duds as well – not so much in the sense of failed responses but in failures to respond. Only on select occasions will I resend the original email. When I’ve done so, though, I think I’ve always received some kind of helpful response.

    In short, be kind, gracious and authentic and you’ll probably received a response in kind. Perhaps not always; but it’s worth the try.

  4. Hey Nijay – this was a very helpful little segment. Cheers for your thoughts. I hope you and the family are well. C building is not the same without you.

  5. I just read the first section in your new book about PhD studies. Thanks for the info! It was very helpful in wrapping my mind around what I have coming up in the next few years.

    I was wondering if you could give me some tips on contacting potential advisors to study under. What kind of things would you discuss and how do you broach the subject of studying under them?

    Any advice you can give me would be extremely appreciated. I look forward to finishing your book and learning more.
    Thanks again,
    Josh Carroll

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