Students and professors differ in how they prefer to communicate with other people. One of my grad studentsduring her practicumconducted a survey and found that if there was an emergency on campus, most students would prefer to receive an alert by text; most professors would prefer an alert by e-mail. There is no “better” way to communicate, but they are all different and people vary in their ability to use different means of communication. Don’t assume that a professor (or employer) is accustomed to the same ways in which you would e-mail, text, or phone a contemporary. A professor one told me the use of 🙂 was an “old joke.”


The average professor has hundreds of e-mails in his/her in-box. That’s because in-boxes double as to-do lists, filing cabinets, repositories of SPAM, journal responses, ethics applications, student questions from 2005, and legal evidence. This haphazard method of record-keeping means that in order to find anything, the professor has to run a “search”. In all likelihood, a professor won’t remember your name, so if he/she needs to find your e-mail with your class assignment or medical note attached, a relevant subject line is mandatory. A subject line that just says “hi”, “hey”, “stuff”, “urgent”, “ASAP”, “attention required”, etc. is in no way useful. Rather, it is unprofessional and annoying. Someone running an e-mail search will experience frustration in as little as 90 seconds if they can’t find what they’re looking for. And you don’t want profs reading your e-mails when they’re annoyed. Similarly, never write an email angry or drunk, and definitely not both.Social science professors are also highly literate and often pretentious; they will judge you for sentence structure, grammar, and spelling. Don’t underestimate the importance of writing a professional e-mail, no matter how simple the matter. I’m not joking. This means avoid text abbreviations, sarcasm (irony is rarely understood over e-mail), and spelling errors. Poorly written e-mails can be confused for SPAM and get deleted. And for heaven’s sake, spell the professor’s name correctly.


I rarely answer the phone any more. I usually let it go to voice-mail. I’m not unusual. If you leave a voice-mail message for a professor, speak clearly and deliberately, repeat your telephone number and full name at least twice, and briefly indicate the nature of your issue. Follow-up with an e-mail.

Texting and social media

Few standards exist governing the professional use of social media (and other post-2004 communications technology). Different departments have different norms, so this is something you have to find out for yourself. But when in doubt, stick with a professor’s e-mail, office phone, and visits during office hours. Other forms of communication might be considered too personal or inappropriate.