My advisor has not been responding to my emails, and I do not want to be a bother. How should I balance between needing advice and not annoying my advisor?

--Silent Treatment

Dear Silent Treatment,

Finding the perfect balance between asking for the attention you need on your projects and not annoying your advisor in the process is a fine line to walk. My primary advice is to be patient. If your e-mail was not sent more than one week ago, give your advisor the time they need to respond. Balancing a number of various responsibilities (e.g., running a lab, teaching classes, performing administrative duties) can be difficult for even the most seasoned advisor.

If, on the other hand, the e-mail was sent more than one week ago, and you still have not heard back, do not be afraid to respond to your advisor to check in (using the previous e-mail as the base e-mail). By using the previous e-mail as the basis for your current e-mail will remind your advisor just how long it has been since you first e-mailed them (without explicitly stating that information in the e-mail). It is very important to maintain an even and patient tone in the new e-mail. For instance, you could say, “Hi Dr. Smith, I just wanted to check in on my project. I had a few questions that I would like to discuss with you. Please let me know if there is a time that might be good to chat about these questions sometime this week, or if you would prefer to answer the questions through e-mail. Please see the attached e-mail with my specific questions. I hope you have a great week.” This type of e-mail will give your advisor options on how they can address your questions. It will also show them that you are aware of how busy their schedule is, and that you are mostly concerned with making things convenient for them.

An alternative option to sending a second e-mail is to politely ask your advisor in person if they have had a chance to look over the e-mail you sent last week. This will either serve as a reminder to your advisor that they need to check the e-mail and respond to you, or it will remind them that they have answers to your questions already, and may give them an opportunity to go over their answers with you right there. It may also be a good opportunity to determine if the e-mail actually made it to your advisor’s inbox. It is surprising the number of important e-mails that do not seem to arrive at their intended locations, especially when your advisor is involved!

It is important to hold your advisor responsible for responding to your correspondence within a reasonable amount of time. Once they realize that you will not hold them accountable for weeks, or even months, they may make a habit out of putting your requests at the bottom of their to-do list. However, if you are consistent in your efforts to maintain communication with them, they will be more likely to respond within a reasonable amount of time. Most of the time, advisors do not mind a casual reminder about a project, and may even appreciate it, given their hectic schedules. Indeed, some may not even think about the project until they have received a reminder!

--René Paulson, PhD

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