I thought it would be useful to have a thread about professional correspondence, since this is something that a lot of people in the group chat have had questions about, especially those coming straight from undergrad. I'm currently finishing an MA and starting a PhD program this fall. I have some advice below (but keep in mind that I have no particular expertise other than my own experience). My advice is specifically for corresponding with academic philosophers and phil departments in the U.S.
General stylistic advice:
- The standard greeting is "Dear [Name]." (I am not sure why as this has always sounded informal to me, but it seems to be pretty universal.)
- If you're writing to a professor whom you do not know personally, use the title "Professor [Lastname]." DO NOT use "Ms./Mrs./Miss/Mr." (This should go without saying, but do not address female professors differently than male professors-- Luckily the title "Professor" is gender-neutral in English!) If and only if they tell you to call them by their first name, do so in subsequent correspondence.
- If you're writing to a staff member or current grad student (as opposed to a faculty member), I think it's okay to use their first name.
- If you are writing to a general department email with a question about a program, application status, etc., you can use the greeting "To whom it may concern."
- The standard signoff is "Best," or if you're feeling fancy, "All the best."
- Start the email with an introduction: "My name is [Firstname Lastname] and I'm a student at [X University]" or "I'm an applicant to [Y Program]." Then state the reason for your correspondence.
- Be clear about the reason for correspondence early on in the email (and, if possible, in the subject line). Avoid wishy-washy language like "I just wanted to ask..."
- Specify either early on in the email or in the subject line if the matter is time-sensitive or urgent.
- Err on the side of formality, but you don't need to be overly formal-- for instance, it's okay to use contractions. (Personally, I think calling someone "ma'am/sir" is overkill and in some contexts might even be taken as offensive-- Again, when in doubt, use "Professor," as this is their earned professional title.) Avoid exclamation points, as they can be read as immature or insufficiently serious.
- Err on the side of deference-- for instance, thank them for taking the time to read your email-- without sounding overtly like a kiss-ass.
- Don't be disingenuous-- for instance, don't say you're familiar with someone's work if you're not, and don't say a program is your first choice if it's not.
On contacting your own current profs/advisors (or TAs):
- Use the name or title that you would use with them in person. (Use first names for TAs, since they are not professors.)
- Be assertive (but obviously not aggressive) if you need help with something. It's their job to help you. Follow up if they don't respond in a reasonable amount of time (my rule of thumb is a week, but it depends on how urgent the matter is).
- Office hours are drop-in hours. You don't need to make an appointment. Just go talk to them.
- Asking for letters of rec: This is best to do in person, but that's not always an option. Make sure you have taken at least one class with them and have written a substantive term paper. Ask them specifically if they can write you a STRONG letter.
On contacting profs at other schools:
- If you're contacting them about their work, make sure you're not asking questions or making points that they have already addressed in the text you're referencing.
- Make sure your questions and points are clear and coherent.
- Again, err on the side of deference, but this doesn't mean you have to agree with them about everything.
- Don't send them an essay, literally or figuratively. Keep it concise. If you do want them to look at your work, ask first, and be respectful of them and their time.
On soliciting your app status:
- This is also something that came up a lot in the chat. Personally, I think it's definitely okay to solicit after about a week if acceptances, waitlists, and rejections have all gone out and you haven't heard anything. It's also okay if it's particularly late in the season and/or you need a decision ASAP in order to make decisions about other schools. Here's the template I used for such emails: "My name is [Firstname Lastname] and I'm a philosophy PhD applicant. I've heard from other applicants that some decisions have been released, and I'm hoping you can give me an update on my status or when I can expect to receive a decision. Thanks in advance for your time."
- Include your application number if you were assigned one-- Some schools do this, and that info would be found in your app portal. Including it in the email will help them find your app and keep your materials organized.
- If you're waitlisted at a program you really want to go to, keep in touch and reiterate your interest throughout the season, visit if that's an option, and BE IN TOUCH on the morning of April 15th.