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How Scientific Researchers Can Write Effective Emails

Posted in: Soft Skills and Tools
An image of lab furniture to depict how not to wreck your autoclave.

Have you ever found yourself wondering why your emails don’t get quite the response you expect? Or no response at all? It is very easy to overlook the importance of constructing clear and concise emails that deliver the right message. In this article, we’ll cover key aspects of emails for your purposes as a scientist.

Is Email the Right Communication Tool to Use?

Email is one of the most popular communication tools for a reason. It’s fast, flexible, and creates a permanent written record of topics that can be challenging or complicated to convey in person. With that said, there are certainly many instances where email just won’t do the trick. In-person or verbal communication is better when you are trying to convey emotion and feelings, when there is time urgency, or when you need immediate feedback. Chatting with a supervisor or colleague one-on-one creates informal connections and provides a personal touch that can’t be replicated with online communication. Furthermore, email is certainly not appropriate for delicate conversations, such as when:

  • You are communicating an extremely important or strictly confidential message
  • You need to communicate bad news, complaints, or criticism (resolving conflict)
  • Your message is long enough to fill more than one page of text
  • You need to communicate about an extremely personal or emotional issue

Email is great to provide status updates, to obtain or provide direction, or to share detailed information or data.

Subject Lines and Emailing Times

Let’s say you’ve decided that your message is appropriate for an email – now what?

Start out by creating a subject with the one-line summary of what your email includes. Your subject should be descriptive but not more than 5-6 words. One-word subjects (“question?”, “pictures”, “thanks”) aren’t very effective and make it hard for recipients to look back and find your email. It’s also standard protocol to capitalize each word (unless the word is an article like ‘the’ or ‘a’).

Avoid including alarming remarks and words in all caps (e.g., “PLEASE RESPOND ASAP”) unless the matter truly is of the utmost urgency. Doing so for less-than-emergency matters is very unprofessional and will result in people not taking you seriously.

Is there a good time of the day to send email? While one of the biggest advantages of using email is that it is flexible and can be written/read at any time, experts suggest sending important emails during the mid-morning since that is when most people are focusing at their best. It also shows that you have good work-life balance and have healthy boundaries at work.

Professional Etiquette

How do you decide what tone to take and the structure of an email in a professional setting?

First, consider your audience. Ensure that they are addressed appropriately. While it may be tempting to always address someone using their formal title (such as Dr. Johnson), if you are on regular speaking terms with them it may be better to use their first name. Generally speaking, you may address someone using their first name if they introduce themselves using it or if they call themselves by their first name when speaking or emailing you.

Next, ask yourself: What does your recipient already know or not know about the context of your communication? If you’re not sure how much your recipient already knows, it can be very helpful to start your email with a review of previous information. For instance, if you are updating your PI on some recent data you’ve obtained, you can start an email with something along the lines of:

  • “As we discussed last week, I recently performed an experiment testing…”

The Importance of Keeping it Short and Simple

The most common email trap scientists fall into is writing long, verbose emails for the sake of ensuring the message is as detailed as possible. The problem with this is that the overall message easily gets lost in the details, not to mention that a long body of email text easily overwhelms a recipient.

It is much better to write a short email with links or attachments that contain more details. Not only does this practice shorten your message and create better clarity, but it creates ‘eye-catchers’- things like hyperlinks, bold font for critical concepts/questions, and attachments that have more information. Consider the following two email examples. Which is easier and more interesting to read?

  • Hello labmates! I’ve identified a great option for our group to volunteer by preparing a meal at the Ronald McDonald House for families of patients at the local hospital. If you’re interested, please let me know by next Friday so I can coordinate with this great organization!
  • Hello labmates! I’ve identified a great option for our group to volunteer by preparing a meal at the Ronald McDonald House for families of patients at the local hospital. If you’re interested, please let me know by next Friday so I can coordinate with this great organization!

If you are looking to assign a task or create an ‘action item’, put this toward the end of the email and request a response. If there are multiple recipients, be clear on who is responsible for what and include target delivery dates. An example might look like this:

  • “John, can you analyze the RFP sample by Tuesday and give it to Liz so she can use it on Thursday?”

Double Checking Your Message

Finally, if you’re writing a particularly important email that isn’t time sensitive, consider re-reading it before sending. Even better, read it again after a day and see if the message still makes sense or have a colleague check to see that your message is clear.

When do you find email to be most effective? Tell us in the comments below!

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