One way to make academia less anxiety-inducing: Be specific in your emails!

A few years ago, I asked a senior colleague for feedback on something I’d written. He agreed, and a couple of days later, sent an email saying “Is there a good time to discuss this?” I immediately thought it must mean he’d really hated what I’d written. I replied, suggesting a few times in the next couple of days. In his reply, he choose the latest of those times, saying he needed more time to mull it over. That confirmed my worst fears – it was so bad he needed extra time to figure out how to tell me how bad it was! After spending some time getting no other work done because I was so distracted, I decided to write to say that, based on his emails, I was worried that there was a major problem with what I’d written. He replied immediately saying not to worry, that it read very well, and that he just had a few ideas that he thought would be easier to discuss in person.

I was thinking of this situation again recently when I was emailing a student in my lab. She’d emailed about a proposal she’s working on, laying out two different options for a fellowship proposal she’s working on. My thinking, when reading the ideas, was that both of them could work, but that there might also be other options, and that it would probably be best to discuss all the options in person. Looking at my schedule and comparing with hers, I could see that we wouldn’t be able to meet until the end of the week. So, I initially wrote a reply that said, “Can we meet Friday at 11 to chat about this?” In the brief pause before hitting send, I realized that, if I were in her shoes, I would spend the rest of the week trying to interpret what that email had meant, most likely assuming it meant something bad. I then realized that could be easily addressed by instead saying something like, “Both of these ideas look good to me, but there might be other options worth considering, too. Are you free to meet Friday at 11 to discuss the options more?”

After writing about being a scientist who deals with anxiety, one question I’ve been asked repeatedly is what faculty can do to make their labs friendlier to students with mental health issues. I’m generally unsure of how to respond to this – so much depends on each particular situation. But avoiding unnecessary vagueness in emails is one pretty straightforward, simple thing that people can do to make academia friendlier to everyone, but perhaps especially to those with underlying anxiety issues.

I tweeted about this last week, and it was clear from the response that I’m not alone in finding the vague “Let’s chat” or “Come see me” emails (or notes) very anxiety-inducing. So, please, take a little more time to explain what you want to talk about and, if it’s not something major, indicate that. Another advantage of giving the person a heads up about what you want to discuss is that it allows them to arrive more prepared for the discussion.

Similarly, another thing that can help reduce some of the unnecessary uncertainty that occurs in academia is to be specific about when you’ll get feedback to folks. Especially earlier in my career, when I was waiting on feedback from a mentor or collaborator, it would be easy to obsessively check my email to see if anything had arrived. So, when possible, I try to be specific about when I’ll get someone feedback – usually I block off time on my calendar for it, and so I can let the person know that (e.g., “I think I’ll have time to work on this Monday morning.”) If things change, I can send a quick email letting them know something came up, and giving a new estimate.

Neither of these things, on their own, will address the problem of mental health issues being on the rise on academia. But they will make things a little friendlier for academics who struggle with anxiety – and for those who do not.

8 thoughts on “One way to make academia less anxiety-inducing: Be specific in your emails!

  1. One thing that can help is not writing anything negative in emails to students or collaborators. When we speak in person to eachother, 90+ percent of that communication is non-verbal, so by putting something negative in an email, you are effectively removing 90 percent of the information (making the email vague even when it is quite specific). Having an email to stew over, and re-read is really anxiety inducing. At least for me, I’m likely going to read into an email something 10 times worse than what the writer really meant to communicate. When I can read someones body language and tone of voice, everything becomes a lot clearer as to what they mean. In addtion, criticism and conflict resolution work best when there is a back and forth where we can reach a mutual understanding. I think this comment extends beyond academia into our daily lives … we’ve gotten a bit too comfortable with using email (perhaps because it is convenient, or perhaps because we don’t have to see the other person’s reaction). Of course this advice doesn’t really apply to situations that have escalated to the point that you think you need a paper trail to protect yourself.

  2. Without wanting to criticize the idea in the post (it’s a good idea!), I found myself thinking about other ways to create conditions under which, as a faculty member, your day-to-day interactions with your students or other trainees/mentees aren’t accidentally anxiety inducing. For instance, I meet with my grad students weekly, one-on-one. I make clear in our first meeting that the purpose of these weekly meetings is just for us to stay in touch with each other and talk about whatever needs talking about (as opposed to being a time for me ask “So, have you accomplished anything this week?!”) And I make clear that I’ll always tell them explicitly if I’m annoyed with them. I do this in part because I don’t want students getting needlessly anxious due to misinterpreting “signals” they perceive me to be sending. That first meeting is me saying “I’m not going to send you signals–if I don’t like something you’re doing, I’ll always tell you explicitly.” Given this context, my hope would be that if I just replied very briefly to a student’s email with “Let’s talk about this in our weekly meeting”, that that wouldn’t cause any anxiety. Because hopefully the student knows, based on that initial meeting and on his or her subsequent experience of our weekly meetings, that by “let’s talk about this in our weekly meeting”, I mean “let’s talk about this in our weekly meeting.” Not “I am secretly mad at you”.

    Again, not trying to play down the value of Meg’s very good suggestion, which in any case isn’t mutually exclusive with trying to head off misunderstandings up front. Just asking about other strategies Meg and others have for keeping students and other trainees from getting needlessly anxious.

    • The Mentoring Plan that was discussed in a recent post should go a long way towards easing anxiety, especially for new students. Knowing what to expect and when is such a relief and reduces the list of unknowns for students (and employees for that matter).

      One of the qualities I appreciated most in my mentor was the fact that he was really honest about my performance- I never had to guess which did help reduce anxiety.

      • Yes, I think being upfront to indicate that you will give negative feedback if appropriate is helpful, though I suspect how helpful will depend on both the student (and maybe also on how often they get such feedback.) I have had similar meetings with folks in my lab (mainly because of a concern about something else going on in the department) to make it clear to them that, if I have a concern about something they are doing, I will make that clear to them. But I think there still can be a fair amount of anxiety for some students, even if their advisor has indicated they will be upfront about concerns.

        I also agree with Ken that mentoring plans are another way to easing anxiety (by reducing uncertainty). It provides a framework for having those discussions about how things are going.

      • @Meg:

        yes, I’m sure there’s a limit to how much any formal evaluation procedure (mentoring plans or whatever) can reduce anxiety. For instance, a student who knows they’re about to be evaluated might well be anxious about that, even though they know it’s coming, the evaluation criteria are clear and agreed in advance, etc. Which at some level is both inevitable and perhaps sometimes even a good thing. I don’t think your goal as a mentor should be “make sure none of your mentees ever experiences any anxiety about anything” (and I don’t think anyone would suggest that it should be the goal). I think you want to prevent needless anxiety, in contrast to, say, inevitable and normal anxiety about one’s upcoming comprehensive exam.

  3. Pingback: Recommended reads #96 | Small Pond Science

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