Dynamic Ecology

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.