Welcome to College Confidential!

The leading college-bound community on the web

Sign Up For Free

Join for FREE, and start talking with other members, weighing in on community discussions, and more.

Also, by registering and logging in you'll see fewer ads and pesky welcome messages (like this one!)

As a CC member, you can:

  • Reply to threads, and start your own.
  • Post reviews of your campus visits.
  • Find hundreds of pages of informative articles.
  • Search from over 3 million scholarships.
Please take a moment to read our updated TOS, Privacy Policy, and Forum Rules.

Why won't professors respond to my e-mails?

warbrainwarbrain Registered User Posts: 665 Member
edited December 2010 in Parents Forum
I thought I would ask this question here, since the parents on this forum seem really helpful.

I currently go to a top-25 school that uses its undergraduate research program as one of the major selling points of the university. I tried looking around, but there are no listings for math projects (I'm a math major), and everyone I talk to, including the secretaries in the math department and my adviser told me to e-mail professors directly instead of waiting for a project, and even gave a few recommendations of who to e-mail.

The problem is that no one seems to be responding to my e-mails, and I don't know why. I tried looking around on the internet for reasons why professors normally don't respond to e-mails, but none of the explanations seem to apply to me. I have a descriptive subject line, I use correct grammar, punctuation, spelling, capitalization, etc., I start off with "Dear Professor X," I try to keep everything short and to the point. But still, no one replies, and I don't know what to do. I also send messages again to check if they received it if they don't respond after about a week too. I'm starting to get really worried - I'm not sure if I'm disliked among the math department, or how to deal with these professors when I have to take their classes, or how I will get into grad school if I'm not even able to do research. I'm at the point where I'm thinking about changing majors, which would suck since I love math a lot and really want to become a professor. But I don't want to have to take these classes if I know that I'm not going to be able to do math once I graduate.
Post edited by warbrain on

Replies to: Why won't professors respond to my e-mails?

  • MarianMarian Registered User Posts: 12,548 Senior Member
    The math department probably has a faculty member who is in charge of the undergraduate program -- a "director of undergraduate studies" or something like that. I suggest going to the department office and making an appointment with this person. Bring a few samples of your e-mails in case you get an appointment immediately.

    When you speak to this person, you can express your interest in doing research and you can ask whether there are research opportunities available, whether you should be attempting to find out about them in a different way, whether you should be putting different information in your e-mails, and how long you should expect to wait before receiving replies to your e-mails. It's part of this person's job to answer questions of this sort.
  • SmithieandProudSmithieandProud Registered User Posts: 3,038 Senior Member
    Professors are very busy people. They get a lot of emails from a lot of students, they serve on committees, they grade papers, and they do their own research. I'm not saying this is an excuse for ignoring emails, but it's just the reality. They probably have 100s of emails from students who need help with their math assignments for the next class, and they probably give those priority over your emails about research projects that may or may not currently be underway, or may or may not be of interest to them.

    If they haven't responded to your emails, the best thing to do is to find out when their office hours are and go and see them in person. Tell them you're looking for an opportunity to do math research in x, y, and z area, adn you weren't sure if there were any projects going on currently so X professor suggested you talk to them. If you're interested in doing your own research that they monitor or mentor, come prepared to discuss your topic of interest. It's also a good idea to read up on what the university's research guidelines are. Depending on what year you are, you may be restricted from some research opportunities. Find out what the opportunities and rules are surrounding special studies or independent research projects as well. This can be a great way to conduct your own research with the guidance of a professor. It can sometimes lead to presenting at conferences, which can go on your resume.
  • duncanidahoduncanidaho Registered User Posts: 132 Junior Member
    I can think of several possiblities

    1) They aren't receiving them (do you send it "receipt confirmation" or "receipt when read")
    2) They thinks it spam and discarded it or didn't take time to read it .
    3) No idea of how to help you
    4) No idea who you are and why you are emailing them -- you don't have a goofy email name instead of something simple and professional like your name?

    5) Don't think it's an appropriate method to communicate such information and would prefer face to face during office hours?
    6) Lazy and don't care
    7) Worst case -- they know who you are and are avoiding you.

    8) Could be they are responding and some problem on your end is sending the return mail to the spam/trash can.

    Go talk to the professors face to face.
  • mathmommathmom Registered User Posts: 29,697 Senior Member
    I concur with others. Try going to office hours. Math strikes me as a subject where undergraduate research would be difficult - do you really know enough to be helpful?
  • starbrightstarbright Registered User Posts: 4,660 Senior Member
    I'm a professor. I try to answer all my emails but I really get swamped. I have a ton of priorities going on so l get normally over 200 emails PER DAY. That is not an exaggeration. I try to respond, but priority goes to current students, my coauthors, my dean, the chairs of committees on which I sit.

    I might get requests for help from someone who is not my student. I might not respond for these reasons (on top of being swamped and not being able to answer every request):

    1. The student is a freshman and I may not have any existing projects they can take on that matches their skill level. It would require more work on my part than they can ever possibly give back.

    2. The email reads like it was sent to 20 people. It's generic. Like spam. Someone else can answer it. So do your homework, be genuine, and be selective. If you can't be bothered to do your homework, and convey that you actually know of my research and see a good fit, and convey that fit, why should I bother? (I'm not saying you do this I'm just saying how it comes across when one gets such emails).

    3. The student wants something from me, but does not in any way suggest why I should want them to join my work. Perspective take-- you are 'selling yourself' in a sense so rather than focus on why it's good for you, try to convey why they should want to respond or meet you.

    4. Work on impressing your profs. first and building a relationship with them THEN look to work with them. We SEEK OUT the amazing students- those that have something to say (even in large lectures), that come to talk ideas with us, that go beyond the course material, that involve themselves in the department. We want those that show true intellectual curiosity, motivation, and a love of learning, not those that read on the internet they are supposed to do research if they want to go to grad school.

    5. Stop emailing. We are drowning in email. We can't even respond to important emails from colleagues half the time. Show up at office hours, or ask the admin when they are usually around and camp at their door if you have to. Or try a quieter time: fall when classes are in session is a crazy-busy time.
  • idahomomidahomom Registered User Posts: 240 Junior Member
    How long ago did you email? From mid-November to the end of the semester faculty are extremely busy. You should send another email right before the spring semester starts-- you will be more likely to get an answer then. Or go by faculty offices right before next semester starts-- professors would have time to talk to you then
  • ADadADad Registered User Posts: 4,920 Senior Member
    I probably would not respond to such an email if I did not know you. How could I determine whether you have the ability to be helpful? How could I be assured by an email that you would be reliable and otherwise good to work with?

    I suggest going to office hours as well. I also suggest that you have a plan for making a strongly positive impression. Are you doing really well in a math class now? Try that professor.

    Read starbright's post carefully.
  • lookingforwardlookingforward Registered User Posts: 24,860 Senior Member
    I agree^. Email is too easy. And, impersonal. The prof's reaction may include: if this kid is truly interested, he/she will show up for a face-to-face. Or, at the very least, pick up a phone and ask when we can meet.
  • morrismmmorrismm Registered User Posts: 3,499 Senior Member
    Make an appointment to see him/her. Or go when they have office hours. Many folk, older than you , do not communicate via email or text.
  • spdfspdf Registered User Posts: 955 Member
    One thing I would add to starbright's post is that you should look up some of each professor's published works before you contact them. Normally a university will have a bio page under the math department faculty listing that tells you what sort of work the professor does, along with some of their recent publications. Make sure you have both a clue and genuine interest in that area before you ask to be included in it. Look first at professors whose classes you have taken and done well in. And an in-person visit is always better than a cold-call e-mail.

    When I was a grad student in chemistry my advisor got a lot of undergraduate research requests. He often accepted them and then assigned some unfortunate grad student (me) to play mother hen. Of all the undergrads I worked with, only one actually contributed anything positive to the lab -- the rest were a drain on time and resources. This is what most professors expect when they get an undergraduate research request, especially via e-mail from someone they never heard of. If you can provide a reason to make them think you will be different, that will help your case.
  • motherbear332motherbear332 Registered User Posts: 788 Member
    OP, you seem to be taking this very personally. Don't. If you later find yourself in a class taught by one of the profs who didn't respond to your emails, don't worry about this being an awkward situation--they won't even remember that you ever contacted them.

    Instead of looking for someone to hand you a research project, any research project, explore your field by taking classes until you find one that you really love and do exceptionally well in and go talk to that prof with some of your own ideas.

    You've gotten many excellent replies on this thread. I'm also a prof and starbright and spdf in particular are spot on.
  • sorghumsorghum Registered User Posts: 3,311 Senior Member
    Math professors ... poor communication skills ... surprised?
  • OlymomOlymom Registered User Posts: 1,689 Senior Member
    Some folks, by nature, look far down the road. Others concentrate on the very near future. If you are a freshman and you are researching what might be a senior project, then you are clearly in the first group.

    I have one friend who loves to explore all the options. She is a bright, creative person -- but she can burn up a ton of time as she explores even something simple -- like where to go to lunch. All possible restaurants will be listed. The merits of Indian curry will be dissected and compared and contrasted with Ethopian foods , etc. It is through but exhausting to be around her (on some days).

    So, if you are the sort that loves, loves, loves to explore many possible paths in detail, you may be advertising yourself as "a complete time sink." A professor might be concerned that if she/he responds, then you will be camping on the doorstep every day for the next three years.

    The solution might be to take some senior math students to coffee (you buy). You can tap into their expertise and experience and have some fun exploring paths with them. They may enjoy sharing their expertise and have (some) time to indulge in your brainstorming. Then you can move from there to contacting a single professor who you have identified as being most suited for the next phase of developing your project.
  • sunnyfloridasunnyflorida Registered User Posts: 4,790 Senior Member
    Math professors ... poor communication skills ... surprised?
    Well that seems uncalled for.
  • JHSJHS Registered User Posts: 17,054 Senior Member
    Check this out, too:

    nsf.gov - Funding - Research Experiences for Undergraduates - US National Science Foundation (NSF)

    Check especially to see whether anything is being funded at your university.
This discussion has been closed.