Academia gets quite a few questions from people in academia who want to communicate something to someone, but are just not sure how to say it. Often this is a student trying to tell something to a professor.

What advice can we offer for asking, answering, or moderating such questions?

A few potential issues:

  • In many cases the asker is simply nervous - perhaps they are intimidated by the idea of talking to a professor, or have bad news or a sensitive request and are worried about the reaction, or are anxious about their language skills, etc. They may be looking for reassurance rather than help with wording.

  • Sometimes newcomers to academia seem to think there are magic protocols to follow, and seem to be unaware that academics generally communicate just the same as everyone else. (To which we have JeffE's classic response: "Pretend as though he were human".)

  • Cultural factors may come into play. Etiquette, polite wording, etc, vary much more between cultures than inside/outside academia. An answer that's applicable in the US may not work at all in Japan, for instance; but maybe that distinction doesn't really have anything to do with academia.

  • Language issues may come into play. Perhaps the asker is not writing in their native language and is unsure whether they are clearly expressing themselves, or whether the tone of their wording is appropriate. Again, this might not really have anything to do with academia.

  • I don't understand what the question is here. Do you want suggestions, feedback, opinions about a proposal, or what? Commented Feb 25, 2017 at 1:47
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    @aparente001: "What advice can we offer for asking, answering, or moderating such questions?" If someone is considering asking / answering such a question, what should they include to make the question / answer as useful as possible? (Or should they not ask it at all?) Under what circumstances should such questions be closed? Feel free to make suggestions regarding any of these, and votes will hopefully indicate a community consensus. Commented Feb 25, 2017 at 1:54
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    For this type of question, I think usually the OP just needs to get unstuck, and some kind of response is extraordinarily helpful to them. Maybe if you described your motivation for the question, or wrote an answer containing your own view, I'd get a better idea what sorts of answers you're looking for? Commented Feb 25, 2017 at 2:16

2 Answers 2


This sounds to me like a good opportunity to create a community wiki question with a name like: "What should I do if I am feeling anxious about communicating with my professor?"

This would be a good one for marking all of the general "What are the magic words?" questions as duplicates.

Another large family of communication questions, however, are really not about the communication but about diagnosing and addressing problems in professional relationships. Those generally merit individual consideration and answers, and it would be important to not consider them as duplicates. After all, "Professors are human too" also covers quite a wide range of complicated problems.

Edit: I've now created a draft Q&A for this; please feel free to improve:

How should I phrase an important question that I need to ask a professor?


Most of these questions should be closed as off topic.

"How to write an email" kind of questions are not actually about academia, they are basically boat programming questions asking "how to communicate with other people?". These questions are additionally often very specific to a certain situation and unlikely to be helpful to other people. Valid questions would rather be more general and ask for example if and how communication is different in academia.

Academia.SE is also not an email writing service, we should not offer help with wording emails etc at all.

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