Email contact with your dissertation supervisor

How to best approach your dissertation supervisor via email can vary by supervisor. For example, some supervisors are fine with being addressed by their first name, while others would prefer that you only use their title and surname.

We have developed a number of guidelines that will help you to come across as being as professional and serious as possible, regardless of the different preferences that your supervisor has concerning emails from students.

The style and tone of your message

Formal or informal?

Keep your emails to your supervisor formal. Always use your school email account (not your personal account), so that you come across professionally.

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Checklist: Formal email contact

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Addressing your supervisor

In your first email contact with your dissertation supervisor, it is wise to address him or her quite formally (such as “Dear Dr. X” or “Dear Prof. Y”). You do not know what your supervisor will be comfortable with, so it is best to play it safe.

If your initial contact is too informal, your supervisor may get the wrong impression and start to question your professionalism and attitude.

If your supervisor’s response to your email closes with only his or her first name (such as “Sincerely, Ken”), you can assume that it is okay to address him or her by first name in your next message. To be extra safe, you can also wait until you have received a few more messages where he or she has closed in this way.

Examples of salutations and closings

Formally Informal Never use
  • Dear Dr./Prof./Mr./Ms.,
  • Dear Sir/Madam,
  • Dear Ken/Tanja,
  • Hi Ken,
  • Hello Neil,
  • Sincerely,
  • Regards,
  • Cheers,
  • Greetings,

Email signature

It is generally not necessary to use an email signature when corresponding with your supervisor. However, if your program requires that you do so or if it is your personal preference, you can use the following model:

  • Name (first and surname)
  • Study
  • Educational institution
  • Phone number
  • Email address

Flawless writing

What is important in all cases is that your message is error-free. Make sure you use proper English (or whichever language is appropriate) and that you do not make any grammatical or spelling errors. Before you send a message to your supervisor, you are strongly advised to re-read the text carefully or even to have someone else read it, too.

A neat and accurate message shows your supervisor that you are both professional and serious about your project.

Keep it short and sweet

Dissertation supervisors are often busy people who are involved in many things at the same time. It is therefore important to be as clear and specific as possible in your messages, so they can quickly see what your problem is and then react.

Tips for writing clear and maintaining smooth contact

  • Make sure you stick to only things that are relevant to your dissertation. For example, do not share stories from your personal life with your supervisor (unless they are important with regard to your results).
  • Formulate your questions as clearly and concisely as possible, so that your supervisor understands what you want and can respond quickly.
  • Do not ask long or complicated questions in an email; saving these queries for times when you have more personal contact will make things easier for both of you. You will spare your supervisor the time that he or she would need to reply in writing. On your side, asking such questions face-to-face allows you to get more comprehensive answers and to ask follow-up questions if you do not understand something.
  • Give your supervisor enough time to respond. For example, don’t send questions the night before you have to submit something; do it a few days in advance instead.
  • Always respond as quickly as possible to messages from your supervisor (when relevant). This includes confirming any appointments your supervisor proposes, answering all of his or her questions, indicating things you don’t understand and providing any information that he or she requests.
  • The responsibility for writing the dissertation is yours. Instead of waiting for your supervisor to make contact, take the initiative to make an appointment. This is also better for your supervisor, because it shows him or her that you are serious about your project.

Confirming appointments via email

If you arrange something about an appointment with your supervisor verbally, it is smart to still confirm it via email. You then have something in writing to fall back on if any issues arise.

Similarly, it is also a good idea to summarize what you have agreed on, such as deadlines and matters relating to substantive issues. Ask your supervisor to check and confirm your notes, so that you are both 100% clear on where you stand.

See some sample emails

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No response from your supervisor?

Supervisors will generally always respond to your messages, but some are faster than others. If you do not get a reply, first think about whether there could be an obvious reason for the delay, such as that it is already late in the evening, it’s the weekend, or it’s a holiday.

Also note that not all supervisors are available five days a week. You can often find out what days your supervisor is available through your school. Before taking any action, consider how fast you need an answer. You don’t want to appear too impatient to your supervisor.

If you really cannot wait any longer or you haven’t heard anything from your supervisor in several days, send a polite reminder email. You can either briefly restate your question or refer to your previous message.

If you still do not get a response, try contacting your program or university. A department secretary can often connect you with your supervisor.

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Sarah Vinz

Sarah's academic background includes a Master of Arts in English, a Master of International Affairs degree, and a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science. She loves the challenge of finding the perfect formulation or wording and derives much satisfaction from helping students take their academic writing up a notch.