Wednesday, January 20, 2016

How to ask for stuff: email edition

I hate asking people for stuff. It feels so rude. Of course, there are times when I do really need help or resources, and often when I have to force myself to make such asks I'm more abrupt than I need to be, because panic and embarrassment and fear of "no."

So, one of the things I've been working on, professional-development-wise, since become Associate Chair for Graduate Studies is to be more gracious and professional around asking for things, and being gracious and professional about being asked for things. I have asked for resources, like funding for recruitment visits or a sessional stipend or extra administrative help. I have asked for time, like delegating a fact-finding task to committee members. And I have asked for changes to people's behavior, like instituting new processes for annual reports from graduate students or new paperwork around degree milestones. This stuff used to fill me with dread and panic and shame, but I've figured out the patterns and it's all so much easier now.

I am also myself asked for a lot of things, by senior administrators, by fellow faculty members, by current students, and by prospective students. I have to say my experience of being asked for things has run the full spectrum from awe at some people's suavity and professionalism (the kind where the ask is so good you feel like you owe the person a favor after you've just done them one) from shock and horror at others' rudeness, cluelessness, and entitlement (the kind where you need to walk away from the computer and march around campus for 20 minutes before calming down enough to answer).

I have some advice for junior askers.

How to ask for things from people who can give them to you

Audience, subject, purpose. You go a long way in successful communications by heeding the very same advice we give to first year students: study the writing situation to determine audience, subject, and purpose.

In request letters, obviously the purpose is to extract some favor or resource from a person in a position to grant that request. There is necessarily a power imbalance: the askee has the power of refusal to the asker's request. So the audience is someone with some sort of power to say yes or no to a request. Please know, and I can't stress this enough, that often the audience is also feeling awkward about being in this position of saying yes or no. It's just going to be awkward in that sense no matter what, but please know, as well, that it is a routine part of most jobs. No big deal, really. The subject, and we'll take example from my own domain, can range from "Can you top up my funding package to match a competing offer" to "Can you sign an override form for me to get in this class" to "Can you grant me a language credit for the language I speak at home" to "Can you change my teaching assignment" to "Can you grant me an extension."

The ideal request gives all necessary contextual information, is to the point, and is respectful. Since it's admissions season, I'll start with the example of negotiating entry scholarships.

Don't do this:

Hey Amy,
Awesome University really wants me to go there for my PhD, as my work in the meaning of shoelaces in important American postmodern writer Thomas Pynchon's minor works has already attracted the attention of the most senior members of that department.
Can you offer me any more money?
Bye! Junior Star

Please do this:

Dear Prof. Morrison, 
I was very happy to receive an offer from Waterloo! I have been fortunate enough to be accepted into several schools and am currently weighing my options. One factor I am considering is financial support. Awesome University has offered me an annual package of $30,000 for four years. I was wondering if Waterloo might be able to match this offer; your program is a very strong one and a good fit for my research, and I want to make sure that I have all the information I need to make the best choice for my doctoral studies. 
Thank you in advance for your consideration, and I look forward to hearing from you.
Best wishes,
Full Name

I'm only exaggerating a little. The first letter is bragaddocio and a lack of relevant detail coupled with an excess of irrelevant detail. The second letter is both confident and humble. The first letter evinces absolutely no regard for the recipient, while the second is subtly complimentary.

It's hard to write requests. Sometimes people don't like to just ask for things and so add in too much detail and this can come across as arrogant (you really think I don't know who Thomas Pynchon is? Do you think hearing a recitation of how awesome the other program is helps make my day any more productive?).

I myself make and receive a lot of requests around teaching assignments, and these can go spectacularly wrong as well.

Don't do this:

Since I am entering my fourth year of the PhD, it is very important that I have the most time possible in order to write my dissertation. It is very challenging to teach while doing original research, but since it is an unavoidable part of the funding, I realize I have to do it. I would like to only be assigned an online course, because it is the only way it will be possible for me to get any writing done. The dissertation is the whole point of the degree, and it is crucial that I manage my efforts. I would prefer an online course that only has essays and an exam, because managing discussions is very time-consuming. 

Do this:

Dear Prof. Morrison, 
I am sure you are beginning the work of assigning teaching to graduate students for next year. Since I know that most fourth year PhD students are assigned independent teaching, I am writing to ask, if it is at all possible, that I be assigned an online course to teach this year. I have truly enjoyed my experiences as an online TA, and I would like to expand my experiences in this area. 
I understand that the department must balance its teaching needs with the needs of graduate students, and I know it might not be possible to have my request accommodated--but I thought I would mention if, just in case. 
Thank you in advance for your consideration of this request. 
Best wishes,
Reasonable Person

The first request, note, is mansplain-y with a side of bitterness: I'm grad chair--do you think I need the purpose of the PhD explained to me? And if you want to be a professor, it's bad form to evince such a plain distaste for teaching. I read this kind of email and see a Terrible Future Colleague in the making. And again, since you're being paid, and I'm the person doing the hiring, probably better not to frame your request in terms of "I'm trying to do the least amount of work possible."

The second request, by contrast, asks for the very same preference to be accommodated, but does so politely and carefully. It flags its request as purely discretionary rather than as a demand. It is attuned to audience in that it recognizes that it's a lot more work to sift 140 grad students into teaching slots than it is for any 1 graduate student to demand a particular course to teach. It's not simpering or flattering. It is realistic and kind.

Any other type of request email generally splits along these same lines: me-first-and-do-it-now, versus, I-would-like-something-if-possible-thank-you.

While seniority is not directly correlated with grace in these situations, I feel that a lot of the mistakes that graduate students make in asking me (and I'm sure others) for things stem from a) the same kind of discomfort about asking for stuff that I myself feel (truly, I'm sympathetic to this) and b) an inadvertent inattention to genre stemming from unfamiliarity. Hence this post.

90% of the problems I see in request emails can be solved by remembering that the university is a workplace, and that the person you are addressing is a colleague you will work with for some time. Manage the relationship. Pay attention to the needs and constraints of the organization rather than restricting your view to your own desires or needs. Be a little more formal. There is a lot of room for give and take, for favors and accommodations in turn, but not if you burn all your bridges while standing on them. I feel sorry for many students who send me ill-formed requests: their distress and raw need are palpable and they seem really upset or aggrieved.

I do try to see past some of the errors of address, but it's a teaching moment I can't pass up here. Demonstrate an understanding of the constraints on the askee. Be polite and clear in making your request. Do not frame a justification for the request in terms of ME ME ME*. Provide all relevant context but nothing more.

Thank you in advance for your consideration of this advice,
Best wishes,

* medical accommodations are a whole other story. It is still best practice to be polite, but of course the request must be framed in terms of your needs. I receive those requests with open arms and will move heaven and earth for you.


  1. Thank you for this advice! I struggle with awkwardness and shame at having to ask for favors and I know that comes across in my phrasing and tone. This should help me do better in the future.

    1. Jodi, you are my target audience, then. I HATE asking for stuff. It took an administrative role for me to see that asking and receiving is structural and impersonal. Asking for stuff, it turns out, is part of my job and I am expected to be asking for stuff, even if half the time the answer I get is "no." And "no" is not the end of the world, it's just what happens sometimes when you ask for things that people cannot or will not give you. There's no cosmic ledger, it turns out, where your "asks" are tallied and counted against you when you're just asking for things than anyone else in your position could reasonably ask for. And if you're shy, I'll tell you: there's a lot more that you can reasonable ask for than you probably think. Hang in there. It gets easier.

  2. And then there's bad requests for admissions information. Here's one I got yesterday:


    I have an undergrad degree in Accountancy and a Minor in English. I graduated in 2005 - I have always wanted to study English. What do you suppose is a way to do a masters in English at the U of A.

    Thank you

    We have a website with complete information. I'm more tolerant when these come from international applicants, but this one did not. A little politeness, acknowledgement and some evidence of prior research on the topic goes a long way with me.

    1. Or when someone asks you to vet their application and give an admissions decision before they actually apply, because they don't want to pay the fee. And then sends you three more followup emails, flagged urgent.

    2. yeppers...been there too.

  3. I note, with great amusement, that in the first sample message the person spelled your name 'Amy'. Nice touch! Names matter.


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