Send effective emails

Reading emails is too often perceived as a chore. Yet, sometimes you receive the perfect email—I don’t mean the one saying you won to the lottery and must send 50€ to receive your prize. You feel this email is effective and directly actionnable.

The main problem with emails is their daily amount (300 billions a day—really?!). You already know the reasons: either we use emails as a chat software, or we don’t understand the text, or we desperately try to find a free slot for a meeting, or we forget to attach the file, or… or … The list is long.

Before you send, stop!

An easy solution to many of these problems: wait before sending your email. Take some extra time to read it, correct the typos, check if you attached the files you promised, and see if something could be misunderstood. It feels too simple, but how many times did you click on the button without reading your email? Someone else will read it, you should make sure he/she will understand it, so start with yourself.

We optimise the wrong objective

We all have this feeling when opening the inbox: the objective is to process as many emails as possible in the shortest time. Unfortunately, that can easily lead to issues. What do you feel when you read the following thread?

You: I think we should meet to discuss my thesis. I have several questions.

Me: Good idea.

(sigh) this will be long…

You: Do you have any availabilities?

Me: Tomorrow morning?

You: Sorry I have classes.

Me: Could you suggest some time slots?

…(5 more emails)…

You: Great thanks for making the time.

Me: No worries! Happy to help. By the way, what are the questions?

You: It is about model Y and Z.

Me: Mmmh. We’ll need John to be there during the meeting. He developed them. @John: are you available?

John: Sorry! No.

This can easily take some time. We have maximised our objective—the amount of emails processed—but it is the wrong one.

Minimise the overall number

In his book Deep Work (and also in this blog post), Cal Newport, change the objective: instead of maximising the number of processed emails, you should minimise the number of emails needed to achieve your goal. Believe it or not, every email you send has a goal. Identify it upfront and find out how you could minimise the exchange of emails. Remember: you have no control on the receiving end so make it robust.

For example, here are advices when you want to plan a meeting for discussing a question. First, check if the other person is holding office hours—some time slots where he/she guarantees to be present and available. This is perhaps the easiest way to get a rapid answer to your question. If that’s not possible, second, make sure you give three available slots for you and use automatic scheduling system to help you. I like but there are many other options. It should be easy for you and the receiver. Once a choice is made, no other action should be needed. Third, make sure to include your questions.

Final thoughts

Keep your message short. Keep removing content until it affects your objective.

Always specify a deadline. If you don’t give a deadline, you might as well be forgotten. It might feel uncomfortable so include the explanation for your deadline and an opening for negotiating it. Don’t forget, minimise the number of emails, it shouldn’t be a long discussion to find the right deadline.

If you are asking for a decision. Include all the information you find necessary, not more. Also make the effort to indicate what you think should be the decision from your perspective. You should aim at a decision in one reply.

Take enough time for each of your email. The return on investment is big!

Working within my group for your MSc thesis

You start your MSc thesis in my group, lucky you, me and my group! I hope every thesis is a win-win situation where the supervising staff (the researchers in my group and me) learn from the student as much as the student learns from us. To create such situation, I think the best way is to have a good organisation. Here are how we will work. These advices comes together with my other post on the 9 laws towards a successful MSc thesis.

Most if not all MSc thesis will be performed within the current research topics of my group. Of course, we sometimes want to explore new ideas and some theses will be on the fringe of these topics. Nonetheless, every student will have a mentor—a PhD student supporting them. This will be their first contact person to help them and will ensure a quick feedback.

In practice, I want regular meetings organised between the students and their mentor. Once every week (at least), the students should send an update and organise a meeting with their mentor. Similarly to being agile in projects, these meetings should help moving things forward throughout the year. Once every month, the student will also organise a professional meeting including me. The purpose there is to train you on three things: prepare such a meeting with an agenda, present your latest findings, and write documents. The last two are particularly important as you will have to defend your thesis and write a manuscript. Starting early with both is key to success.

I understand your learning programme won’t allow you to have the same intensity all the time. You might also be abroad with many courses to attend. But I insist, the best thing for you is to work on your thesis regularly and during the full year. We see a strong difference in maturity and quality when the student works earlier on the thesis. Moreover, the supervising staff has much more opportunities to give feedback. We are frustrated not to give you more inputs when everyone sends something at the end of the academic year. You will be frustrated too and your score will definitely be affected.

Fat outline: put some meat on the backbone of your research

You want to convey your next idea to the world—or your supervisor—but you are lost on the most effective way. Very often, you would fall back to sending a rough table of content—the backbone of your research. Unfortunately, this backbone does not completely convey the motivation of the research, the logic you follow, and is very hard to get direct feedback on. There is an alternative: adding meat on the backbone and producing a fat outline.

Suggested by Josh Bernoff, the fat outline is like the ongoing draft of your paper. It contains (of course) how you will organise the content but also pieces of the actual text, doodles of the graphs you expect to get, keywords, and basically anything you want—or should receive—feedback on. It forces you to think hard on how you motivate your work. You can then more easily convey this motivation to others. And others can also tell you where you are going wrong.

Use the fat outline as the platform to quickly iterate your ideas in the early phase of your paper. You’ll hit two birds with one stone: you check your idea at minimal cost, and you already build momentum towards your next paper.

Passive voice in scientific writing: angel or devil?

For years, we were told that in scientific writing we needed to use passive voice to sound formal, neutral and serious. More recently, the contrary philosophy bursted in: suddenly, passive voice had to be by all means avoided as it forces hiding the agent of the sentence and creates confusion. This paradigm shift left many of us in the doubt… is using passive voice in formal, scientific writing right or wrong?

Continue reading “Passive voice in scientific writing: angel or devil?”

Is your supervisor your best opponent?

One of my favourite time of the day, aside from having quality time with my family, is when I discuss (read argue) with the PhD students I advise or train.
I am a big fan of feedback, as I believe this is the only way we can learn (aka deliberate practice). So I enjoy being challenged by the researchers as much as I like to challenge them.

This post includes a simple technique to challenge your advisor, it then explains why it is important to do so, and it finishes with how you can apply it to yourself. Continue reading “Is your supervisor your best opponent?”

Effective template to write your answer to reviewers

You have just received the reviews for your article. After a long wait, this is the most painful step. The main issue is that reviewers and authors don’t speak the same language. To speed up and ease this process, authors should address the comments so that reviewers can easily assess how their feedback has been tackled. What is then the most effective way of writing your rebuttal?

Continue reading “Effective template to write your answer to reviewers”

You want to write articles that get accepted? Do reviews.

At the end of my PhD, I started receiving invitation to review articles. At that moment, I felt honoured as if I had received the membership card of a very selective club.
Later, as a postdoc and professor, the number of invitations increased while my time available for such type of tasks decreased. However, I noticed something interesting that I wanted to test with my students.

Continue reading “You want to write articles that get accepted? Do reviews.”

The authorship manifesto

Getting your name on an article is becoming more and more important in the “publish or perish” era. Although I believe writing papers is an excellent objective for doing research, deciding who should be on the paper can become tricky in some cases.

Here is the result of an intense discussion during the team building (with ATM, FLOW and BURN research groups) in 2017. You can directly jump to the summary table at the end if you are in a hurry.

Continue reading “The authorship manifesto”

The evolutionary brainstorming: do it as your brain was wired to do it

  1. You have probably been in many brainstorming meetings where you encountered one of the two following scenarios:
  2. “Dear colleagues, what are your ideas on this project…”, followed by a long silence, as if there was a brainstorming switch to turn on;
  3. You suggest an idea and immediately someone is saying: “No, this is not possible, it’s not a very good idea!”.

These two scenarios gather the two main pitfalls of effective brainstormings: priming and judging. Continue reading “The evolutionary brainstorming: do it as your brain was wired to do it”

Does your article address these important issues?

I often need to review articles and give feedback on them. I find my feedback is most efficient when I can focus on the content (results, figures, etc) and the flow of the article. These aspects of the article are what interest the first author most, even if he or she is also happy to get a review of the typos or other secondary problems. Yet, more often than not, many of my comments are about things that can be more or less automatised. This post is a checklist for the common problems I encounter. Continue reading “Does your article address these important issues?”

Are you lost after the submission of your manuscript?

After submitting your manuscript, the hard wait for the review starts. You could think that everything is handled perfectly on a first-in-first-out basis. But this is unfortunately not the case. It is not an easy job to be an editor, it takes a lot of effort, time investment and organisation. So you have to do everything to facilitate their work and this requires some follow-up from your side. Here are the most important steps. Continue reading “Are you lost after the submission of your manuscript?”