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.

Ready to try Agile for research?
Join our upcoming study

A PhD (or any research project) can feel at times as long and tiring as running a marathon. Yet, as we explained in this post, there are techniques you can use to alleviate the pain and turn your project into a series of dynamic sprints.

Laura Pirro, PhD candidate at Ghent University, realised the potential that Agile project management could have in academia. Agile has revolutionised the software-development sector and it is now used in many other areas (from manufacturing industry to the FBI). Why not using Agile for academic research too? In many aspects, academia is different than industry but Agile philosophy can still be applicable. Laura has worked on adapting Agile to research: you can find the details of the methodology she proposes in this post that she wrote for Nature Careers.

Agile for research has already proven success in Joris Thybaut’s research group at Ghent University (where Laura is pursuing her PhD). We are now looking for enthusiastic researchers and professors who would be happy to test Agile for research during a few months and let us know their results.

How could Agile for research work for you?

If you are a student

As a student, you probably understand that your advisors/supervisors are incredibly busy people with tight timetables. Still, you work hard on your project, and you often need advice on how to proceed with your research. However, setting up a meeting with your supervisor whenever you encounter an issue may feel like a struggle: it sometimes takes so long that by the time you get to meet her/him, you have already figured a way around the problem (although sometimes it might not be the ‘right’ path, so you need to go back and redo some stuff).

Agile for research will allow you to have continuous feedback on your activities in an effective way both for you and your supervisor. First, it will ‘force’ you to organise sprint planning meetings with all the stakeholders involved in your project: supervisor, postdoc, industrial partner. master student… in order to get everyone to agree on the goal and the duration fo the sprint. Thereafter, you will have short (15min) scrums every week with your supervisor so as to answer three questions: what was done the previous week to contribute to the goal? What will be done next week to contribute to the goal? And, are there any impediments? Finally, once the sprint is finished, you will meet again all the stakeholders for the sprint review, retrospective and planning.

If you are a professor/supervisor/student advisor

Following the work of students can be incredibly time consuming and difficult to fit in in your timetable. Furthermore, it is frustrating to dedicate time to students who (sometimes) still seem lost and have an unclear idea of what exactly they should do in their project. These tasks get even harder as the number of supervised students increases.

Agile for research will allow you to structure the way you communicate with your students. In a collaborative effort, the project is divided into layers of activities with an estimated duration of 2-12 weeks. In the sprint planning meeting, the specific goal and duration of the activity is decided with all the stakeholders (student, industrial partner, postdoc, etc.). Thereafter, you will follow the work of your students with short weekly scrums of only 15 minutes. Finally, in the sprint review, retrospective and planning all the stakeholders come back together to remove impediments, adapt to changes and plan the next sprint.

Does this sound appealing? Get in touch with us!

If you believe that Agile for research might be interesting for you, please get in touch with us or with Laura Pirro! We are conducting a study to see how this methodology fits in academia and we would be happy to solve any questions and provide additional information. We look forward to hearing from you!

Anthropomorphism or the art
of humanising nonhuman subjects

Academic writing should be clear and objective. In the pursue of objectivity, some believe that by using the first person and introducing ‘I’ or ‘we’ in their text, the outcome will not sound as rigorous or formal. But attempting to avoid the first person may confuse readers, leaving them wondering ‘who does what?’ as we discussed in our article about the passive voice. Focusing on objectivity may also lead to anthropomorphism.

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of humanising nonhuman subjects”

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?

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Succeeding at your scholarship interview:
Advice from Prof. Alessandro Parente

We had the pleasure of interviewing Alessandro Parente, Professor at the Aero-Thermo-Mechanical Department of the Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB) and frequent member of juries for the FRIA and FNRS fellowships. He talked with us about his experience as a jury member and he gave us some precious tips for students preparing for this type of scholarships.

Continue reading “Succeeding at your scholarship interview:
Advice from Prof. Alessandro Parente”