As I am waiting in Prague airport for my flight back home, after a few days spent discussing the options of the SWGO collaboration for the detectors we are going to build, I came across (through compulsive scrolling on twitter) a thread that caught my attention. It was about emails to academics on PhD openings. Since I found the discussion there a bit too forgiving on the academics, I wish to express my position here - possibly in a less toxic environment.
The original posting of the person initiating the thread was meant as a warning to prospective PhD student, explaining how busy and overloaded academics are, advising strategies on how to catch their attention, and suggesting to avoid being annoyed if they were getting no answer. I think all of that makes sense, and yet I felt a bit uneasy as I read that Profsplanation, as the underlying message seemed to be "this is how it works, don't expect anything better". I disagree to that.

Academics, the thread explained, are heavily overloaded, so you cannot expect them to answer to every email they receive, and you should not be offended by that. Well, I am an academic, I teach different topics at a Master and at a PhD course, do exams, attend faculty meetings, do research of my own (I still write code at the age of 57), write grant applications, attend to conferences, present seminars, write articles, review articles, review funding applications, manage journals, supervise students (I never turned down one). Additionally, I am the president of a 24,000 member organization, and the coordinator of a 25-institute collaboration. And I find the time to blog about the whole thing. With all of that, I never omit answering a query from a student. Am I an alien? No, I am not. It is a question of priorities.

People who find it is a good excuse to say they are overloaded when they are found not answering emails are disingenuous. Bad time management, I call that! And to be more specific, bad time management AND low moral standards. Students are the main resource for the future of research, and we should give them more attention, both when they are already in the system, AND when they are trying to enter it. Because face it, if we treat them like s**t, we are not paying a good service to the system.

"Oh, but you don't get the same amount of messages I get". Well, here is my mailbox today. And I recently purged it heavily, because I am navigating at 14.9 Gigabytes of total memory usage with Google, but I am too cheap to purchase an extended plan.

40,000 unread messages? What are they? Well, there are a lot of messages from the CMS collaboration that I leave behind, and many others concerning other low-priority (for me) stuff. But I do get many students messages, who apply for positions that do not exist. Actually, I sort of call that upon myself - in this blog, e.g., I have time and again encouraged students to inquire about openings at the University of Padova that I was co-funding. I even put out a poll for a zoom chat with whomever was interested a couple of times!

What is the reason of my behaviour, quite different from that of some of the colleagues in that twitter thread? Well, it is the scale of values you live by. I still remember very well the feelings I had when I was a student, and I put myself in the shoes of those bright young lads who seek their chance to make it to a research position. How can I not let them know that they should insist and that they are worth it, even if I have nothing to offer at any given time? I try to advise them on what strategy they should adopt (and some of the things I tell them are those that the colleague summarized in his twitter post), but one thing I never do is to just omit to answer. And if the time spent answering is subtracted to my research time, too bad. Those young students are more important, in my perspective, while I am old and expendable. 

One way to think about the whole thing is, what is the impact of your three minutes spent answering some unknown Nitesh Gupta or Jane Smith? Your email will have a much bigger effect on those guys and gals than your reply to the dean saying you disagree with the proposed space allocation plan in the department. Think in terms of how well received your next email is, and your priorities will change.

Not answering emails from students inquiring about positions is simply selfish, as I see it. You turn the cold shoulder to them, knowing you would not get anything out of the email you don't send. Well, let me tell you something. That same attitude will come back and hit you at some point. Or maybe not - there is no real justice in this world. But ethical standards do play a role in our self-esteem....