A previous post expressed a wish that students for whom I write letters of recommendation (in some cases, many letters of recommendation) let me know the results of their applications. It was interesting to read the comments from students who said that it had not occurred to them to inform their letter writers about application outcomes.
A related situation came to my attention recently when a colleague who is a director of an undergraduate summer research program lamented that a surprising number of applicants do not respond when he sends out acceptance letters. This program is highly competitive and has a limited number of available positions each summer. There is always a long waiting list of excellent applicants, so if a student who gets a first-round offer has decided to accept another position for the summer, it's nice to know that so that those on the waiting list can get an offer sooner rather than later.
According to my colleague, 50-60% of the first-round offers get an immediate reply and acceptance. The rest don't reply right away. Some eventually reply (there is a deadline by which a response must be received or the offer is rescinded), and either accept or decline the offer. Some never reply at all.
My colleague spends a lot of time organizing and administering this program as a university 'service' activity, including time in the summer when he is not even paid a salary by the university. I suppose this makes him somewhat sensitive to perceived rudeness in the students to whom he is devoting all this time, even if the students have no way of knowing that he is volunteering his time to give them a (well-paid) research opportunity.
I used to have his job running this program, and I don't recall having so much of a problem with non-responders. There are several possible explanations for this:
1 - The number of non-responders has not actually increased with time, and it is my memory that is at fault. Perhaps I don't remember because it didn't bother me at the time. (note: I think this explanation is unlikely)
2 - The number of non-responders has increased with time because:
(a) Students today have a greater sense of entitlement than they did 6-10 years ago when I ran the program.We are here to serve them, and it doesn't occur to them to make the effort to communicate.
(b) Students today have many more options for summer research programs and some students likely have several offers. They make a decision to accept one position, and then they forget about the others.
(c) The current research program director sends out offer letters that are worded in such a way that does not seem (to the students) to require a response.
2c was my preferred interpretation until I saw the offer letters. Maybe some students don't read all the way through the letter, but it does clearly state that a reply of some sort is expected soon. So I suppose 2c could be amended to read "Students don't read the offer letter thoroughly".
I am glad that students have many opportunities for research experiences these days and don't have to have some of the awful summer job experiences that I had in my youth. Nevertheless, it is never too soon to learn Academic Etiquette, including learning what is an appropriate level of communication.
In fact, soon after my colleague complained to me about the lack of communication by undergraduates, one of my own undergrad research assistants asked me if I thought he was emailing his summer research advisor (at another university) too much. I asked him how often he had been emailing this professor, and he said that he had sent two emails within two weeks about [short list of important topics]. I laughed (kindly) and assured him that he was well within the realm of reasonable for the number and topics of emails.
My student did the right thing by asking for advice. My advice to others is: If you get an offer of an internship and the letter requests a response, reply immediately with a brief email containing one of the following pieces of important information (1) I accept, (2) I decline, (3) I'm not sure yet but I will most definitely respond by the stated deadline, if not before.
16 hours ago