Student Fizz Buzz
December 2013 (perspective of a postdoc)
Fizz Buzz is a simple question that most people who interview for computer programming jobs supposedly fail. I don't know if anyone has rigorously validated this claim; but regardless, it's a catchy meme. Fizz Buzz is a minimal test of competence. Just because you pass it doesn't mean that you're a good programmer, but if you fail, that means you probably aren't.
In the past few months, I've started receiving lots of emails from students with topics ranging from requesting career advice to potentially joining my (future) research group. And when I start teaching next semester, I will undoubtedly get lots of emails about class-related topics.
Here is my student Fizz Buzz test: Do they send me a well-crafted first email? Emails are often my first impression of a student, so if my initial gut reaction is negative, then I won't be as enthusiastic about meeting with them. I'd rather spend my time helping out and working with students who made a positive first impression. Again, this is a minimal test of competence; just because a student passes doesn't mean that they're outstanding, but if they fail, then they probably aren't.
Yes, I know this test will unfortunately filter out some legitimately good students. I felt like I was a good student back in college, but I wrote some cringe-worthy rambling emails to professors. Unsurprisingly, those professors never replied to me. And I now know why – they were busy helping out students who had passed Fizz Buzz. It took me a while to learn to write good emails.
And yes, I know that teenagers and college students think that email is uncool and for “old people,” and that they prefer to use newer forms of electronic communications with their friends. I wasn't always a crabby 30-year-old. But the fact remains that nowadays email is still the standard professional communication medium, so if you don't learn to use it well, then it will hurt your future career prospects.
I'm still new at this job and not jaded, so if I even get annoyed at badly-written student emails, then imagine how annoyed senior professors – who have been doing this job for 10, 20, or even 30 years – must get.
So students: if you want to pass Fizz Buzz, follow these tips for writing good emails.
One final note: I'm very forgiving of non-idiomatic English use by foreign-born and ESL students. English was the fourth language I learned as a kid, and I got C's and D's on my early school essays, so I've been there. But it's still possible to craft a thoughtful, well-written email even if your English usage isn't perfect. Intention, tone, and brevity are much more important. I've seen plenty of well-crafted emails from ESL students.