Please allow me to introduce myself… (a short guide to writing postdoc approach e-mails)

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Gerard Ter Borch, “The Suitor’s Visit”

TIR offers a few tips on those all-important introductory e-mails.

In our “How to…” series focused on improving scientists’ soft skills, we’ve already considered some of the factors that you need to bear in mind when you start looking for a postdoc (HERE) – but once you’re narrowed things down, how do you actually approach potential postdoc mentors? 

Obviously it’s always best if you can either meet or ambush them in person – personal contact is the best way of putting a face to a name, and a personality to a reputation. But that’s not always possible, especially if you’re changing fields, and in such cases it’s likely that the first time they hear from you will be by e-mail. Here are some pointers for going about it.

1. Produce a longlist and shortlist
Postdoc choices are generally a compromise between what you want to do, and where you want to go. Ideally, for whatever field you’ve targeted, you should always go where the action is – but there are often sound reasons (e.g. personal/family) why that may be unappealing geographically, so adjust accordingly.

Once you’ve zeroed in on a field and an area, produce a longlist (around 6-7 names) and a shortlist (2-3 names) of people that look like good mentor candidates on the basis of their website material, recent published articles (just read the abstracts and skim the figures at this stage), and, if possible, conference presentations.

2. Do your homework
Once you’ve identified those 2-3 people for your shortlist, try – within reason – to read everything that they’ve published recently. Only look at articles in which they are either last author or corresponding author – these will be the ones that have come from within their group. The number of articles will depend on the field, but the last 10 papers is a good ballpark figure. If you’re pressed for time, reduce the intensity the further back in time you go – i.e. read the most recent papers in their entirety, and the older ones focus primarily on the abstract and figures. 

Seriously??? Cover something like 20-30 papers before even writing an e-mail? When you could just fire off an approach e-mail blind?

Yes, 100%. This is how you get taken seriously. This is someone that will be shaping the most important phase of your scientific career and probably writing you references for the rest of your working life, and you have this one shot to capture their interest. It takes time, but it’s worth it.

So, once you’ve done your homework, now – and only now! – you’re ready to write the actual e-mails to your shortlisted mentor candidates.

3. Use right form of address
Is the person a “Doctor” or a “Professor”? It generally only takes a few minutes on the departmental website to establish if someone is a professor or not. It is never, ever a compliment to address a “Doctor” as a “Professor” – rather, it screams of laziness. Also, leave out other forms of flattery such as “esteemed”, “honourable”, and so on. Just “Dear Dr. X” is all you need for a businesslike opening.

4. First sentence: Get straight to the point
Your first sentence should be your request: “I am interested in doing postdoctoral research in your group, and would like to enquire into the possibility of an opening” or “I would like to apply to join your group as a postdoctoral researcher”, or similar.

That may seem a bit direct, but you don’t want any ambiguity at this stage. Also, don’t forget that good postdocs are a rare commodity, and your subsequent paragraphs are about to demonstrate why you are worth paying attention to.

5. First paragraph: Introduce yourself
In one or at most two sentences, say what career stage you’re at, who you’re working with, where you’re based, and what you’re working on (“I am a final-year PhD candidate in the group of X at University Y, studying Z”, “I am currently doing postdoctoral work in the group of X at University Y, studying Z”). These are vital bits of context that let the reader quickly classify you. If you’re coming from a less prestigious institution, don’t worry – this is just framing. The next sentences are where you start hitting.

Once you’ve introduced yourself, briefly (2-3 sentences) sketch what you’re interested in, and what you’re currently doing from a techniques and organism viewpoint. If you’re already a postdoc, mention what you did during your PhD as well, unless that seems less relevant to the activities of the group you’re applying to. This tells them what you can offer to their group in terms of expertise and background knowledge.

Finally, note what kind of timeframe you are operating on (“I plan on defending in [month] and am hoping to start a postdoc in [month]”, “My current contract ends in [month] and I am hoping to start a new position in [month]”). Advance applications with long timeframes are always good – it shows you’re planning ahead and it gives the group leader more time to set things up if they’re interested. 

6. Second paragraph: Why you’re contacting them
Now is the time to show that you’ve done your homework, and this is what will really set you apart from 99% of the other applicants. Ideally, try to create a link between what you’re doing now and what they’re doing now (“I am interested in…and I particularly liked your group’s recent work on…”). Mention specific recent papers of theirs that you liked, and try to suggest how you might be able to fit into the group’s activities or what area of their current work you might be best placed to contribute to. Under no circumstances, ever, copy and paste keywords from their website or use a generic text that could be applied to anybody working in the same area. This is an instant deal-breaker. What you are demonstrating in this paragraph is that you are making a targeted approach as part of a defined personal career plan (which is what it should be – if you just want a job, answer an advert).

7. Invite yourself over
Conclude with 1-2 sentences to say that you would be more than happy to visit and give a seminar on your current work. Indicate that you would like to apply for Fellowships or other independent sources of funding, and that you would like to discuss options in this area. You should be aiming to raise part or all of your salary for at least a portion of your postdoc, and you should never join a group that you haven’t had the opportunity to visit and inspect first-hand. 

If a group leader is willing to offer you a place sight unseen, remove them from your shortlist – they’re not interested in you, they just want your body (or rather, your hands). They also clearly have no interest in group dynamics. 

8. Sign off politely and attach your CV
First “I will instruct my two referees to send you a reference” and then “Yours sincerely”, always. It’s polite, formal, and brief. Don’t presume to write “I look forward to your reply” or similar because you may not receive one and you shouldn’t assume that you will.

9. Include your contact details after signing off
Name, work address, phone, e-mail, and if you have them also Twitter handle, website address.

10. Ask your referees (two is enough for postdoc position) to send a reference
It’s a bit pushy, but you’ve nothing to lose. If your mentor candidate is interested then they will need your references anyway, so receiving them in advance shows you’re organised. If they’re wavering, your references may tip the balance. And if they’re not interested, then who cares if they receive references or not? Never attach references to your approach e-mail because by definition they’re not confidential. You need confidential references.

11. Don’t be disheartened by a refusal or a silence
The best labs – the ones that you will be applying to – receive lots of applications, so don’t be put off if the answer is a “no” or if no answer comes at all. There are many reasons beyond your control (funding and space in particular) that can negatively affect an application. This is another reason why you should allocate plenty of time to the process.

Lastly: good luck! 

Caveat:
Obviously all of the above is written with a Western cultural mindset, and things may differ elsewhere in the world (leave a comment if you have a relevant cultural observation – we’d appreciate it!); adjust accordingly. As always, all of the above are just some pointers and you should always feel free to trust your intuition – there is no foolproof recipe for success. 

2 thoughts on “Please allow me to introduce myself… (a short guide to writing postdoc approach e-mails)

  1. Great advice. One thing I would add: Does not hurt to send a second email, spaced by about a week, if you do not hear back. Prominent PIs can get 200+ emails a week. Stuff gets lost.

    Liked by 1 person

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