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What's the best way to inquire unadvertised post-doc positions through e-mail and in-person?


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Hi everyone,

since my last thread that I inquired about the general timeline to apply/become a postdoctoral researcher positions, I have decided to try to graduate within the next 7 months. I recently have compiled a list of PIs that I'm interested working with, so that as soon as my recently submitted paper is accepted, I'll start search for my next stop. However, even though I have a general idea how I should construct my cover letter (e.g. discuss why I am interested in a particular lab/research, what I can offer to that lab, etc.), I'm still trying to figure out how should I strategically inquire a potential postdoctoral position -- through e-mail and in-person -- to a lab that does not advertise such position.

E-mail: How to make your cover letter standout enough that the PI would read it, or, wouldn't go straight to trash bin? (Not sure if the "game" is different than applying a position that is advertised.)

*In-person: What would be the best approach to bring up/discuss/inquire possible postdoc positions if the potential PI is giving a presentation? (*A conference/symposium without neither a poster session nor social activity(ies). Hence the assumption here is that I would try to talk to the PI before or after his/her presentation.) 

Thank you!

Edited by aberrant
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I cold-emailed some people when I was about to graduate to ask about postdoc positions, but they were all people who I knew to some extent (as in, I met them at conferences at least once and I knew that they would know who I am). When I did this, I didn't send any materials along, I just basically said something like "as you may know, I am graduating from [School] this summer and am starting to plan for [Next year]. While I am still waiting to hear back from applications to TT positions, I have also started considering postdoc applications.* I think that your research would be a great match with mine and [I am eager to learn the methods you use, work on the language you work on, whatevs]. Therefore, I am writing to ask if you are going to have any funding to hire a new postdoc next year. If so I would appreciate being considered for the position and would be very happy to talk further or provide any necessary documents. If you don't have any funding but know of someone else who might, I'd appreciate knowing that, too." (This was composed on the fly now, it's not actual text I used, but it's a good reflection of the content.) These either led to "let's chat on Skype" or to "sorry I don't have funding (but try X, who might)". Some people I know had their advisors make the initial introductions, if it was a person the student had never met but the advisor knew. 

I gather that your situation is different in that you're emailing people who you may not know. I think that it would be important to keep the email short and to make it clear why you are writing the person. That is, say what you do in a sentence or two, and explain very briefly why this person is a good fit for you. These professors get lots of emails that are clearly mass-emails that aren't customized and often obviously aren't a good fit, and you want to make sure you're not perceived as one of those. The main difference from an advertised position probably isn't in demonstrating that you're a good fit for the lab or the content of the text, but in getting the person to consider you in the first place. To that end, short and sweet is key. Otherwise, I'd imagine it's mostly the same. I'd add a link to your academic website, and I am not sure about sending attachments to unsolicited emails, but I suppose this is too field-specific for me to have an opinion on. 

As for in-person inquiries, could you email the person ahead of time and ask for a short chat over some coffee break? This is definitely not something to do before a person gives their talk (they are otherwise preoccupied), and after the talk there will likely be several people who want to talk to them, so it'd be awkward to have the conversations with other random people standing around. Most people should be able to find time for a 5-10 minute chat at some point over a multi-day conference, though, and I'd just email to ask for this ahead of time to make sure you're not forgotten. If that's not possible, see if you can ask them when they might have time for a short chat after their talk, and send a follow-up email with a proposed time immediately after (or confirming what you agreed to). You can always just ask a random question and then email later, building on the fact that the person will hopefully remember you from your conversation at the conference.

* The cycle for us is always TT positions first, postdocs (other than competitive ones) later. I don't know if this holds for you. 

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In my field, you definitely need to ask and make it as widely known as possible that you are seeking a postdoctoral position (without being annoying). I've been doing this for the last couple of months now! I agree with what fuzzy said, and cold emailing people I don't know is something I've done a bunch now. Here's the format I use and seems to work well:

(these aren't really the words I use, I just made them up now and you can make it sound nicer, the point is just to show the structure and the content)

Dear Prof. X,

My name is TakeruK and I am in the final year of my PhD in Planetary Science at University ABC with Professor XYZ. My thesis work has been in [...no more than 2 sentences].

I am applying for postdoctoral positions to start in Fall 2017 and I am interested in [....summarize your postdoc research interests/proposal in 2-3 sentences.]

I would be interested in working with you on these proposals. [maybe a sentence here about why they are a great fit for you.] If you're interested, I would love to chat with you [on skype, or at the upcoming meeting, etc.] briefly about potential postdoc opportunities in your group and/or [their department].

[[I don't usually attach any CV or other information, but if it's normal in your field to do so, then you could attach one. Otherwise I wait until they ask for one.]]


In my field, the order of applications are TT and fellowship postdocs first (these are generally due Oct/November), then non-fellowship postdoc (i.e. you're hired to do a specific project that the supervisor advertises instead of doing your own proposal) later on, usually not until February/March.

Also, in my field, it's common to visit the schools you're really excited about a postdoc position. This year, I picked 3 places/cities and got myself invited** to give talks--some are formal seminars but many others are just informal talks at a group meeting or a lunch seminar series. At each city, I picked a couple of schools in the area to visit and present my research. This makes it a lot easier to "cold-email" someone about a postdoc position because you can also say that you are visiting on X date to give a talk titled Y and that you would love to meet with them while you are there etc. This also makes the other person more interested in you because it shows you are interested enough to go to their institution (i.e. you're serious about a postdoc there) and you're more likely to get their time.

** I got some invitations by hinting to some professors at conferences earlier this year that I'm on the job market and they invited me to come give a talk. For other places, my advisor told me that they are willing to spend money to send me so I wrote to people who are in charge of the seminars and said something like "I'm going to be in town, are there any opportunities to give a seminar, etc." The three places I chose to visit all had people I already knew there, but for some other students, having your advisor contact their colleague in X department can help you get invited too.

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@fuzzylogician was right -- that 1) I do not have a connection with the PI I'm interested working with, and mainly because 2) those PI are technically not in the same field* (*same experimental approach, but very different research interest/theme/questions).  If I define the field based on the experimental approach, then it definitely requires +2 years post-doc training before applying a TT position. I'll take your advice to not go too aggressive about it!

Thanks @TakeruK. The template certain gives me a good idea to start! I also like the idea of letting other PIs aware that I'm in town (should I be invited for an interview) -- both saving time and money. Indeed, there are only 2 states, 3 cities that I'm looking at to do my post-doc (if I could). So this may also be in my favor!

Thanks for the advice, folks! They are truly valuable.

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