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Reading this very interesting question ("How long before PhD graduation should I start applying for post-doc positions?") about "when", suddenly I started to reason on the "how" issue.

Imagine you were going to finish your PhD program and wanted to contact a professor to express interest for a possible PostDoctoral contract within his group, and wanted to know more information about it.

How approach him/her in the best way?

What to write in the email to send him/her?

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Would it be about an announced open position, or to create a new one? –  Charles Morisset Nov 28 '12 at 15:56
    
Generic open positions (e.g. "Jobs - we have some postdoc position available on...", without the beginning date nor other details) –  DavideChicco.it Nov 30 '12 at 14:31

4 Answers 4

Depends on whether you know the person, or not. If you know him/her well, you might go for an informal inquiry. In the case the person is not your acquaintance, you better formulate it as any other job seeking inquiry.

To the style, this template always worked for me well (as advised in some job-seeking training course I took):

Salutation,

1.- me
2.- you
3.- us together
4.- conclusion and a kind request for a reply.

salutation.

Each of the points above should be a single paragraph.

Firstly, you introduce yourself, possibly mentioning how you know each other if that is the case and most importantly articulating the purpose of the e-mail/letter, that is that you are seeking a job. In passing you should mention what you are doing now, position, affiliation, expected date of graduation, etc. Basically you want to motivate the other party to read further.

Second paragraph should be about the other party. What you know they do, or did in the past and highlighting whatever other positive aspects of their work, which are a relevant reason for your application. Possibly, you can mention that you learn from somebody else/opening, etc. that there is a possibility of an open position in the group, etc. The purpose here is to prepare the ground for articulating why you fit for them in the subsequent paragraph, as well as to show that you mean it and you made your homework well (e.g., read their papers).

The third, most important paragraph, should be about you as a fit for the position, or the group. It all revolves about how you can contribute to their work and why it should be their interest in hiring you. Here you expand on the relevant experience/projects you did, about your abilities to publish papers in top journals/conferences in the field, your abilities to solicit external funding, teaching, whatever. Still you should consider how much bragging is appropriate. The message should be clear and concise: "there is a potential fit between the two of us".

Finally, I would close the letter by explaining what can be found in the attached documents and possibly what other constraints you might have. When appropriate, I also make it clear that this is of course an unsolicited application, but still I would be glad if the person would find time to review my background and reply.

Attach your CV and the statement of your research interests.

Worked for me. Also you should be as concise as possible. The length of this reply is probably already at the edge of acceptable length.

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If I reply to some open position that was announced, I usually keep the email quite short, as I consider it more like a statement of interest, rather than as informal application. I usually assume that the person in charge is busy, and I'm always afraid that a long email might be classified in the folder "to be read later".

My email would look like this:

Subject: Informal query about the position XXX

Dear XXX, I'm writing to you about the position XXX that was posted on the mailing-list/website/forum XXX. I believe I could be interested in applying to this position, because it seems to fit within my research interests. Indeed, I'm currently working at XXX on the topic of XXX, and the topic [of the position] is something I would like to work on in the next years.

Then, it depends on how precise the announcement was written, but I usually ask all questions I have about the application process itself. Would there be further material to read? If a research statement is asked, what is expected it to contain? If the dates are not given, when would it start? (in particular if you have commitments on your side).

Many open positions have a formal application process, established by the university/research-centre, so it's also important to keep such an email to an informal level. You can of course finish your email by saying that you are available for any further information.

In the past, such emails have been useful for me for two reasons: it made me realize that some positions were actually not really within my research interests, and it allowed me to establish a first contact with the recruiter, and understand better what was expected of me in the application.

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Very interestin'. And what would you suggest to write in the email if no postdoc open position announcement were online? Thanx –  DavideChicco.it Dec 17 '12 at 10:53
    
@DavideChicco.it: The other answers seem to fit quite well for that kind of situations :) –  Charles Morisset Dec 17 '12 at 11:59

I would treat it like a networking exercise.

  1. Do you know each other -- Contact them directly
  2. Does your advisor know him/her -- Talk to your advisor and get the scoop on the potential advisor. Talk you your advisor and devise a contact plan. Maybe your advisor can provide an introduction at the next conference or a suggestion for a lab visit for you.
  3. Do you know someone in common -- Talk to that person. Get the scoop on the potential advisor. Then contact the potential advisor dropping the common person's name and saying how he/she thought the potential advisor would be a great fit for you.
  4. You know no one in common -- Networking fail. Go meet more people.

    a. Have you cited the potential advisor in a paper -- Send them a reprint as an introduction

    b. You don't know the potential advisor (or anyone who knows him) and have never cited him -- Why do you want to work with this person? If you are confident, send an email introducing yourself. If you are hesitant, ask your advisor for an email introduction.

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I came a cross a short but interesting editorial note from American Chemical Society written by a potential postdoc supervisor. She raises lots of advises like send few thoughtful emails rather than tones of thoughtless copies and pasted emails. I think it is quiet useful for every postdoc applicant regardless of his major.

Couple of interesting quotes from the author is of value

Funding issues aside, the majority of the postdoctoral applications I receive do not capture my interest, and I am sure this is true for most faculty.

Many email requests that I receive appear to be sent by someone who has taken a long list of faculty names/ emails and sent off their application with little thought. I usually do not even read such requests after the first few sentences

My advice to potential applicants: send far fewer but personalized emails. Read about a faculty member’s research and tailor your letter to the group. Obviously, include your CV, prior research accomplishments, your career plans, and how a position in the group would help move you toward your goals. Provide details that help sell you, including important interactions with colleagues, the skills that you bring to the position, and other key points that may set you apart. When writing an email to me, for example, I like to know why you selected my group: was it on the advice of a mentor, because you like a particular aspect of my research, or hope to gain a specific skillset? Next, explain what you can do for me. Most applicants list a myriad of reasons why getting hired is good for them. Perhaps not surprisingly, I hire people because it helps my research program. I want an outstanding researcher and also someone who has good communication skills. Reading your email is my first opportunity to judge your ability

You may find the whole text of less than a page here

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Thanks @user3135645, that letter is more precious than gold –  DavideChicco.it Jan 7 at 19:01

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