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I am a PhD candidate in computer science and I am looking for postdocs.

Surfing the web, I have found a post-doc opening that I find extremely interesting, but I do not know personally the PI of the group, nor my advisor does.

The opening asks for submitting 3 items: a CV, a cover letter and a research proposal.

Before writing a research proposal I would like to get in contact with the PI and try to understand their challenges and write something that would be meaningful for them, instead of going directly with a proposal that maybe is not of interest for them.

Which is the best way to approach a PI in this setting? Should I send him a mail with a CV and referee contacts even if this is not exactly an application, but is an informal query? Or should I go directly with the formal application?

Any experience to share?

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A postdoc application process is not a competition to find which person can magically understand the PI's objectives, it is there to find the best fit for the job. On the other hand, a postdoc is the start of independent research. You should devise your own research agenda(s) and ask questions about the suitability of your ideas to get a better feel for the project.

In my direct experience and experience of people in a similar position, it is entirely normal to ask questions about the position beforehand. Have a look at the advertisement, it may even explicitly mention to email any questions. My recommendation is to email the PI with a very short description of yourself (research area, where you got your PhD from, etc.) and very short questions. If - this - job is not suitable, the PI may even have you in mind for something else.

In my case I emailed asking if there was scope to do X (there was) for a job in an entirely new field, it is the best position I've ever applied for and I wouldn't have if I had not known it was possible.

  • According to OP there is a description for the position and OP finds it extremely interesting. It's one thing to ask questions about the project etc and another thing to ask help for the research proposal (as OP wants), no matter how these are formulated. – PsySp Jan 25 '18 at 18:39
  • "Before writing a research proposal I would like to get in contact with the PI and try to understand their challenges and write something that would be meaningful for them, instead of going directly with a proposal that maybe is not of interest for them." suggests to me something else, although the title talks about writing a research proposal. My answer is to achieve a middle ground, albeit I think they can ask substantial questions, including open questions. – Dr. Thomas C. King Jan 25 '18 at 18:48
  • I agree completely for asking questions. I disagree with the goal for OP: asking questions so that he can write a research proposal suitable for the PI and it seems to me that this is what he wants. – PsySp Jan 25 '18 at 18:50
  • I think it is okay to ask questions to write a research proposal suitable for the PI, both parties find out more and it's not guesswork. I do agree with your point on originality though, the OP should balance using what they know about the PI's desires versus showing originality. I would more advise actually asking questions about the suitability of the OP's own ideas in regards to this having thought about it more. – Dr. Thomas C. King Jan 25 '18 at 18:53
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    I would more advise actually asking questions about the suitability of the OP's own ideas in regards to this having thought about it more I think this is a good advice in general. The OP should come up with some ideas himself, that he thinks the PI would find interesting and this can be a starting contact point of their mutual interests. – PsySp Jan 25 '18 at 18:54
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Nice ideas by everyone. I would like to share a bit of my adventure. I aaplied to a post doc position which did not have any specific details of the current or proposed work, instead general post doc duites, like reviewing literature, helping anlaysis and manuscript drafts, etc.. I sent my CV and a general letter of interest to the Institute director (small research setup). he emailed me that he will forward it to interested people. Then, Next day, I had an offer for a telephonic interview. I scheduled it in 3 days, and tried to look at all work done by the researchers there. The interview was for one hour with exchanging general interests, going through my CV, and future career goals. I did google lot of information for telephonic inerviews and felt like I impressed the three interviewers. At the end of the interview, one PI asked me to send a one page proposal of what I wanted to do! No more details were divulged. Here is what I played. I consulted my mentor and looked in the internet for how to write this. There was one big problem, none of the interviewers gave any hint of who could be my PI! Smart! I took a gamble and wrote a proposal which touched upon all the three PIs research. Now, I just prayed!! After a week I got this email. Dear Drxxx, We are sorry to tell you that we do not have data which could suit your proposal.....However, currently we are exploring two topics in our institute. 1.xxx. 2.yyy. If you are interested you can send a one page specific aims on any one within 2 weeks. Now, I know what to write! I chose one topic and wrote a proposal. I am thinking that I will get the offer! Again.,.Let see! Hoping this will help somebody

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Check their research interests/papers together with what is written in the opening description of the position and write something accordingly.

I do not think it is a good idea to ask the PI to help you with your application. If you apply for a PostDoc you need to demonstrate originality and that you can achieve things yourself. Asking for something that would make your application better does not stand out as original.

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I think it very strongly depends on the PI and especially on the opening. Its also a bit unconventional that there is an opening without any specification of the project. Since post-doc positions are usually financed by project bound third party funding. In any case it cannot harm to contact the PI without bothering him too much in case you phone him, prepare some one or two good suggestions for your project.

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Depending on where you are, you may be able to also look up the PI's recent funding success, for example NSF (USA) and ARC (Australia) both list the funded projects. Combining that with the PI's recent research interests and their research statement if available online should help guide you. Alternatively, it may be that the proposal will be treated as an example of your abilities rather than the project you will be judged on. Published articles, so frequently from authorship teams, may not reflect your abilities per se.

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