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My field of study is purely theoretical, meaning that there are a ton of equations and a bunch of numerical simulations. I am targeting groups that align with my field and I am trying to read their research. I know this question has probably been asked before, but how much of the group's research am I expected to know before I email the PI about lab openings? Three levels of abstraction are given below:

  1. Just the title of the projects and the material given on the webpages.
  2. Go through the abstract and conclusions of their latest papers.
  3. Take a single paper and go through it line by line, understanding all the equations and simulations.
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    Titles of papers are sufficient. – Anonymous Physicist Sep 18 at 8:46
  • Why do you care about that? Are you trying to impress the PI? Are you trying to inform yourself. – user151413 Sep 18 at 11:06
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    @AnonymousPhysicist Exactly, and then just quote those titles in your email and say the impressed you very much ;) – user151413 Sep 18 at 11:07
  • At least as important as "how much do I have to know about the paper" is "which papers should I know". Randomly picking stuff can backfire. – user151413 Sep 18 at 11:08
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For me, it really depends on the stage of interaction with our group.

  • For the first contact, I would expect that you have at least visited our website and know what we work on, in general. Browsing the website and some paper titles should be fine for this. If none of the paper titles make sense or sound interesting to you, then why are you applying to work with us in the first place?
  • If we end up chatting more detailedly (e.g., if you have a phone interview with members of my lab) I would expect that you looked at all the recent papers involving the people interviewing you, and have read at least a subset of those. I don't care whether you understand the work line-by-line, and I am fully aware that some of our work can be technical and academic. However, if you can't be bothered to at least skim some of our papers and try to grasp the core ideas, it does not reflect very well on your commitment to our line of research.
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    I should also mention that this is for PhD student applicants. If you are applying for a postdoc and have not read our recent papers, I really don't know what to tell you. – xLeitix Sep 18 at 12:00
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However much you need to be able to sensibly answer the question "Why do you want to work in my lab?" Probably titles and abstracts, with a full paper if there is something that is relevant to your prior work so you can give a strong answer like - I see that you are working on topic X and that relates to my previous work by ...

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What occurs to me is, I think, what @user151413 may have been thinking in their comment. You need to know enough that you believe this is a team you want to work in. Beyond that, take the tack of convincing the PI that you have research ideas that fit their interests, and which you can be productive in (i.e., publish), even if (perhaps especially if) they aren't exact topics the team is already exploring. Or that you have skills that can apply to topics the PI may be wanting to explore, outside the current team's expertise.

Just being one more of what they've already got is probably least appealing, unless you are specifically targeting a vacancy they've posted or that you know may be opening.

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