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Some postdoc applications specifically mention who the principal investigator. However, other positions don't have a PI; the postdoc is being hired to join the research group in general and, while there's an expectation the candidate will collaborate with group members, there's nobody who is going to be the "boss." Typically these positions just say "the candidate will join the research group X of Professors A, B and C, working on topics such as..."

When applying to this second type of position, should I mention in my cover letter which professor(s) I'd like to work the most with? Something like "I am particularly keen to collaborate with Prof. B, as we share interests in..."

On one hand, doing this shows I'm personalizing the application to the position and that I put some effort thinking whether I'm suitable for it. On the other, it could be seen as being inflexible ("I want to work with Prof. B and nobody else!") and naming names might be perceived as tacky.

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I'd suggest that you don't name anyone unless you somehow name them all. Not only do you avoid seeming inflexible, you actually maintain some flexibility until you can judge better who would be best if you need to single out anyone.

Indicate that you are familiar with their work somehow, I think, by naming papers you are familiar with. (Familiar with, not just saw somewhere).

Truly collaborative groups probably think of themselves as a unit in some ways.

On the other hand, mentioning specific topics that most interest you would seem like a better option. That might imply one or the other of the members, of course, without stating it.

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If you're in mathematics and the job posting has a slot for "faculty contacts" you should also list the names of the people you want to work with there. The reason is that you can search those data fields on mathjobs to get a list of everyone who wants to work with you, whereas you can't search the text of cover letters.

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  • Sometimes the application form will have a slot for that, in which case I will definitely fill it in, but not all of them do. – Totofofo Oct 19 at 10:59
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Don't mention people by name, mention projects. Go to the group's web pages and read about their ongoing work.

Then, when you write your cover letter, highlight how your skills, experience and interest could contribute to the ongoing projects. This not only shows that you are interested enough to look up details about the research group, but also that you spend some time thinking how your research could fit in (and it helps them to see it too).

Making use of the contact e-mail provided with most such openings and getting in touch before applying to the position could also help you best present how you fit to the research group.

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Before applying for the position, speak to at least some of the professors, especially the ones you are most interested in working with. During conversations, suss out what the professors are actually looking for. Perhaps they'll envisage you working for the group, perhaps one of them. Ideally, you should secure a professor to champion your application.

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  • My field has a high number of positions, but also high number of applicants, so you are typically expected to apply to 20+ positions. It's simply not strategical to devote that much time "investigating" each one. That being said, your advice could be useful for those in other fields where you apply to far fewer positions. As I don't have experience here, I can't tell if the advice is useful, so I can't upvote it. – Totofofo Oct 19 at 11:03
  • @Totofofo The problem with apply[ing] to 20+ positions is that it can be obvious that you didn't devote that much time "investigating" each one, making your application less competitive. By comparison, focusing on fewer positions makes your application more competitive. – user2768 Oct 20 at 13:17
  • But applying to many positions give you more chances of getting one. Different fields have different optimal strategies. In my field people typically apply to many positions, this is what everyone does and what everyone tells you to do and they might be wrong, but probably not. – Totofofo Oct 22 at 15:39
  • But applying to many positions give you more chances of getting one. I disagree. (If you Google, my believe is supported by many - albeit, not specifically for your personal situation.) – user2768 Oct 26 at 9:33

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