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I am a final-year PhD student doing my research in the field of theoretical physics. Soon, I will start applying for postdoc positions in different universities, primarily related to my area of expertise, which is holographic chaos. The problem I am facing is that there are few postdoc opportunities for my specialization, so I worry that I need to switch to a related one.

Would it be a good idea to personally mail prospective professors even if the institute doesn't have open postdoc positions in my area of expertise?

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    I think the answer varies for each person seeking a post doc depending on their personal goals and values.
    – Bryan Krause
    Feb 11 at 15:23
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    As Buffy wrote, it is better if you can get your advisor to help you with this. However, for what it is worth, I got a postdoc in a good university in Europe (roughly top 50 globally) just by sending a cold e-mail. I was definitely lucky, but I would not have lucked out without attempting it. (I sent 3 cold e-mails around that time. One got me the position; the other two resulted in me getting to know two great senior researchers with which I still stay in touch.) Feb 12 at 12:52
  • I suspect the answer may also depend on geography and the field. I personally had good luck in reaching out to potential advisors, regardless of whether I knew them well beforehand or not.
    – Andrea
    Feb 12 at 17:57

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While it isn't inappropriate per se, it is also not very productive. If someone has a position they have probably made it known somehow, somewhere.

A cold email from you is easy to ignore. But if you can have your doctoral advisor make inquiries on your behalf, even with cold emails, then it is more likely to result in something. That is just because a mail from a colleague/peer is hard to ignore. They can also ask any correspondents for suggestions if they don't have anything themselves. They can also tout your skills in related areas that it is hard for you to do yourself in a believable way.

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  • That's a great advice. Although I have personally met many professors during conferences, I fear they might ignore my email due to their busy schedules.
    – codebpr
    Feb 11 at 16:41
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    @codebpr They may also just not remember your name. Feb 11 at 19:22
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    I don't agree with this (though I don't think this deserve a downvote). I happen to have sent such an email in the past to a professor that I barely met at a conference a few years before, explaining my motivation to join his research group. He replied that, unfortunately, there was no open position yet, but that external fundings existed and strongly recommended me for these applications. He also sent my profile to one of his collegues who later opened a position. I ended up joining the team
    – Didier
    Feb 11 at 20:06
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    @Didier, your experience gives me hope. It definitely depends on the Professor, not all are same, for sure. Some of them are really benevolent, like you said. Same thing happens to me when I email an author regarding some doubt related to his/her paper. Some are kind enough to give the details and some turn a blind eye to it.
    – codebpr
    Feb 11 at 20:14
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    @JackAidley I get your point and I quite agree with you. But I am very unsure that this professor even remembered me, one a the numerous PhD students at that conference. If it had any impact, I would say that it was the fact that I could start my email with "We met a few years back at [...]".
    – Didier
    Feb 12 at 10:39
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My answer is it depends on your own priorities. Talking about my own experience I choose field that I am interested but not necessarily in my PhD research area. I used tools and techniques but not the subject knowledge from my PhD research. It’s not bad to switch field based on job perspective, your interest, and future scope.

If you think there are not many post-doc positions in your field you may create one for yourself by applying grants/funding if that is something you like to do now and in the future.

Emailing professors for potential post-doc positions is also a great idea—it helps and sometime professors may be able to create positions if they are really interested in your expertise and work.

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  • Thank you for your valuable advice. Just a quick question how different is the Postdoc scenario in Asia (in particular Japan)compared to Europe in general? Which one should be preferred in terms of the research environment and funding?
    – codebpr
    Feb 11 at 16:43
  • Do you mean post-doc opportunities or trend of having post-docs? I am not particularly familiar with Japan but there are several forms of post-docs (if you think postdoc as a position to take after PhD to do research under supervision of senior researcher) in multiple countries such as China, India, Japan, South Korea and so on. Feb 11 at 16:48
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    Yes, by postdoc I mean, further research work after PhD under the supervision of a senior researcher, probably an Associate Professor or a Professor. In some cases, there might be special research groups which work as a team and hire recent PhD graduates.
    – codebpr
    Feb 11 at 16:53
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In European universities this could work. I would recommend to check Euraxess and Researchgate and scholarshipdb to check out any potential places. One more thing you could do is to check news about any large funding received by professors which is generally announced on the University websites which can be seen with Google search. This way your cold email search will be beneficial since you know the potential projects that could possibly recruit or looking for post docs.

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It's a zero-sum game. If emailing really does work then everyone will start sending those, and the inbox of the perspective host will become the new indeed.com. There will be YouTube videos teaching you how to write those emails, or even offering their ghostwriting services.

If you need to raise a host's attention, do something that is not free. For instance, asking your advisor to send the email will cost his/er reputation. Meeting people at conferences is also not free (conferences are not free).

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