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I will graduate in 6-8 months with a PhD in physics and am looking to contact potential postdoc advisers. I will be applying to positions without an advertisement or prior contact with the potential advisers. I have been told by my current PhD adviser that if I wait until I just a few months before graduation, he will make the initial contact for me. I am conflicted because I understand many postdoc positions are planned and filled up to a year in advance.

I don't want to lose out on these positions, so I first want to make informal contact on my own. However, I don't want to jeopardize my chances of getting a position by sending out a poorly received informal email. I'm wondering specifically how informal emails are typically perceived in these situations. Are they liable to be perceived negatively by those professors expecting a more formal process?

  • So, you want to know exactly what? Do want to know what we think you should do? This is very difficult since we do not know your entire situation. If you wonder how something is normally received by someone, then you should make that clear. – earthling Sep 22 '14 at 12:23
  • "I will be applying to positions without an advertisement" - how do you know a position exists? – Moriarty Sep 22 '14 at 13:11
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    @Moriarty There is a thing called a casual application (not to be confused with casual employment) where a job seeker applies to an organization without any knowledge of an open position with the hopes of being called when something opens up. – earthling Sep 22 '14 at 13:23
  • @earthling Indeed, but I suspect the success rate is vastly lower in academia [citation needed]. Businesses may be willing to stretch finances to hire at short notice a very talented person, but a professor will usually just have to wait until he or she gets a grant. Also, the tone and content of this initial email will be different depending on whether this is an "expression of interest" or an application for an advertised position - that is the crux of my comment. – Moriarty Sep 22 '14 at 15:04
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    @Moriarty The process of emailing to inquire about the possibility an unadvertised position is the norm in academia, especially for competitive research labs where professors are often inundated with these types of emails. – univox360 Sep 22 '14 at 15:55
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Informal inquiries are not liable to be perceived negatively: An informal inquiry is a very good way to make first contact before sending over more formal items such as a CV, letters of recommendation and proposed research ideas. A thoughtful email with some very brief and basic information about yourself and your interest in the potential lab is more likely to be read and replied to (no information overload). After initial contact is made, the more formal process will then be more directed as information about timing and funding may be provided.

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If you were contacting me, the degree of formality wouldn't matter (so long as the salutation isn't "wassup, dude!") Two things would matter:

  1. Does your email demonstrate clearly that you have put some thought into working in my group, and you're not just mass-mailing a form letter? If you fail this test, I may not open the attachments.
  2. Do you have strong qualifications for the job?

As long as you're reasonably polite and your writing is not atrocious, everything else is relatively unimportant at this stage.

If your advisor has a good relationship with the person in question, his/her involvement can help considerably. But you making contact first generally won't do any harm.

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Informal inquiries are liable to be perceived negatively The process should be formal from first contact, and initial inquiries should include proposed research, letters of recommendation and a CV. Sending a hard copy of these items can create a strong impression that is essential to getting hired. Formality is especially important for countries like Germany where it is expected at each step, and also for big-time researchers who receive a flood of inquiries each day.

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    I am curious, did you post two different answer because of the fact that there is no definite answer? – fixingstuff Sep 29 '14 at 22:30

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