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After sending an unsolicited email to a potential postdoc advisor, and receiving no response for a while, what is a very polite way to follow up?

Based on past experience lack of immediate response does not necessarily mean a lack of interest, they might just have been too busy at the time. This question is about how to best phrase the followup email to be as polite as possible, and not to seem pushy.

  • What did your follow-up email include? I'm currently in the same position, and I expect that is may happen multiple times during my quest for a postdoc application. – onawire Apr 1 '15 at 15:11
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I've encountered this situation recently. My personal strategy has worked well on multiple occasion.

Send back the first e-mail with a beginning similar to this (I suggest you adapt it): Dear Dr Smith,

I'm afraid my precedent e-mail arrived in your junk mail. Just in case, here it is again. Thank you very much for your attention.

Edit: I don't resend an e-mail after only a week. I usually wait 2-3 weeks...even more !

  • Yes, it is indeed a real concern that this has happened. – Paracelsus Dec 3 '14 at 16:18
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First, perhaps consider your timing. It's the end of the semester on the day you posted your question. The faculty focus is on finishing up, grading and grant reporting, etc. Next are the holidays. Then, the first two weeks of the semester are about committees, budget issues and helping students set up. There are sweet spots before midterms, mid semester, and a few weeks before finals when faculty exhale. I suggest, if you have time, week 3 of the new semester. I realize for students this sounds odd; however, when there are a lot of students/classes as professor/teacher it's important for us to finish well and it's amazing how many letters come in on everything from car problems to job offers to health issues.

If you don't have time, here's a second strategy. I often receive reference requests that are so general/vague I have no idea where to start. When students send an "outline" of what they're looking for I can respond much quicker. For example, perhaps note the request, purpose, a reminder of particular projects, dates, assignments or papers in your follow up email. This sounds crass but sometimes a request comes a year or two after a class and I remember the student but not enough detail to support a recommendation. I don't need the letter written for me, I need something akin to a mind map to bring the student and course to mind in a way that adds value to the recommendation. Also, bluntly, from your course experience you probably know if the professor/teacher is organized to the level that you can count on him/her for a recommendation.

Lastly, a few ideas for students. A couple of days before most college applications are due is less than an ideal time for ask for recommendations due to the numbers of last minute requests received. Select faculty you worked with beyond attending class who will have something to say; I often receive requests from students who chose to remain somewhat anonymous in class and I don't know them well enough to offer something insightful. Faculty have posted office hours. An ideal reference situation is when a student comes in with a single page paper noting the dates, a few details of the course and reintroduces him/herself. Then we have a chance to chat for a few minutes. In that time I "travel" to our work and am excited to hear about the student's potential opportunity. This lends an enthusiasm to the reference.

I don't want this to sound like it's all about the faculty, I'm trying to nicely say you would never believe the requests that come in, I could write a post only on funny/sad/shocking email I receive every semester. There is great joy in seeing students transition to their next level of education and we're happy to write recommendations when we have the information to do so. Student consideration of timing, ideas/details provided and a referential conversation create a better opportunity for meaningful reference letters.

This advice goes beyond post grad; however, when I advised post grad students, up until last year, many of the issues were the same and I think the approach crosses education levels.

  • 2
    I think you misunderstood my question. It was not about asking for recommendation letters from someone I know. It was about applying for positions. I sent an email inquiring about open positions but received no response (at the time I posted the question---I did receive it after following up). – Paracelsus Dec 12 '14 at 16:50

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