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Every month, I receive several emails from India or similar countries for a postdoc position in my group.

I am an assistant professor in a small university. I wonder how many applications/emails receive famous professors at top universities?

When a PI has funding for a postdoc position, he post the position, and will receive tens (if not hundreds) of applications.

Receiving these emails made me wonder, maybe this method is working that many people are regularly using it.

Does a PI offer a postdoc position by such emails? Normally these candidates are not very strong, as they have already applied for posted positions.

  • 2
    It must be working for somebody, even at such a low rate of return: I receive a couple every week, and I'm not even a professor. Either that, or they're phishing attempts, which is possible too. – jakebeal Apr 18 '15 at 11:07
  • It might help to distinguish between the many kinds of direct contact. For example, it seems that the "schmoozing at a conference" method works a lot better than the "anonymous mass email" one. – Potato Apr 18 '15 at 19:02
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I think that what has happened is that there are stories floating around, rumors with some kernel of truth, that this approach works. Sometimes I get emails from folks who are highly qualified in their area, but have no relation to our work. I think the model of what has "worked" is probably misunderstood.

I think the only thing that has ever really worked is for the "applicant" to send out mass emails to everyone they can find that's even remotely related until they hit on a few people who do have a position open and who direct them as to how to apply through proper channels. Occasionally these folks do actually have good qualifications and do get a position. The story of this process gets mangled, and people begin to think that mass emailing really works rather than realizing that it's targeted applications through the appropriate channels that worked but were found by luck.

I mostly don't respond to these kinds of emails unless the candidate is actually highly qualified, related, and I just don't have anything for them. I got one from someone in the UK this week who is working in my field, looking for a PhD position, and already has 3 (!!) master's degrees. Unfortunately, we run an HPC center and don't have faculty positions or advising rights, so I wrote the guy back and let him know that. Rarely do these emails deserve such a response since the candidates are applying randomly to every name they can find, i.e. wet lab biologists applying to an HPC center.

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In some fields, this is the standard method of obtaining a postdoc. My own field (particle physics) is not one of them, but I have friends in computational neuroscience (this is in the US) who say this is how it works for them: when they are ready to look for a postdoc position, they identify professors or researchers who they would like to work with and send them an email asking if they have positions available. Now, what my friends are talking about is specific, targeted emailing, not mass emailing, but I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if some people get the idea that the more emails they send out, the better their chances. After all, this is nearly the same thinking as saying the more applications you send out, the better your chances, which is frequently-repeated advice.

Even in fields where this is not standard, it can happen. I actually almost got a position myself this way, despite it being very much not the norm in my field.

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Yes, postdocs can get funded by direct contact with a professor. I'm a computational epidemiologist in the U.S., and of the two postdoc offers I got, both of them were based on personal contact (with people one of my mentors knew, rather than simply blind contact).

There are definitely also just listed positions, but I have definitely seen qualified direct contacts result in at least some interest.

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In the US, in NIH funded fields top post docs are generally funded by NIH-NRSA fellowships. Potential post docs approach a supervisor with a project that is mutually interesting and will provide the post doc with a new skill. If the potential post doc is on top of things, the NRSA application decision can be known before the start of the post doc. In other cases the PI might need to fund the position for 6-12 months, followed by a 36 month fellowship. In other words, when approached by someone who wants to get an NRSA, and is qualified, you take them. This means that getting a post doc through "direct contact" is quite common. Depending on the field you may never have met or only have an introduction via you supervisor.

That said, the Indian spam emails, although I have never seen post doc ones, do not fit this model and are generally unsuccessful since the NRSA is limited to US citizens.

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