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I plan to finish my PhD in climate sciences in about one years time. I’m not yet exactly sure what I want to do afterward but I’m considering a position in academia. A professor at my institute recommended to me to start writing some people now, inquiring about possible positions (which is in line with this answer I guess).

I have some groups in mind where I know the group leaders on something I’d call a “we recognize each other at conferences”-basis (i.e., they’ve probably read my publications and will probably remember who I am when I write them).

To be clear: I don’t want to apply for any specific position but rather want to find out if there might be a position available in one years time to which I can then apply. Another intention is to make them aware of the fact that I’m looking for a position, so that they might think of me if something comes up.

I recently did a application seminar and the recommendation there was to write a very formal mail (possibly with topic ideas already) and attach a short cv and possibly two main publications. That seems way over the top to me (although that may also be because in geosciences we tend to be more causal about those things than in other disciplines).

When asking about possible PostDoc positions what would be a good grade of professionalism? How long should the mail be and what should be included? (merely asking if somebody knows something would only take a line or two)

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When asking about possible PostDoc positions what would be a good grade of professionalism? How long should the mail be and what should be included? (merely asking if somebody knows something would only take a line or two)

Obviously you want this to be professional (e.g., "Hey dude, I need a job" isn't great in any case), but not necessarily very long or formal. Your milage on this will vary based on the discipline, geographical region, and the individuals involved. However, in STEM fields and assuming this is a professor in the US or Europe, I would opt for an extremely short and informal mail to establish first contact.

Dear Prof. Farnsworth / (or: Dear Rupert, if you are on first-name basis)

as you may know, I plan to graduate in summer and am currently evaluating postdocs options. Given our joint interest in FTL travel, I was wondering whether there could be any openings in your lab that would fit my time line. Alternatively, are you aware of any postdoc stipends or grants that we could jointly apply for?

Thanks a lot in advance,

xLeitix

In my experience, such a super-informal mail has the highest chance of actually being read and is entirely sufficient to get the discussion going. Let the prof. decide what documents, if any, he actually wants to see before progressing (letters, CV, just a link to your Scholar page, etc...).

Important disclaimer: this really only works because the OP has stated that he assumes the potential postdoc advisor will recognize him when he receives the mail. If you have never met the person, or suspect that he won't be able to match your name to your face, add at least a link to your website. If you don't have a website, build one before doing anything else related to your job search.

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    Another possible nudge towards reminding them who you are is to drop your advisors name I will be finishing my PhD with John Doe... This assumes they know your advisor better than you. – StrongBad Feb 1 '17 at 13:56
  • Even if the potential boss does not know "you" personally, they may know your supervisor or your collaborators, which is also a good starting point. Or someone in their lab may know you and give you a good recommendation. So, not knowing the potential boss personally is not a reason to not write them. – Alexey B. Feb 1 '17 at 14:02
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    @AlexeyB. No, but the mail needs to be different in this case. (also, if your supervisor knows the other person, let her/him put you in contact!) – xLeitix Feb 1 '17 at 14:29
  • "super-informal mail has the highest chance of actually being read" I agree! Sometimes it seems busy people read only as much as fits in the preview window of their mail software... This is exactly what my question was aiming at: too long might be worse than too short. – Lukas Feb 2 '17 at 12:09
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If you know them on a “we recognize each other at conferences”-basis, I would recommend bringing the topic up at a conference. That is, if you plan to go to any conferences during this last year.

From personal experience, I can tell you that this works very well. In my case, my entry to the conversation was the fact that one professor introduced an upcoming project during his talk. After the talk I asked him pretty straight forward, whether he still needed postdocs for that. I also told him from the start that I did not know whether I really want to stay in academia and that I will postpone my career decisions until after my thesis was done, so I can focus on that first.

Neither my informal approach, nor my insecurity about future plans seemed to have a negative impact, as he told me immediatley to apply for his group at any time, if I am interested. And he renembered the talk three months later, when I was done and applied in a formal way, including CV, and all the other stuff.

To sum up, I would recommend an informal first approach (in person if possible), and a formal application where you refer to the last meeting, once you are certain.

Edit in response to the comment: If you really intend to get the position, if they have one, I would suggest a rather informal test in the email, but attaching a formal application that contains your motivation, some bragging about why the professor should consider you for the job, and the other usual stuff ;)

If you are just scouting and are not sure whether you really will apply, even if there is an open position, I would keep it informal for now. You have still a year left for a concrete application afterwards. (For me, the time span between the actual application and starting the postdoc position was about two months. They would have taken me already after one month, but I needed time for moving.)

  • While this might be good advice in case the OP has plans to go to a conference where the person(s) in question will be, this does not really answer the question of how formal to be in an email. – Tobias Kildetoft Feb 1 '17 at 10:54

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