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I am a graduate student in physics and every other month or so I get an e-mail from someone who wants a grad school or even postdoc position. These e-mails often start out "Dear Professor (my name)," (I'm not a professor) and go on to explain that they are a motivated student looking to do a PhD with me, sometimes referring to a position that I am supposed to have advertised (I didn't). In the past I have often sent a reply in which I try to be disinterested but helpful, pointing them to the jobs section on our website which explains clearly who to contact.

I'm asking because today I got another one:

I would be pleased to join for the PhD Studentship position into your institution for (field that has nothing to do with my institution) research.

Oddly specific and inaccurate at the same time. I don't mind just deleting it. However, I'd like to help if I can.

  • Why do people do this? To me, it seems counterproductive.
  • How can I help them onto the right track?
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    Ignore. It's good practice for later. – Dave Clarke Mar 9 '13 at 18:03
  • There's a reason that people suggest that you research the institution and the people at a place that you're applying for, and it's to ensure that you appear genuine when you are asking for employment opportunities. This goes for ANY job, not just academic jobs - I'm sure that many private companies get the same generic Copy-and-Paste letter as well. – Irwin Mar 9 '13 at 18:13
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    IMHO there is a huge difference between getting an e-mail with a few details mistaken*) and getting SPAM. A few times I was addressed "Prof.", once even as an undergraduate student. However, when it is not a (semi-)automatically generated e-mail, I always respond (e.g. some people are afraid when do not know one's title, and write "Prof" just in case). Moreover, openings are not always listed, so asking about them is always a valid question. But in the later case (i.e. of SPAM)... – Piotr Migdal Mar 10 '13 at 0:34
  • I usually consider such emails as spam, although it's an oddly targeted type of spam. The only goal I can think of is to confirm the validity of academic email addresses. – David Z Mar 12 '13 at 1:07
  • We actually got a visiting scholar from Japan through one of these emails in our lab, addressing me as professor (I'm a graduate student), so not all of them are spam. It seemed real enough, so I forwarded to my advisor. – daaxix Feb 17 '15 at 18:56
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I think we all get these emails and being famous and more senior probably means getting more of them. I am not famous or senior so I get one/two of these a day. I reply to them all. I am not sending man to mars and and can spend 30 seconds to reply to someone who sent an irrelevant one or spend a bit of time helping someone who was genuine and/or had a high calibre and went and studied my work. Naturally the quality of my reply depends on the quality of the email I have received. Thats the least that I can do. I must confess at times it has been a one liner saying "at least do a bit of research and see what I do instead if this generic meaningless email and have attached my boilerplate text explaining why this is not helpful and what they should do" but also sending a three pager, correcting mistakes I have seen in CV, cover letter and/or proposal and calling people I know to help somebody out.

Why do I do this? Yes it takes time and we are all busy but I enjoy the fact that I am in a position to guide someone and help them out in bettering themselves. Many have done this for me before and believe it or not those guys who replied were really helpful. I do the same in hope that it might inspire someone, help him/her succeed and give them the sense that people do care about you and want to have your back. Same way many people are in this community who give their time and help strangers they don't know.

Now answer to the question: Write a boilerplate text for the ones who send you random stuff. This is not the last time you will get something like this. Explain why this is not going to help and what is the correct way. You only have to do this once and whether they take your advice or not is their choice...

In future if you become an academic please do try to help people and don't see their efforts as SPAM if you feel they are genuine and have tried. Also give the benefit of the doubt to the ones who send random emails. They might just be desperate and need some help. Preparing some text to explain the above might actually help someone. It might be that he/she has got bad advice about how to go about finding positions etc.

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    +1 for Same way many people are in this community who give their time and help strangers they don't know. Otherwise we never have this board in the first place. – scaaahu Mar 10 '13 at 8:56
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    This was, in my opinion, the best advice. I ended up doing this, though I didn't spend any time correcting the CV. – ptomato Mar 13 '13 at 12:27
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What you describe is a form of academic spam. As any spam, people do it because:

  1. the cost appears low
  2. you can do it in bulk
  3. the success rate is indeed horribly low, but if the number of emails sent is large, the product of (success rate) x (number of emails) can be non-negligible.

While the above analysis is probably true if you're selling sildenafil citrate, I think it does not hold in academia, because hiring decisions are typically a well-controlled process, and not an “on the spot” decision by a single person in power.

My policy regarding such emails is: my time is precious (in fact, it is most probably the main limiting factor in my scientific productivity). So, if there is at least one blatantly untrue or gross discrepancy in the email I receive, I do not reply. (That can include: getting my affiliation wrong, getting the research field wrong, referring to a position I didn't advertise, etc.)


Added for clarification: getting the title wrong does not, in my own system of value, consider a “blatant error”. Obviously, emailing a graduate student with “professor X” is weird, but you have to consider that honorifics, titles, etc. depend on country/research system. Thus, many people use “professor” when they refer to permanent staff, when they are not sure if the actual title is “Dr.” or “prof.” or whatever… It is, in my view, a really minor issue.

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I see a fair number of these letters as well. Some see more genuine than others but as you state some do not even hit the main subject in which my department work. I see these as desperate attempts to get a foothold somewhere. In some cases, and I must emphasize that I cannot support his with hard proof, it seems having some form of official documentation may provide enough basis for persons to get the necessary background for visas and hence possibility to travel.

I am sure there are all kinds of reasons for these mails ranging from the perfectly honest, however misdirected, to the pure opportunist with alternative motives. The true tragedy is that the genuine contacts may become rejected because of the sheer number of mails.

I would recommend that each department/graduate school set up some form of standard reply, perhaps pointing at a web page stating how to apply. In our case PhD positions are offically advertised so contacting the department (me) is of no use.

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