Tips on Writing a Postdoctoral Request Letter
Jonathan V. Sweedler
Anal. Chem., 2013, 85 (15), pp 6981–6981
Copyright © 2013 American Chemical Society
In trying to think of an editorial topic to write about this month, I got distracted by my ever-growing email in-box, including a number of requests from postdoctoral candidates who want to work with me. Obviously, one limitation to hiring a postdoc is the availability of funding; I cannot hire someone if I cannot afford them. Funding issues aside, the majority of the postdoctoral applications I receive do not capture my interest, and I am sure this is true for most faculty.
What is it about a postdoctoral associate application that catches my eye? Or perhaps more importantly, what is it that stifles my interest? Many email requests that I receive appear to be sent by someone who has taken a long list of faculty names/emails and sent off their application with little thought. How else can I explain the number of applications I receive from individuals interested in synthetic organic chemistry or clinical research positions? Perhaps they hope that sending out ten thousand requests will optimize their chances of landing a position. In my mind, this approach does not work, as I usually do not even read such requests after the first few sentences.
My advice to potential applicants: send far fewer but personalized emails. Read about a faculty member’s research and tailor your letter to the group. Obviously, include your CV, prior research accomplishments, your career plans, and how a position in the group would help move you toward your goals. Provide details that help sell you, including important interactions with colleagues, the skills that you bring to the position, and other key points that may set you apart.
When writing an email to me, for example, I like to know why you selected my group: was it on the advice of a mentor, because you like a particular aspect of my research, or hope to gain a specific skillset? Next, explain what you can do for me. Most applicants list a myriad of reasons why getting hired is good for them. Perhaps not surprisingly, I hire people because it helps my research program. I want an outstanding researcher and also someone who has good communication skills. Reading your email is my first opportunity to judge your ability to communicate well. If you cannot do this effectively, then how will it work out when you are in the group? Yes, writing such customized emails takes longer, but at least they will be read and carefully considered.
Whether your long-term goal is an academic position or an industrial job, the ability to write proposals is also important. For this and other obvious practical reasons, outlining ideas on how to fund your own position is always impressive; it is harder to turn down applicants who have their own money. Even without a fellowship in hand, offering to apply for several fellowships (that you have already researched and know that you qualify for) distinguishes you from other applicants. Working with you on a fellowship application to work in my group allows me to see how well you write and create a research plan. Someone who has this initiative is harder to turn down, and I often commit to providing support from group funds if the fellowship applications are not successful.
A last piece of advice: plan early. I am more likely to have an open position if I know about your interest six months in advance. Also, I am not sure I want someone in the group who cannot plan ahead; if you need to find a position in a hurry, explain why this is the case in your initial email, otherwise your last minute request appears to be due to a lack of foresight.
If everyone who applied for postdoctoral research positions followed these guidelines, the applications would receive more of my time and consideration and deserve a conscientious reply.
Good luck with the process.