When to make unsolicited contact with an established researcher
It is quite common for those seeking a PhD or postdoc position to make direct contact with a researcher, for example to ask whether there are any available positions. But when is it advisable to make direct contact, and when is it going to give a poor impression? From my own experience, I would say that the probability of succeeding at getting a position from making direct contact is quite low, but it can work out in some cases. At least one person in my lab joined me as a result of such a contact (by writing) and another by introducing themselves at a conference. However, the idea that ‘it costs nothing to try, and the rewards are great’ is a bit of a fallacy, as making direct contact often fails to give a good impression.
A pretty good rule of thumb for when to write directly is that you should have a clear and obvious reason to initiate contact. Specifically, it is important to be able to immediately, and succinctly, pique the interest of the person you are writing to (keep in mind that it’s not uncommon for an established researcher to receive more than 100 emails per day). This can include demonstrating a clear link between your previous research and theirs (which, ideally, extends their subject to interesting areas) or highlighting something that they do that is of particular interest to you (but note that this requires explaining why). “I am interested in the research that you do” or simply listing a high-impact paper from their website alone will not make your letter stand out from the many other generic emails that are being received each day. Good examples of emails I’ve received have demonstrated familiarity with my research, for example by identifying how different elements of my previous research could be integrated to advance knowledge in new directions.
Failing to make your letter relevant can have some negative consequences. At best, the person you contacted will not remember you. At worse, it can give the impression of being needy or demanding. Most of the time direct contact emails that fail to form a clear link with the recipient demonstrate a lack of vision.
What to include in a contact letter (i.e. email)
First, and foremost, introduce who you are, what your status is, and what you are writing for. This should be very succinct, just a single sentence or two (at most). Preface this with the (correct!) name and title. For example:
Dear Prof. Dr. X,
My name is Y, and I am an MSc student at Z. I am writing to you to find out if you have any research/PhD/postdoc/internship opportunities in your lab.
Then, it is critical to immediately make a connection. This is the most important thing to achieve when writing to someone for the first time, and it should be crystal clear to the reader within the first few sentences. A connection could be through mutual contacts (e.g. “I just finished my thesis with Prof. X, whom you might be familiar with.”), via overlapping work (“I just published a manuscript that cited your work extensively.”), or it could even be just highlighting a body of their work you find particularly interesting (“I recently read your papers on X, which together gave me ideas about Y.”). Whatever the link, it is imperative to form a link between yourself and the recipient’s work. This link serves two purposes, it demonstrates that this is not just one of many generic emails you are sending, and, in doing so, gets the recipient invested in what else you have to write. This statement should form the conclude the first paragraph of the letter.
The rest of the letter should be succinct, and structured. A good second paragraph should include a brief(!) statement of your background. Do not see this as a means of sharing your life story, but rather to provide the necessary evidence to back up the connection statement above. For example, ‘Prof. X’s lab does a lot of work on topic Y, and I am keen to extend the training I have received on this topic with the advanced techniques your lab has developed’ or ‘your paper gave me lots of ideas about topic X, and it would be fascinating to explore these ideas some more’. You can include brief but necessary information about yourself, especially important things that aren’t in the CV such as when your current finishing date is, whether you can see yourself moving, etc. The aim here is to justify why you wrote in the first place and why the recipient should consider your letter seriously.
All in all, these three sections should take less than half a page. Being succinct is key—imagine that within 30 seconds (at most) their attention will start to drift onto the million and one other things on their to-do list for that day. So the best thing to do is close it up quickly by giving a brief statement of what you expect next. Do you wish to chat with them (phone or video), do you have a straight-forward question (‘Are there any open positions?’), etc. Then sign off.
Make the letter about the recipient, not about you
At this point, be careful to remember that the purpose of this letter should be to give a good reason why the person should be interested in you. That means that this is not really about what YOU will get out of this, but when THEY will get from working with you. Therefore, the letter needs to shift rapidly from what is it you’re after to what it is you have to offer. In the third paragraph, you should give clear evidence of the contribution you can make to the person’s lab and research. Here it can be important to remember that they are probably experts in their main topics, so avoid suggesting becoming another one of them (or just focusing on how their expertise will help you become an expert in that field), and instead try to highlight what value you bring to complement their expertise (this could be a expertise in a related area, practical skills, or even a willingness to engage in labour-intensive tasks).
What to avoid
From the above, it should be obvious that the number one thing to avoid is wordiness. Being too wordy, touching on too many tangential topics, and/or lacking direction will significantly reduce the chances of hearing back—probably because they’ll never get to the end of the letter. Really long letters can even make it seem disrespectful, that their time is not valued. It is, wherever possible, also good to avoid being vague. Be precise about what the ultimate aim of the letter is. It can seem direct, but that’s often the best way through. Finally, avoid generic emailing. Do NOT simply paste their name, and the title of one of the research topics from their website into a pre-written template. This is obvious to the reader, and will fail to achieve anything constructive. The worse cases that I’ve experienced include letters with 3 to 4 different fonts and font sizes due to copy-and-pasting, letters addressed to completely different people, and letters listing completely the wrong topics of research.
Letters that have a clear reason for being sent, that are well thought through, and that I found interesting were the ones that succeeded. If you want to be successful, it is important to invest the time. After all, that’s how we do good Science.