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How to write a cold email

Some tips on a pandemic-friendly way to find a postdoc position
Elizabeth Stivison
Nov. 6, 2020

I wrote last year about how to find a postdoc job and included “cold emailing” principal investigators as one approach. Now that we are in the midst of a pandemic and many conventional networking opportunities such as conferences and retreats are either canceled or virtual, cold emailing about postdoc jobs may play a central role.

Cold emailing, or sending an email to someone you don’t know, in general can be a little stressful, but it’s not that bad. Keeping a few things in mind while you write your email can make it easier.

Be clear and brief

PIs are busy and get a lot of emails — including a lot of emails from other prospective postdocs. Clarity and brevity are key. The following points should be easily found in your email:

  • Who you are
  • Why you are emailing
  • Why you are emailing them in particular
  • What you want from them

Even I, a lowly postdoc, get cold emails from people asking for things, and many times after I read them I think, “Uh, what do you want from me? And why?” That’s not how you want anyone to feel after reading your email!

Your email should be easy to read. One thing I am often guilty of when I email people is making my points as if I were writing an essay or a book chapter. That might be useful sometimes, but it’s a lot to ask of a stranger to sit with deep focus and read a book expounding on my thoughts.

I’m learning to be brief and clear, and it has helped me to be understood and to get what I need.

Another mistake I make in my emails is, in an attempt to be polite, I avoid being straightforward. I might ask a round-about question, or ask for “thoughts” instead of just asking the question that I have. There are ways to be direct and clear and still be polite!

Tell them why they should hire you

This is the main focus of your email, the meat of it! Why should they hire you? This includes:

  •  What you will bring to the lab
  • What you want to learn from working in their lab
  • Why this is perfect for you and them

You should attach your CV, but your email should tell them what they really need to know.

You may want to change fields or model systems between your Ph.D. and postdoc and be thinking, “What can I bring to a lab in a different field? I have no skills that transfer!” But this is almost certainly not true.

Think about all you learned during your Ph.D., besides how to carry out protocols, and what you really will bring. Are you good at collaborating? Thinking about the big picture? Very detail oriented? Great at getting a handle on literature quicky? Do you love mentoring students? Are you just so excited to learn their field? I guarantee you have knowledge and skills that are useful.

It is essential to show you read their work and aren’t copying and pasting emails to various PIs.

Personalize your email

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You may be sending a lot of emails to try to get a job. Even so, spend enough time on each one that you know all the details you have written are correct. This is really a situation where being accurate is essential. Pay attention to both small details, such as the spelling of the PI’s name and the institution’s name, and major details, such as what organism they work on and what their research is about.

A PI on Twitter once mentioned getting an email from a prospective postdoc wanting to do wet lab research, but the PI didn’t even have a wet lab. These kinds of mistakes can be prevented by a good Google search and careful review of their lab websites and published papers.

You shouldn’t have to worry too much about that, though, because hopefully you are emailing people whose research you know well and you really want to work with!

Be polite

Addressing someone politely varies from culture to culture, so there are no hard and fast rules, but generally addressing the PI as “Dr. Smith” for example, is preferable to addressing them as “Jane” or “Sir” on the first email.

My personal rule is if someone replies and signs the email with their first name, then I can call them by their first name in subsequent messages.

Be enthusiastic and clear that you’d love a response — without being pushy.

Follow up

If you have your heart set on a lab and the PI doesn’t respond, follow up! Send another email.

It might be tempting to be annoyed that they didn’t respond, but just remember how busy PIs are, especially now while they’re juggling additional professional and domestic responsibilities. And, just to be clear, some PIs get several emails from prospective postdocs every single day. They might have meant to respond but just lost your email in the shuffle.

If you follow up politely and enthusiastically, it will help show that you are serious and will separate your pitch from the others that probably sound pretty similar.

More advice

Bill Sullivan, a professor at Indiana University School of Medicine, wrote an article for ASBMB Today in 2013 about how to write a "killer" cover letter. He covers the salutation, the order of information and many do's and don'ts. Read it here.

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Elizabeth Stivison

Elizabeth Stivison is a postdoctoral researcher at Vanderbilt University studying inositol signaling and a careers columnist for ASBMB Today.

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