Avoiding pitfalls when applying for a research position in a lab

I receive a substantial number of emails from students requesting to be considered for positions in my lab. Some candidates apply for positions that I have opened, whilst others take the initiative to contact me to see if I have some position on offer. This post is especially targeted to the latter case.

The first impression you cause when you write such a message is critical. As one can easily imagine the head of a lab is likely to be very busy. She/he has to deal with several requests every day and is likely to be forced to filter those that she/he will spend attention on.

So, the first question you have to pose to yourself is whether you will be able to capture her/his attention with your message.

A common and yet fatal mistake is to start the message with something like “Dear Sir/Madam”. This approach usually shows that the message is being sent to several people simultaneously. In other words, it shows you are looking for a job (any job) rather than trying to meet your vocation (vocation is almost everything in science, so make sure you demonstrate it when you write). When I receive a message that addresses me as an anonymous character grabbed randomly from the Internet, the chances that it will end in my trash box are extremely high.

Another common mistake is to send a message in which you simply say you are sending your CV for appreciation. Heads of labs are generally not expecting to recruit people based on random CVs that land in their desks. When they have a position available, they generally advertise it widely. Sometimes they do recruit people on short projects or probations and you might have a greater chance if you are at the right place at right time. Such opportunities arise for at least three reasons. Firstly, because it takes time and energy to advertise positions and, if a suitable candidate is around when needed, it can save the head of lab some (precious) time. Secondly, some positions are opened with such short notice that it is impossible to effectively advertise and recruit candidates with the time available. Thirdly, there are topics in which very few suitable candidates exist. It is often the case for positions requiring strong quantitative skills or strong theoretical background in relatively specialised topics. In such cases, it makes sense to first train the candidates–using mini-jobs or probations–, and only then open a position tailored to that person.

So, when establishing contact make sure:

1. You address the person you are writing using her/his name.

2. Let the reader know you are aware of the type of work she/he does and understand it, at least partially. It is no good to simply say: “I have been reading your web page and love the work you do”.

3. Since vocation is almost everything in science don’t let your potential employer think you are writing simply because you are desperate to find a job. There are millions of job seekers out there, and heads of labs are searching for talent.

4. If you really want to cause an impact come up with a question you would like to address with support of the lab. Coming up with a good question shows you are interested in the topic, you have studied it, you have understood it beyond passive learning, and you are a potential future researcher because you have anxieties and questions in your head.

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