Etiquette for contacting possible post-doc opportunity
December 19, 2013 11:40 AM   Subscribe

I'm about to finish my PhD this coming Spring in the U.S., and although the funding I received was specifically for creating "practitioners" I'd actually like to sharpen my research and publication skills via a post-doc. The thing is, most researchers in my area are in the U.K. How do I introduce myself to them?

I am finishing a Ph.D. and was funded with the expectation that I would develop skills for possible policy positions in a healthcare and education-related field. This was fine, but, I found that I like research in my field! Because of this I have an interesting background but my publication record is pretty slim. So, a post-doc is the way to go, right? The problem is, I'm in the U.S., and many of the top researchers in my areas of interest are in the U.K. And, since they are in the U.K., there is little chance to meet them at a conference and none of my professors know any of them. So, I'd have to reach out to them myself to enquire about post-doc positions.

UK or higher-ed mefites: can you give me any advice at all about how to contact a few of these individuals? Should I do this? If so, how? Is cold-emailing a potential post-doc a good idea? What should I tell them without sounding entitled or pretentious? Has anybody done this to you, and if so, what worked or didn't? Is there British-specific etiquette I should know about?
posted by absquatulate to Education (5 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I recently applied for a lot of post-docs (humanities) and was offered three and came close to two more. I got the green light from some of those potential supervisors by cold-emailing them. What helped, I think, was having a thesis supervisor who's very well-connected in my field. Thus, writing "I'm a recent Ph.D from ___, where I worked under Prof. ____", opened some doors.

So, my tip: if you don't know your potential host, try to name-drop someone to them who knows you and also knows them. Or is at least a recognizable name to your potential host, to give you some credibility. From the positive responses I got, I didn't receive the sense that my overture was seen as unusual.

(This was in the U.S. and Canada.)
posted by Beardman at 12:20 PM on December 19, 2013

Aaaaaand, I missed the part where you said your professors don't know any of them. Sorry. But does that mean that these UK researchers are unlikely to have read or heard of your professors? That might be enough.
posted by Beardman at 12:22 PM on December 19, 2013

Beardman: yes, it is unlikely they've heard of two of them. An analogy: If my field is Cooking, the one adviser is a pastry chef and the other two are dinner chefs. One of the dinner chefs is an expert in soups, the other is an expert in meat and focuses on chicken, and my potential contacts are also experts in meat, but rather focuses on pork. Does that make sense?
posted by absquatulate at 1:04 PM on December 19, 2013

I'm in a different academic field from you, but in my field it's quite normal to cold-email professors to ask about postdoc opportunities. I receive email like this at least once a week. I read these emails, because maybe there could be someone interesting out there who could contact me. Usually, however, the emails I get are horrible. Make sure you send one that isn't horrible.

Here is my advice for making a postdoc inquiry email bad:
- send it addressed to the wrong name or misspell the person's name
- send it to someone in a totally different field which has no connection to your own
- don't include basic information like your CV
- make the email obviously a mass email sent to every professor in the UK
- include typos in the email
- include way too much information about yourself, like attaching transcripts and copies of everything you've ever written

Here is my advice for making a postdoc inquiry email good:
- include basics about who you are and what you do right at the beginning ("I'm a PhD student at Univ X in Dept Y working on Theory of Z with Prof A")
- attach a CV, which should include references (even if those UK professors don't know your adviser personally, they are likely to know your adviser's work or may know someone else on your committee)
- explain exactly why you are interested in working with the person you are addressing, making it clear you have done your homework about that person ("I learned about your research on X when I read your paper "Why X is Awesome" in the Journal of X Studies. I'm writing to you because I found your insights into X intriguing, and one of my interests is to broaden my research on Y by incorporating the perspective of X")
- ask explicitly if they work with postdocs and if they are interested in taking on a new postdoc in your timeframe (fall 2014?)
- show that you've done some homework on possible ways to fund the postdoc that don't require them to pay you. I'm not sure what's available in your field that might fund US-UK research exchange, maybe a Fulbright? If that applies then ask if they would be willing to sponsor you for Whatever Fellowship
- ask about postdoc fellowship/other funding opportunities at their institution
posted by medusa at 2:01 PM on December 19, 2013 [7 favorites]

Seconding medusa - cold-emails are very normal. However, we get a lot of them, so a personalised approach will help you stand out from the many "DEAR [INSERT NAME]" mass mailings, and don't be offended if you don't get a response.

Also, the vast majority of UK postdoc positions are advertised on, so you might get lucky and find something there!
posted by firesine at 3:03 PM on December 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

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