The American experience for foreign postdocs: Breaking the ice and approaching the PI of your dream lab

This article is part of a Series
This article is part of a Series

The American experience for foreign postdocs

This is a series of short articles dedicated to several aspects of how a foreign researcher can plan a successful postdoctoral experience in the United States. Emma Perez-Costas, PhD, moved from Spain to the U.S. to pursue the PhD degree and has guided several foreign researchers through the process. Through this series, she shares her personal experience for the benefit of young researchers.

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The American experience for foreign postdocs: Breaking the ice and approaching the PI of your dream lab

In my previous article I discussed what to look for and where to find information on suitable laboratories for your postdoctoral experience. However, this is just your first step and now you will have to approach the senior laboratory head or principal investigator (PI). This article provides some tips on how to introduce yourself during your postdoc search, what information should be included, and how to organize your approach to different labs.

By now you should have identified several laboratories that could be a good fit for your postdoctoral training. How many laboratories is a good enough number? I usually recommend identifying your “top 10” lab destinations, ranking them by your order of preference, and starting by contacting the right people from the first three on your list. So, how do you approach them?

My advice is that if you are able to approach them directly in a conference or meeting, do it! Show up in the poster presentations of the lab team and/or in the seminar presentation of the group leader, and be prepared to ask specific well-thought questions about their research, because this may give you the opportunity to directly speak to the PI. However, this ideal setting does not always occur, and more often, you will have to contact most of your “target” labs by emails, which requires strategy and planning.

How do you introduce yourself?

The email subject:

Most senior researchers receive a myriad of emails every day; thus, you have to be careful in preparing these emails as well as the documents that you will attach with them.

A very simple but important part of the email is the subject. Please remember that many University servers will send your email directly to spam if there is no subject line in your email. Also, the content of the subject line is relevant because expressions such as “potdoc in your lab” may also trigger the spam filter, or simply sound too informal. So, what do you write as the subject of your email? Something along the lines of “interest in joining your laboratory team” or “possibility of joining your laboratory team” would be an appropriate choice.

The email content:

I always recommend sending short emails (one paragraph at most), in which you introduce yourself and explain briefly what documents are attached. I cannot emphasize enough that the email should be short, and to the point. Long e-mails may discourage the reader, while attaching thorough and well-presented information to the email “invites” the recipient to read it whenever he/she has time.

This is an example of a short email, which I do not recommend using  exactly in its current form, just to give you an idea of the proper contents of this type of introductory email.

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All the contents of your email and attachments should be flawless. There are many resources you can use to build a proper resume. On the other hand, I strongly discourage using template cover letters because any experienced PI would identify them as “stock” letters, and it is very important that you show your genuine interest in the lab.


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Published on: Mar 12, 2015


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