I had to put this up, link to it from my website, and try to help people looking for a position.
As the lab group is getting established and as we are building a limited reputation (and as the USA continues to make it increasingly challenging for talented students to pursue studies there) I am receiving a lot more applications for grad school and post doc positions. Generally I get three or four a day. As I take, at absolute most, 3 or 4 grad students a year and a similar number of new PDFs the odds are not in the favour of the applicants. This is definitely not unique to me and is pretty common for almost any prof at a research university. But I want to speak from my experience as it might be slightly different from others: it is harder for me to tell if a student is serious or not becasue of the breadth of the research program. I need computational and synthetic chemists. I need biologists. I need engineers. I probably will need entirely different skills in my group in the future. So it isn’t immeidately obvious if someone is “in-field” or not. But I share the same sentiment common among my colleagues: I only want team members who are excited to be here working with me and excited to be on my program. Those letters stand out. They get me interested. They make up for weaker CVs. This is because I was that student too. I had no pubs from my undergrad when I applied for my PhD (though I stayed at my home institution with a supervisor who knew me). When I applied for PDFs I had a weak publication record, far weaker than almost all the applicants to my group. I don’t expect a slew of CNS, JACS and ACIE articles. That tells me more about who you worked for than what you did. And I don’t care who you worked for. I care what you can do with me.
So, I don’t expect an incoming PhD student to have a background in synthetic carbohydrate chem (though that would be awesome) or to be an all star computational chemist with Schrodinger (ditto). But I do expect them to be super interested in becoming those things. I can’t teach passion. I can’t teach drive. Everything else, you can learn. So I want to see that the applicant really seems excited about what we do! We sure are. What does this mean? It doesn’t mean dropping the title of a recent paper in a different font mid-way through the email. I know you didn’t read it. Normally cause if you did, and you saw anything else we did, you would realize that it isn’t our core focus. Especially as nothing else in the email seems geared towards my group. If you want to work with me, then something grabbed your interest. Something we did, several things probably, got you interested. Write about that. “But that takes time!” you say. “The response rate is so low I need to send out tons of these!” I would argue the response rate is so low BECAUSE you are sending out a ton of letters. Each the same as the other: and the Dear Professor [No Name] ones are particularly damning. If I don’t see my name I don’t read it. That was wasted time looking me up. And I am not the only one doing that. It might surprise the applicant, but most professors are not idiots. We see through this. And we get so many applications we can be choosy about who we respond to. Showing interest in us helps.
We have been doing this a whole lot longer than you have been writing letters. And I am really junior. My colleagues have been doing this a LOT longer.
Send out fewer customized letters. After all, you are looking to spend 4-6 years with a prof working with them. That is a huge commitment! Make sure you want to work with them before you reach out. And then, when you do, your letter will stand out among the dozens we receive weekly. And you have a much better chance of actually coming over and doing research with us!
I look forward to hearing why you want to work with the awesome team of scientists I have the honour to lead.