How not to apply for a position in our lab

We are getting an increasing amount of requests for students’ placements. Unfortunately, many of those emails are very generic and for example do not mention when they want to join us, nor why they want to work in our lab, nor what their backgrounds and skills are. This kind of emails tends to get one reply from us: sorry, but right now we can’t. Therefore we wanted to share a piece of advise on how to approach potential future supervisors:

DO NOT SEND GENERIC EMAILS. This is the main take home message of this post, feel free to stop reading here… Do continue if you’d like to know what is meant exactly. Here is an example:

“I am writing this to express my sincere interest in the M.Sc. program in your lab. I am highly keen and focused to attain more knowledge, skills, and practical expertise under your invaluable guidance for further enhancing and employing them in future research work.”

This could have been sent to any lab anywhere on this planet doing research ranging from mathematics to cell biology or astronomy. Why are you interested in the work in our lab? Is it the methods we employ? Are you interested in posttranslational modifications? Whatever it is that made you write to us, explain those reasons! If I read in a letter that someone would really like to learn how to purify and study a protein, or learn how cancer cells are used for research, or would like to know how posttranslational modifications are important in cancer, or […], I am much more willing to explore our possibilities despite pandemic than I am when encountering the next generic email.

At least for us, past experience is not that important. We can teach you any of the required methods, we have journal clubs to learn to critically read articles, lab meetings to learn to present and discuss science. More important are motivation, curiosity, willingness to learn. And these of course are strongly dependent on your reasons for doing this internship: are you doing it because you have to in order to finish your studies, would you like to learn more about the methods we use, or are you interested in our area of research?

Some may think that sending many generic emails will enhance their chances of getting a positive reply, I daresay it does not. I have devised a generic reply I may start sending to generic inquiries that come in, along the following lines:

Dear M(r)(s) X,

Thank you for contacting us. As the letter you have sent us did not mention the research we do, nor any particular reason why you’d want to join our lab, I am assuming you sent us a generic letter. Therefore, I am sending you a generic response. I’d strongly advise you the following: if you are serious about a placement in a lab, take some time to answer a number questions: what do you want from this placement? Learn methods? Make connections? Dive into a certain research topic? Tick it off the list to be able to finish your education? Once you have the answer to those – and perhaps other – questions, integrate that in your application. Tell us why you want to join us! Unfortunately, my standard reply is that especially during the still ongoing pandemic, we currently do not have the possibility to train new students. I do urge you however to take this response to heart and reconsider how you approach other labs where you might want to train, so that you next may receive a reply other than a generic rejection.

Best wishes,

ME

For my BSc thesis, my goal was to try as methods as possible to see which I’d like. For my MSc thesis, this shifted more towards a preference for certain subjects – I wanted to work on the interaction of immune system and cancer cells (How far I drifted from that! That’s another story for another time though…). Including this information in my applications enabled me to find positions fairly fast. I am aware there was no pandemic at the time, so I guess it was easier for me than it is for current students. Still, I think precise application letters will be highly appreciated by the recipient, so invest your time in those!

Good luck!

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