Speculate to Accumulate

Survey conducted by EMBL, posted on Twitter by Dr Rachel Coulthard-Graf

A recent survey of postdoctoral researchers by the EMBL careers department shows that the majority had secured their first postdoc position by writing speculatively to the principal investigator (PI). Writing directly in this way is a career strategy that I and other professionals recommend to PhD students and researchers, rather than waiting for a vacancy to arise. Not only is it flattering for the PI to be targeted, your letter will demonstrate proactivity and self-motivation, as well as your interest in and commitment to this work. It will definitely give you an advantage ….. or will it?

Beware! Speculation is a notoriously risky business. It can reap rewards, but equally it can leave you empty-handed or, worse still, it could go against you. In this blog I’ve listed six tips to help you to ensure your speculative letter accumulates interest rather than being damaging to your career capital.

Academic research is very specialised and is well known to postdoctoral researchers, who are aiming to become more established in the academic community. This makes the process of writing speculatively relatively straightforward because (presumably) they are knowledgeable, have the relevant experience and skills and can easily demonstrate their value to the PI and how they can contribute to the research programme. This is also true for those applying for research fellowships, where approaching a prospective host lab is a necessary part of the application. Even so, as this Nobel Laureate points out, applicants still get it wrong.

For those considering non-academic careers with employers unknown to them, or for which they have no prior experience, writing speculatively is more difficult. Without directly relevant experience, a network or patronage from those within the sector, speculators will have to work harder to formulate their strategy.

So, how can you make sure your speculative letter will work for you. Here are six tips to help you:

1. Make it personal. When writing speculatively, one thing’s for sure, the recipient will not be expecting your letter/message so you will have to work hard to get their attention and interest. First and foremost, this means you must write to a named person – never “Dear Sir/Madam” and definitely not to the Human Resources department. Imagine PIs and other senior managers receive dozens of unsolicited emails every day – if untargeted, unresearched and bland, they will delete them by default. To find potential people to write to on a speculative basis, research the research group, institute, university department or company website. Investigate social media such as LinkedIn, Twitter and Researchgate and use any contacts you have that will help you to find relevant people to whom you can direct your speculative letter.

2. Do your research. You never get a second chance to make a first impression so get it right first time! You have great research skills so put them to good use by investigating the researcher group/ professor/ company/ line manager/their products/publication etc – anything and everything that is relevant to this prospective employer/partner/collaborator. Incorporate the key information into your letter and match it to your experience and expertise. This will ensure that your speculative letter is ‘on message’ and will demonstrate your enthusiasm and commitment to them.

3. Use/build your network. If you’re applying speculatively for a postdoctoral or academic post, you have the advantage of already being in this academic network. Even so, you can still build and develop your network by, for example, identifying mentors who are willing to help and support you such as your current or previous supervisor or collaborators. To build a non-academic network start to make approaches to people in the career sector of interest to you. Find ‘connectors’; graduates/alumni of your current or previous universities who are doing these types of jobs; follow and connect with other employees of these sectors; make comments, re-tweet or share posts of interest; attend meetings and webinars to find speakers or other delegates to connect with. In this way, you will start to transition your way out of academia and into your career sector of interest.

4. Put yourself in their shoes.  The recipient of your speculative letter is not looking out for, or expecting, a communication from you so you need to grab their attention. This means keeping your letter short and on message. No long lead in, no detailed explanations. Get to the point immediately. Spell out the relevance of your experience and expertise to their work. Why you are interested in this role/company/career and what are you bringing that will add value to their organisation to take it forward and even give it an advantage over its competitors. Showing in your letter that you’ve done your ‘homework’ will demonstrate direction and commitment.

5. Be positive and compelling. All of these tips are relevant to writing a standard cover letter for an advertised job, for a speculative letter you just need to exaggerate the normal guidelines: Paragraph 1: Introduce yourself in the context of the aims of the research group/organisation; Paragraph 2: Focus on your experience, skills and expertise and how it matches with those of the research group/organisation; Paragraph 3: Add additional information and refer to key evidence on your CV/on-line profile (with url link); Paragraph 4: Finish on a positive note: For example, “I hope I have convinced you about my potential value to your research aims/service provision/product innovation etc and look forward to hearing your response. If you’d like to discuss this further, I am available for a call/skype at your convenience.” See my example below.

Example speculative letter compiled with Dr Jacopo Marino for a career workshop we co-presented in Zurich in 2016, since edited and updated.

6. Ensure your CV is in tip-top shape! In addition to your excellent speculative letter you should send your CV, which must also be on message and compelling. Going back almost 10 years, I have been blogging intermittently about CVs and covering letters. The information is still applicable today, so I hope you’ll find it useful for your own applications. I’ll continue to add more on the subject of applications in future posts, so watch out for new information and advice coming your way!

Is your CV working?
10 quick CV tips
Strike your PhD from your CV?
When and how to use personal profiles on your CV
CV identity crisis
Top 10 CV mistakes
Have you got your CV covered?

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