The academic cold contact


A lot of science that gets done these days results from collaboration. Collaborations can come about it a multitude of ways. Of course there is the classic networking approach. You know someone they know, or you meet at a conference or a departmentally hosted seminar. But what do you do when you’d like to collaborate with a person/group that you haven’t met? As my research expands, I am finding myself making contact with people I don’t know more frequently. Hence the academic cold contact.

My first experience in contacting people I didn’t know to ‘collaborate’ was when I was searching for a PhD position. I sent numerous emails to professors asking them if they were taking on students and who I was and why I was interested in their lab. Although there was a common thread to each email, I tried to tailor them to the person I was contacting. It felt daunting. I can’t remember what my success rate was for replies but in the end I had a number of programs to apply to and, as they say, the rest is history.

Now that I am on the other side of my PhD, I sometimes these kinds of emails come into my own inbox with varying degrees of quality. And as I’ve been thinking about my own attempts of contacting people, I’ve come up with some ideas with how to do the academic cold contact. Although it will vary a bit on the purpose of your contact and what stage you’re at, here are some best practices for a written cold contact:

  • Be concise. No one is going to want to read pages of text to find out what you’re writing about. However, you can include attachments that will flesh out your request such as your CV, relevant papers, etc depending on what you are looking for.
  • Although you want to be brief, include information on who you are but more specifically why you are contacting the person for collaboration. There is nothing more annoying then trying to guess why someone is contacting you. For example, if your CV deviates greatly from the work in the lab you’ve contacted, be specific about why you want to work with them or what piece you see them contributing (or vice versa). Without offering a critical link to the person, they’ll probably assume that you’ve just spammed a number of labs taken from the university website (it is what I think when biomedical students contact me about positions).
  • You don’t need to reveal all your cards, or in other words, don’t put the cart before the horse. If the person is interested in working with you, you can get into the details of the project/collaboration/position after they’ve gotten back to you. Again, this might vary depending on context and whether you have something to offer or are looking for something. But don’t bog down your email with little details. Stick to the main message and discuss details as the collaboration progresses.
  • Set aside your imposter syndrome. You definitely don’t want to come off like an arrogant jerk that thinks very highly of themselves. However, you don’t want to beg either. Imposture syndrome is something I struggle with as I establish myself but it is important to recognize your own strengths and what you bring to a collaboration. That is true even if you are inexperienced (such as searching for a PhD). So the best you can do is present why the person might be interested in working with you.
  • Choose an informative subject line. If you want your email to stand out, it needs to have a subject and the subject needs to be clear. There is a lot of spam out there, don’t let your email fall into that category.
  • Be patient. Your request/proposal might require some thought on the part of the receiver, so don’t expect an immediate reply.
  • Be forgiving. One of my current collaborators is someone I contacted about working with for a post-doc and never got a reply. It sucked at the time but it can be understandable. There are all kinds of reasons why your email can slip through the cracks or why they’re not interested in collaborating at that time, so don’t hold a grudge. I’d be missing out now if I had.

4 thoughts on “The academic cold contact

  1. Great topic and great piece. E spell check didnt pick up that is should be ‘imposter’ not imposture.
    Im going to put this on my online_academic blog if you have no objections. 😊

  2. Thanks! I’m not sure what my mental block on imposter syndrome is but it isn’t the first time I’ve made this mistake–might be contributing to my own imposter syndrome! :) And I’d be happy for you to share (of course, please acknowledge where it comes from).

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