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How not to get a lab job

What your approach says about you

Steve Caplan 5 June 2011

Enough already: words can kill your prospects

Did you cut my name out of the phone book at random?

People who know me will agree that I am certainly not a formal person. I don’t own a suit, have a single tie that I have worn all of three times, and my preferred attire is jeans and training shoes.

I am also a big fan of modern technology, and have a growing appreciation of electronic and social media. However, when it comes to job applications, I do draw some boundaries: a job query should not resemble a text message or tweet.

As a principle investigator (PI) running a research team in a big university, I get a lot of emails from people who want me to give them a job. Some of these have the exact opposite effect, and I’ve been collecting examples of these for some time now. The following letters are excellent examples of how not to write a job query. After each letter (taken verbatim except for changing any identifying information) I have included a short “Translation for the PI”, exemplifying what is wrong with the letter – in case anyone actually has any doubts. (Some of these have accompanying illustrations drawn by my daughter, aged 12.)

How not to get a job #1

Dear Sir

Hope you are fine. I am very enthusiastic about doing research in your esteemed organization where I could meaningfully and productively exploit my skills and gain an opportunity to experience a dynamic, rigorous and systemic training. I am looking for a challenging position (post doctorate) in your laboratory. Please find my detailed CV for your kind consideration and persual.

With Regards,


Translation for PI:

Don't know who you are, as I write these and send them out by mass e-mail – but I hope you are fine (if you were dead, that wouldn't work well for me to get a job, would it?). I am enthusiastic about finding a job in your organization – whatever that is – Walmart, fire department, Humane Society, and could exploit my skills as a greeter, fire-truck driver, animal welfare person. I am looking for a challenging position (post-doc) – in other words, doing a PhD is a piece of cake, but post-doc work will be a challenge. You'd better be kind in considering my CV, because on merit alone, I'm not going to get this job...

How not to get a job #2

I am XXX from Omaha. While looking postdoc positions I saw notification from your lab. I completed my PhD in march 2009. I worked on diabetes and use of medicinal plant (Catharanthus roseus) on diabetes. Here I am attaching cover letter, my CV and recommendation letter. Please give response if u feel good.

Yours sincerely


Translation for PI:

Shows an applicant who thought long and deep about his/her future career, and pays particular attention to fine detail. The only problem from the PI’s side – what if he/she does not feel good?

How not to get a job #3

Hi Dr. Caplan,

My name is Dr. XXX. I am research associate (assistant professor) at the university of Anywhere in the department of Radiation and Cellular Oncology. As my husband Dr. YYY moved in Omaha, I am also looking for a research position at your institute. Here I have attached a cover letter and my CV for your consideration. Thanks,


Translation for PI:

My husband’s job is the important one – he is the “real” scientist. I just need to find a job doing anything – doesn’t matter what – somewhere near my husband. I’m not necessarily interested in what you do, but saw your advertisement….

How not to get a job #4

Dear Dr.Steve Caplan:
 I write to you to apply for postdoctoral position in your esteemed 
laboratory at once. I got Ph.D. from Third Medical University, Oblivion, 
Oblivia this year. Now I am a volunteer in Department of pharmacology, 
Godforsaken University School of medicine, Middleof, Nowehere.

 I have grasped many research techniques such as molecular techniques, 
cellular biology techniques, cell lines and embryonic stem cells cultures, 
etc. I possessed the ability of tackling difficult experimental problems 
independently. Parts of the work during Ph.D. training will be submitted to 
international journal. My researches mainly focus on the molecular 
mechanism of the differentiation of embryonic stem (ES) cells into 
functional hepatocyte precursor cells (HPCs) and therapies related to 
treatment of hepatic disease.

 I am very interested in your researches. Your excellent work and notable 
articles distinguish you as the esteemed scientist. There is no doubt that 
your excellent program would give me an opportunity to develop my knowledge 
and techniques further. I deemed that I am qualified for advanced training; 
moreover, my academic background and experience would also make 
contribution to your lab’s research.

 Attached file is my CV and publications. I will be most happy to send 
you more information if you request it.
 I am looking forward to hearing from you.
Sincerely yours, 

Translation for PI:

Now here is a researcher who has clearly “deemed herself/himself” qualified for advanced training. Since I am “the esteemed scientist”, I suppose who is better qualified to do that training? After all, I do excellent work and write notable articles (*pats self on back*). Have you actually read them? Do you know what I work on? Does it hold any interest for you? Does it matter?

How not to get a job #5

Dear Dr. Caplan:

How are ya?

I am one Foreignese student. I learned that you are one excellent scientist working on the molecular mechanisms of regulating the recycling of cell surface proteins and other molecules back to the plasma membrane. You are interested in the interaction of EHD1 protein and other factors. I am really interested in coming to your lab and working on my Ph.D. under your supervision this year. Now, Foreignese government has a studying abroad program to support the students who want to pursue Ph.D. in foreign countries. The Foreignese Scholarship Council will cover the students who can meet their requirements with international travel cost and living expenses. But the students must get tuition cost covered by professors/institutions.

My GRE score (paper-based) is 1140 with the writing score of 3. My TOFEL score is 85. If you need any other documents, please let me know. If you think you can accept me to work as your Ph.D. student, please provide me a letter which indicates that you will provide me with tuition support. Thank you for your consideration.

Best wishes!

Sincerely yours,


Translation for PI:

I’m fine, como estas? How are things going? Cool, great to hear, be in touch, ciao…

Do I know you?

Oh yes, you are “one Foreignese student”. That’s good – I wouldn’t want more than one person from the same country in the lab – there isn’t enough space these days.

I’m so glad you learned that I am “one excellent scientist” (flattery, my dear, will get you very far)- I would rather be one excellent scientist than three, though if I keep on eating the way I do, I may look like two or three scientists in the near future.

How not to get a job #6

Dear Sir/Madam,

I have been working for 5 years directly with Prof. CCC DDD in the Dept. of Biochemistry, University of Nonentity, Oblivia. I have submitted my thesis and am seeking to leverage my experience in a Post Doctoral position in Biochemistry, Cell biology and cancer biology. For this reason, I was excited to learn that your lab is currently seeking a Post Doctoral fellow, and would very much like to be considered as a strong candidate.

Ideally, this position will allow me the opportunity to utilize my experience gained as a pre doctoral student. I have worked in this lab in areas of Protein purification, immunological, biochemical, mammalian cell culture, immunohistochemical, basic molecular biology techniques and problem resolution. Additional experience includes working on Image analysis tool and handling theory as well as practical classes for M.Sc students. I have succeeded in positioning my research work for career growth.

Much of my experience is in Tumor biology, specifically in the areas of Extracellular matrix molecules, Cell-Cell and Cell-Matrix interactions. However, given the opportunity, I am confident that my experience and personable disposition would be an asset to your laboratory.

For your convenience, I have attached my resume for your review. Thank you for your time and consideration. Looking forward to hear from you.

Thanking you,
Sincerely your’s,

Translation for PI:

Hi there – I don’t know who you are, male, female, neither, both – it doesn’t really matter to me – I just want a job. Of course, if I don’t know your name, I also don’t have a clue what you work on, but science is all the same, anyway, right? Actually, I’m not necessarily even trying for the job, but I would like to be a strong candidate. I can lift pipettes, test tubes and even large flasks, so I am pretty strong. I’ll even flex my muscles for you if you ask…

How not to get a job #7

Dear Steve Caplan,

My name is AAA BBB, a post-doctor in Dr. ZZZ’s lab, Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, University of Nowhere. I am writing to inquire about the availability of postdoctoral position in your laboratory for my wife, XXX YYY, who have got her PhD. degree in the Institute of Genetics and Developmental Biology, Trojan Academy of Sciences, under the direction of Prof. Dr. QQQ RRR. She has applied for her J-2 visa on June 13, and will get the visa next month. She has already proved herself an excellent young researcher with strong background of both basic theoretical knowledge and experimental skills in molecular biology, biochemistry and genetics. Maybe she is just the person you are looking for. If you want more detail information about her please refer to my enclosed curriculum vitae of her.

I am so sorry to disturb you, and thank you very much for your consideration. If you have any question please tell me freely, and I am looking forward to hearing from you .



Translation for PI:

Dear STEVE CAPLAN – did you cut my name out of the phone book at random? As a “post-doctor”, I would expect that your wife should be able to write her own “post-doctor” application to me. Can she write in English? Maybe she is “just the person that I am looking for”, but a recommendation from a spouse, brother, sister, mother, father or even grandmother does not go very far these days. A second cousin twice removed, maybe…

How not to get a job #8

Dear Dr.,

I am pleased to introduce myself as a senior research scholar in the University of Fargosia. I have worked on the project entitled "molecular studies on BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes in sporadic breast cancer" for my doctoral degree and submitted my thesis to the University by September,2004. I am waiting for my viva-voce examination.I would like to pursue my post doc with your team. I am keen to work on all aspects though I am basically interested in cell and molecular biology and protein chemistry.I would like to state that I will put my best effort if I am given an opportunity. Herewith I have attached my CV for your kind perusal. I am looking forward to hear from you.
Thanking you.


Translation for PI:

Dear Dr. _____________. What was your name again? My memory is not very good these days… Oh yes – Dr. X or DocX – no, no, no – that’s a Word Document format. Well whoever you are, and whoever your ‘team’ is (Chicago Bulls? Los Angeles Lakers? Boston Red Sox?) – I want to be with you.

How not to get a job #9

Dear Dr. Paul L. Sorgen,

I am attaching my resume for your review for current Post Doc position in your Laboratory at Nebraska Medical Center, US . I am a graduate student in Biotechnology working at Toxicogenomics and Predictive Toxicology Laboratory, Industrial Toxicology Research Centre (ITRC), Lucknow (India) on ''Molecular mechanism of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons induced hepatotoxicity and development of peripheral protein biomarkers''

The thing which I like best is the close connection between your research area and its immediate application. For me to reach my goal, I must work in your research group. And that is just what leads me to put my candidature for your perusal for the suitable position. For you further information regarding me. I am enclosing my CV along with this letter as attachment

I thank for your time and look forward to welcome the opportunity to join your enthusiastic team. Kindly acknowledge the receiving of my CV by email.
Thanking you
Yours Sincerely,
Aliena Spaceria

Translation for PI:

Here’s a researcher who can’t even get an e-mail to the right PI. How will he/she ever get the right chemicals in the right test tubes?


There is an old story about the mother who takes her child to kindergarten on his very first day, and says to the teacher, “My child is extremely sensitive. If he ever misbehaves, please reprimand the child next to him – that will be enough to make sure he gets the message.”

So, I hope that those of you planning to go out on the job market will take this into consideration and learn from the examples of how not to get a lab job.

As for me,

see ya, ciao, hasta la vista, feel well, hope u r well,