Columns Opinion

Calling all teachers, please help

Shubha Tole

This is a request to teachers all over the country whose undergraduate or post graduate students write to us for their 6‑month projects or 1‑year dissertations. Like many faculty members, I get a dozen emails each week, typically a form letter that the student has carpet-bombed hundreds of scientists with. They often request (or, sometimes requisition”) help with their careers (often, carriers”) and state their desire to work in bioinformatics/​immunology/​biophotonics (none of which I work in). Sometimes they address me as Dear Sir,” a giveaway that they haven’t bothered to visit my website; others abandon any attempt at hiding that fact, and say Dear Professor” ! Sometimes I will get sms spellings – here is one written by a medical student, quoted verbatim:

It was only wen i was looking for reseach in india’ on google wen i cam across all the research dat was being done in TIFR in the field of biological sciences of which ur lab caught my eye.Ma’am it wud b great if u give me a chance 2 b a part of ur lab as an intern.”

Some students write a more carefully crafted form letter, but also based on the premise that its ok misrepresent themselves to hundreds of scientists. Here are extracts taken from one such email to me:
I am writing to discuss any research opportunities that you may have in your lab…. I have been following your lab’s research closely and find a close match to my research interests. I am reaching out to you to talk about a possibility of doing my undergraduate thesis at your lab for a duration of six months….I am looking forward to complete my thesis project at an established research lab, such as yours. I have read your publications and am certain that I will be able to complete a project successfully, and live up to the lab’s reputation.”

My response to this particular student was as follows:
thank you for your interest. I must say I receive too many mails from people claiming to have followed my work closely, read my papers etc, and they are all basically form letters” that the student emails to some 100 faculty in the hope of getting one of them to give them a project- anyone, any project seems to be their goal. 

But just in case you actually mean what you said, I have a different response for you: Prove it. I’ll give you 24 hours to give me a 1‑page write-up on any problem that I have published on, and your thoughts about how to proceed on that project.”

Needless to say, I have yet to hear back from this student! And the appalling truth is that I occasionally receive very similar emails from POST DOC applicants- indicating that the experience of PhD research has taught them little about integrity or the perils of misrepresenting oneself.

Once in a while I will get a grateful reply thanking me for having replied at all, since they never imagined a real scientist would write back, and thanking me for the advice, saying that they never thought of it this way, but they will incorporate it in their future. Occasionally I get a reply saying but I did bombard 100 scientists with my general letter, and that’s how I got a position, so see, it worked for me!” I do not know what the hundreds of others who don’t reply do with my advice- but if I can help even 1% it’s better than none….

Now, I am requesting your help to guide a larger community of students. Here is my response to the emails I usually receive. Please use it as you see appropriate to help students!
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Thank you for your email. If you are actually interested in Neurosciences, please check out the Society for Neuroscience website There are links called brain briefings” which are written for the non-specialist, and a downloadable booklet called Brainfacts” <http://​www​.sfn​.org/​s​k​ins/m ain/​pdf/​brainfacts/​brainfa cts.pdf> Its a great way to begin in Neuroscience.

Here is some advice for students who send form letters” to dozens of scientists often starting with Dear Sir/​Madam” and then claim to be very interested in the lab’s work (!!): this is not a great way to get a position in a lab. If the student hasn’t taken the trouble to visit a lab’s website, it shows! Flooding the mailboxes of dozens of scientists with a generic letter is a really poor attempt to getting a position. Attempt to write a specific letter (and please avoid sms spellings). Do not ask the scientist to furnish information about your organization” You are the one making the request- do your homework — it will only help your prospects if you learn to write a good letter. A classic example: You are requested to give me a chance; it will be great opportunity for my career.” Think about it- WHY should the scientist give YOU a chance above all the others? That it will be a great opportunity isn’t enough- it will be great for everyone won’t it.
Writing a good letter is, after all, your ONLY means of distinguishing yourself from the hundreds of others who apply with similar qualifications, earnest desires, aspirations, and then would be highly obliged, fervently grateful, etc etc for such positions.

Good luck.

Written By

Shubha Tole is a neuroscientist at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai. Her seminal contributions to understanding how the brain develops in the early embryo have been recognised by prestigious awards such as the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Award and the Infosys Prize. Prof. Tole leverages her experience as a mentor, policy-maker and senior scientist to actively engage in science outreach that inspires younger scientists and is a vocal advocate for women in science and of mental health awareness in academia.