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Letters From India

I’m sure that I’m not alone in getting emails like the one I got yesterday, and I get them reasonably often. Out of the blue, I hear from someone finishing up a degree at an obscure (to me) Indian university. In this latest case, the person writing doesn’t even get around to telling me which one. And they are interested in doing a post-doc with me. Sometimes there’s language in there about “my department” or “my university” or “my research group” that they’d like to join, but in any case they’d like to be able to join whatever it is. Yesterday’s correspondent would like to know how I can arrange a fellowship for him to do that. Over the years, I may have had one or two of these from China or another country, but the huge majority are from India.

I generally respond to these letters, trying briefly to explain, among other things, that this is probably the least effective way known to get a research position and suggesting what could be better strategies. Such as explaining a bit about what you know and what your degree was about, that sort of thing (none of these letters ever include anything like a c.v.). Hearing from someone out of the blue, with no information about what they’ve studied (or in this case, even where they’ve studied) is the first problem. Doing so little homework on such an email that they think that I’m at a university is an even bigger problem, and it makes you wonder just how many of these things they’re sending out and how they’re rounding up all these addresses. The whole thing is a bit otherworldly, showing a completely different (and to my eyes, completely non-functional) idea about how anyone should go about finding a research position.

And on that level, I really feel for these people. I have no idea about what sort of scientific education they’ve received (as I say, there’s never much detail in these things). I’m not optimistic, though (based on the rest of the evidence) that they have been given any idea about how one goes about the next step in one’s career after earning a doctorate. Has anyone ever obtained a post-doctoral position by spamming people with a poorly worded, inadequately detailed email asking for a research fellowship? I can’t imagine that it’s ever worked, but as I say, I’ve lost count of the number of these I’ve received over the years. My impression (for what it’s worth) is of someone who’s put together a doctorate from a small, obscure university, and who has become so professionally and scientifically isolated by the experience that they see this strategy as worth trying – why not? I infer that their immediate employment prospects in India aren’t good, and that finding some sort of post-doctoral position there isn’t working out well, either, so this is what occurs as a next step. Which is really unfortunate, because it’s not going to work.

I truly wonder what people in this situation end up doing. At the very least, they do not seem to have been well served by their own university, department, or PhD advisor, to put it mildly. My impression is that the smaller Indian universities must turn out an awful lot of such doctoral students, releasing them into the world with few prospects and with credentials whose value is at best arguable. It’s sad. That’s the best single adjective I can apply to it. And it happens over and over.

107 comments on “Letters From India”

  1. cynical1 says:

    Similar to someone you’ve never met or worked with trying to connect with you on LinkedIn.

    1. John Wayne says:

      I agree. Most of the time requests from folks I don’t know are recruiters or BD people hoping to sell you something. I do get a persistent number of requests from people graduating from school unrelated to me in any way; I assume that if I was on Facebook and/or younger this would make sense.

  2. Anonymous says:

    This comes off as an incredibly entitled out-of-touch post. You try to sound concerned by saying it just makes you feel sad for them, a classic approach for entitled condescension. You had the opportunity to be trained both scientifically, professionally, and culturally on how to interact with the leading science institutions in the world. They did not. Jeez- you missed the forest for the trees on this one.

    1. Also Anonymous says:

      I disagree. I’ve been on the receiving end of emails like this, including from people attending universities in my own country. It does make you sad (and frustrated) that the university that they’re (presumably) paying to educate them is failing in the very/more important arena of soft skills.

      1. Isidore says:

        “that they’re (presumably) paying to educate them”

        Not presumably, someone is indeed paying, whether it is the individual or the taxpayers. As for the “incredibly entitled” and “entitled condescension” labels or their variants, which one sees thrown around a lot these days for no good reason, I am at a loss to comprehend why having had the good fortune (and also perseverance, work ethic and smarts) to have received good scientific and professional training one is disqualified from pointing out deficiencies and mistakes in others’ attempts to obtain professional advantages. One cannot but praise Derek’s attempts to set someone straight on these matters by replying to instead of ignoring such letters. I try to do the same.

    2. Anonymous says:

      I agree that this comes off as out of touch and condescending. Also, why label it specifically “Letters from India”? Why not just post a list of strategies for cold emailing if you genuinely “feel sad” and want to help people?

      1. Derek Lowe says:

        Because >95% of the letters I have gotten like this over the past twenty years have been from India. It seems to be a specific problem.

        1. SSG says:

          I’ve not had anyone ask me for a postdoc position yet(! – I am roughly postdoc age!), but having received a slight few similar messages, the vast majority are actually from India for me also. I don’t know what it is, a combination of steric and electronic, uh, I mean social and institutional factors, presumably.
          I admit I haven’t been as kind as Derek, and I have replied to maybe 15%. Usually, I have no idea what to respond, and sometimes (40% of this type of message I receive) it’s “I need help with all of organic chemistry [for free]”, to which… I really don’t feel any moral incentive to respond at all. Same if they assume I’m a man. Other than those categories, I think I should change my strategy and start responding more, as I’m impressed and encouraged by Derek doing so.

          1. achemist says:

            I got several of them as soon as my uni email was published on the uni website (when I started my bachelor thesis and was listed as “group member” on my supervisors website.

            Getting an email titled “dear professor X” and asking for a postdoct – while not even having finished my bachelors and 2 weeks after joining the group is a bit weird.

            Think they are mining the emails automatically or smth…

      2. Icefox says:

        He just did. “…explaining that this is probably the least effective way known to get a research position and suggesting what could be better strategies. Such as explaining a bit about what you know and what your degree was about, that sort of thing (none of these letters ever include anything like a c.v.). Hearing from someone out of the blue, with no information about what they’ve studied (or in this case, even where they’ve studied) is the first problem. Doing so little homework on such an email that they think that I’m at a university is an even bigger problem…”

      3. Isidore says:

        This reminds me of a scene I witnessed some years ago at the Dunkin Donuts in Central Square in Cambridge. A young woman right in front of me in line, probably a grad student or post-doc, judging by her overall appearance and the backpack she was carrying, was escorting an obviously homeless man and when she reached the counter ordered for herself and then asked the man to order whatever he wanted and paid for both. Whereupon another man, whom I would describe as a typical Cantabrigian, started admonishing her in a loud voice that by buying food for a homeless person she was not only not going to help solve the problem with the homeless but she was, in fact, exacerbating it. He then picked up his order and walk out, feeling, no doubt superior. The place was silent and the young woman appeared stunned. As we established eye contact I raised my eyebrows, whereupon she just threw her hands up in the air in a gesture of exasperation. And just like by helping one homeless person may not solve the broader problem but provides physical and psychological comfort to that individual, so that by responding to someone who is clueless on how to go about finding a position will not solve the broader problem of lack of education, training and skills but may help this one individual.

        1. metals wrangler says:

          Did you ever hear the parable of the starfish? “You can’t save all of them.” “But I saved that one.”

        2. luysii says:

          I don’t know where I heard this, but it fits with the virtue signaler described by Isidore — “people who talk about root causes never get their hands dirty”

    3. Jonathan says:

      No, I’m with Derek. I used to get emails like this frequently asking to come work in my lab when I was at NIH. In a policy office.

      If you can’t even be bothered to do enough basic research to know whether or not the person you are emailing actually has a lab in which you might work, then you aren’t really putting any effort into your own career.

      1. Karl says:

        Or have been sadly misinformed / misled as to useful ways of putting effort into one’s career.

    4. loupgarous says:

      Actually, Derek seems to have been genuinely looking out for the people who wanted post-doc opportunities without actually disclosing their academic qualifications or researching Derek well enough to know he’s in industry, not academe. He could justifiably have come to a much less charitable conclusion – that he was being sized up to take part in an immigration scam.

      According to “US College Sting: Indian Students Face Jail, Deportation” in the Bloomberg-affiliated Indian news webzine “The Quint”, as early as April 2016, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement has been cracking down on student visa fraud from India and China, in which students sign up for study in the US without actually scheduling or attending classes or working toward degrees.

      ICE ran sting operations involving the “University of Northern New Jersey” and “University of Farmington”, both of which existed only on Web sites, offering students the chance to enter the US on student visas without actually entering degree programs or signing up for coursework. The students arrested paid $8,500/year to recruiters for these empty student visa opportunities, knowing “discretion should be used when discussing the programme with others,” according to prosecution filings in Federal court in Michigan.

      Of course, immigration attorneys have a different take on the matter. There does seem to be the possibility of entrapment, and that some of the students arrested honestly believed they were enrolling in studies which would allow them to extend their stay in the United States

      Study in America is being pursued as a means to enter the country without actually being students of anything or at actual universities. The “otherworldly” letters Derek reports getting may be from le demimonde of academic travel opportunities.

      1. eub says:

        I agree that Derek is softer-hearted than I have been toward this type of apparent spam request. But I question why you find immigration fraud relevant to the post. I think Bayes makes it pretty clear the probabilities are against that being the case. Would you perhaps think you overestimated the probabilities, or did you just liked to “hey also despite the low probability I’d like to bring up”, or what?

        Base rates: 1) there are more Indian science students cluelessly seeking research opportunities than there are ones seeking faux positions, and 2) there are in fact more research positions than faux positions.

        Modifying those, does Derek’s reported email raise or lower the base odds of immigration fraud? It lowers it, for multiple reasons. 1) have you ever seen a faux postdoc position? you quote faux degree-granting programs, which seems more practical really for reasons of scale and administration. 2) sure scam opportunities exist, but is *this* how you access them? bulk spam? heaven’s sake, if you want to cheat you need the connections, not bulk email to completely random people. This email is not a signal of any kind of effective immigration scammer, rather the opposite.

        1. loupgarous says:

          I didn’t say it was a competent immigration scam. Nor do I know how much vigilance against such things the H1B visa program exerts. I’m certain that competent US researchers wouldn’t be taken in by such applications (uncharitably assuming they’re bogus). But these people don’t know who to ask for post-doc positions, so it’s possible that they’re (in Derek’s inimitable phrase from “Crap, Courtesy of a Major Scientific Publisher” ) “deliriously incompetent frauds.”

          I do know from work experience that a lot of H1B visa holders are graduates, back in India, of “shake and bake” programs where kids who don’t have much vocational or academic experience in data analysis or programming get enough coaching to pass cursory examination, but must be trained by the Americans they’re being hired to replace in actually doing the work they’re notionally here to do.

          1. Aly says:

            I for one, thank you for the post. I was unaware of this loophole.
            I also understand, as a scientist, that even if a probability is low, we need to set up our analysis to account for that potential occurrence. Otherwise…that’s just bad science.

    5. Blatant Sarcasm says:

      I agree, this post is incredibly elitist and condescending. Every email deserves a thoughtful, heartfelt, and time-consuming response. If any of you have ever marked an email as spam, hang your heads in shame! SHAME! Think of all of those poor noble purveyors of discount mortgages, cheap vasoconstriction pills, and dethroned princes with superfluous bank accounts who want NOTHING MORE than to HELP! Come, all of my friends who support these selfless contributors to society, let us tar and feather Derek!

      1. Tim says:

        I am now wondering whether tar and/or feathers have ever figured in Derek’s career, and whether Derek could make a good blog post out of that. Feathers seem unlikely, but I would guess that tar has so many different hydrocarbons that he might have done some distillation and experiments, in an undergrad lab course if nothing else.

        1. Dr Zoidberg says:

          I can assure you that anyone that has spent significant time doing organic synthesis has made large quantities of tar.

      2. dave w says:

        My favorite such appeal (didn’t receive it directly but heard of it, so it could well have been a fiction of a fiction rather than an actual fake) was (facially) from a Nigerian astronaut who was stranded on a secret Russian space station until he could come up with the money for a Soyuz ride back to earth. (The ones I got were usually just from the oil mininstry, wanting help setting up a bank transfer for some “surplus” contract funds…)

    6. Anonymous says:

      It comes off as incredibly compassionate. He actually writes these people back and tries to help them. I just scoff and delete the emails, because the author is already beyond helping.

    7. You’re not being cynical enough. It’s spam. I’d be extremely surprised if an actual human sat down and wrote out a letter specifically to Derek. What actually happened is that someone copy-pasted a form letter into bulk-mailing software that then sent it to hundreds of thousands of addresses scraped from websites it found by doing a quick Google search for anything related even tangentially to research. Derek gets a copy, even though he doesn’t work at a university, because his blog talks about research, so it came up in the software’s automated search, and his address got scraped.

      Taking the time to send a reply _at all_, even a form letter reply, is naive and pointless. The email address in the From field is almost certainly an account that’s been shut down due to abuse before you even opened the message, or it’s an innocent victim’s address taken from the spammer’s database, or it’s invalid in some other way. Furthermore, the whole thing is fraudulent, and the person who sent it isn’t a legitimate post-doc actually wanting to do research.

      Also, that Nigerian widow you’ve been corresponding with doesn’t actually have three hundred million dollars to move out of the country. It’s nice that you want to help people: your heart is in a good place. But you need to also use your brain.

      1. achemist says:

        got one of those as an undergrad (along with like 5 PhD students that were working in the same group)
        Definitely sounds like the mail adresses were mined automatically and my adress was picked up as soon as it was published on the group homepage.

  3. Just saying... says:

    Check the jobs board on Post doc and higher jobs are listed there. There are probably all sorts of other websites but this has been a long term pretty good source of information. Good bandwidth also.

  4. The Iron Chemist says:

    I get a ton of these emails too where it’s clear that the applicant hasn’t done the slightest shred of research into who I am or what I do. The opener for one I received last week was “Dear Sir/Madam.” Names get jumbled and sometimes I receive an email addressed to an undergraduate or graduate student co-author.

    My experience has been different than yours, Derek, in that about a third of the time, the applicant goes into their past research in detail. Lots and lots and lots of unsolicited detail. I never read this stuff since they haven’t thought about how to connect their experience to the work that I’m doing. They also send unsolicited CVs, which I’m afraid to open. In the event that some work has been put into figuring out exactly who I am, nine out of ten times the CV is filled with tons of papers in journals that I’ve never heard of, which reminds me a bit about Nasser’s line about adding zeros together.

    It is sad because these folks’ institutions are badly failing them. I used to read the Retraction Watch and Beal’s List blogs and the same people (graduate students in lesser known institutions) would ask if obviously shady journals were legitimate. They had literally no idea which journals in their field were the good ones and literally no idea what good work looked like.

  5. Old Timer says:

    I receive >10/day. I stopped replying. Unfortunately, the problem is so pervasive that one cannot help by responding one email at a time. Hopefully, this post will reach many, many more than my individual emails have over the years.

  6. Nisha Singh says:

    Speaking as an early career researcher, originally from India, I would like to mention three points in way of offering an explanation (not justification).
    Firstly, in India, education is everything. You are taught to be pushy and be proactive, and so graduates will do this (spamming) in the hope of the chance that they will be the lucky ones. Think about lottery tickets. You are taught that the probability that you are likely to win is low, however, someone’s got to win and it might be you. Therefore, keep trying, keep emailing.
    Secondly, in the bygone years, before email, the only way you could make yourself be known to someone in the USA or Europe, was to write letters to Professors explaining that you were interested in their research and would like to work with them. But at the time, you had limited means of accessing information, and so you prioritised and pursued only one or two people who you had taken the time to find out about. Unlike today, where information is easy to obtain and emailing people doesn’t take much time. So you spread the net, as far and wide, as you can because it’s easy, and doesn’t cost anything in terms of time and money.
    Finally, I don’t believe that institutes are really the problem in this instance. The problem, which I now believe is not restricted to India alone, is the problem of numbers. Everyone has a bachelors degree, then everybody needs to get a masters to distinguish themselves from the other gazillion applicants. So the next step is to get a doctoral degree. But then the number of jobs, professorship or lectureships are restricted, so you try and move abroad where it’s likely to be more acceptable to be a ‘postdoc’. This problem of numbers I can see growing in the UK too.

    1. Lyonite says:

      The problem with the lottery analogy is that, as terrible as the odds are, someone does win a lottery. That’s not the case here: the odds that a cold email to someone you know nothing about, with no information about your qualifications, will land you a job aren’t practically zero, they’re actually zero. And if they’re doing this in the absence of a strategy with any chance of success, then I do think their institutes are failing them. If you can’t learn professional norms from the place you’re going to for education, then where are you going to learn them?

      1. Nisha Singh says:

        Agreed. But it’s not just the institutions alone. It’s everywhere.

    2. Derek Lowe says:

      Thanks very much – this is something like I had pictured, and I’m glad to hear from someone who has some personal observations to offer. The numbers problem you mention (and the inflation of credentials) is indeed not restricted to India, although for various reasons it may be more acute there. . .

    3. Sulphonamide says:

      Do you know of anyone for whom this tactic has ever been successful? With regard to responding, I had one last week addressed to “Dear Default Setting” and another to “Dear Estimated Scientist” (fair enough, I suppose)…and didn’t feel it was really within the bounds of saintly duty to offer advice on where they might be going wrong. Afraid if there are genuine approaches from talented individuals coming through, then they are being tarnished by association in the eyes of many people.

      1. Derek Lowe says:

        Yeah, “Dear Default Setting” is not getting a reply. And your last point is a good one: this sort of thing makes a lot of other people look bad by association, who don’t deserve it.

      2. Sydnius says: *available*. I can see it being very popular in certain remote areas.

  7. ChemNoJobber says:

    Weird, I don’t remember Derek having a lot of job search advice for, you know, his fellow Americans. Welp, let’s hope the Great White Advisor’s talk will help some Indians, since I’ve never been fortunate enough to actually met one of this rare breed doing a postdoc here in the states!

    1. Wavefunction says:

      Actually Derek writes about his fellow American graduate students all the time. Check out the more than 70 posts tagged “graduate school” and a fair number in other categories.

      1. Derek Lowe says:

        There’s also a whole category over there titled “How to Get a Pharma Job”, for that matter.

        1. Academic Med Chemist says:

          Here’s some helpful advice then on how to get a post-doc. Spend some time learning about the group you’re applying to. I make it a point to always reply to people who show some evidence that they know who I am. Even reading their web page is at least a start. If you show that you’ve seriously tried to learn about someone’s research, your chances of getting a good reply goes way up.

      2. Wallace Grommet says:

        Chem No jobber will be posting as Chem No Brainer in the near future

    2. loupgarous says:

      You missed Derek’s “What Not to Do in Grad School” last week, then. Or any of dozens of other posts he’s done about American and foreign graduate students, or advice for them.

      So much easier to accuse the guy of being “the Great White Advisor” for not round-filing unsolicited mail from folks who don’t have a clue about job placement here in the States, but actually trying to enlighten them.

  8. Uncle Al says:

    “Draw your favorite molecule.” That shortens BS/Chem interviews. It shouldn’t.
    “Draw your favorite molecule.” Trivial at the doctoral level? I have my globalist doubts.
    Social modernity says, “Education is academic avarice plus your own selfish rage.”
    Qualification has devolved from content to saleshomininship absent product.
    …Dance, Kali, dance. There is no shortest distance between two points.

  9. ENES says:

    As someone originally from India and having spent over 30 years here in the US, I agree with Derek’s views and I think Nisha captured it well. For the record, I don’t know Derek nor have I met him, however, have been a visitor here for over 12+ years and must say the allegation of him being elitist or condescending is surprising. If not anything, I think he goes out of his way to be respectful and yeah, at times his humor is biting or even wicked….most of it deservedly so IMO.

    I do get unsolicited emails and messages on LinkedIn. I try provide some pointers to the best of my ability. Since I do visit India on work, I try meet with students, usually invited to give a talk by some local Univ profs who I get introduced to by folks in my network. I have also tried to initiate collaborations at times with mixed luck – as a consultant + entrepreneur, I have some flexibility in this department (yeah, my days at Big Pharma ended in ’07 when the little blue pill company decided to satisfy its urge by…well, you know….to a rather productive site in the Midwest…enough said…)

  10. Thoryke says:

    I’m surprised by the number of people here who missed Derek’s clear statement that he does try to offer guidance when he responds. Even if he didn’t, we are not obligated to answer all the unsolicited emails that crash into our mailboxes.

    The ‘what can it hurt to contact random people?’ strategy happens in other fields, too — sometimes even among humanities people whose training specifically includes lessons such as “know your audience”.

    Like Derek, when I do respond, I list some of the steps that would make a search for a job or a postdoc more successful.

    However, there seems to be fundamental mis-matches among the number of tasks that need to be done, the number of people inspired to perform them, and the number of organizations willing to pay for those tasks to be done….which means that even the qualified and well-directed are going to have problems finding a path to employment.

    [I didn’t even include the problem of Universities being more motivated to produce graduates than to ever consider what over-production might do to a marketplace, but that has certainly been a topic of conversation here over the years!]

  11. myma says:

    I get quite a number too, mostly from India but on occasion from China. To be perfectly frank, I treat them like all the other unsolicited emails I get: a very quick delete. Also, I work for a small company, and we don’t sponsor any work visas anyway.

  12. Charles H. says:

    I think you take the e-mail more seriously than is warranted, unless you are responding with a pre-written template. My first thought would be that it’s the start of a more-subtle-than-usual phishing attack. I’ll grant that this could be more suspicious than is correct, but given the number of different phishing attacks (and the lack of details regarding the successful ones) I don’t think it’s unwarranted.

    OTOH, it could be, as you don’t-quite-suggest, that the “universities” they went to were a scam. There’ve been several of those in the US, so why not elsewhere.

  13. electrochemist says:

    In some ways, this situation reminds me of the consequences of the “Common Application” for undergraduate college admissions in the US. With the advent of the Common App, college-bound high school students now apply to 10 to 12 schools instead of 2 to 3 (the norm back in my day when dinosaurs roamed the earth).

    The amount of extra work accrued by the recipients (college admissions offices) is substantial (3x to 4x) while the probability of being accepted into a college program has probably not appreciably improved for the applicants pushing out all of the extra applications. Having observed the process recently from the standpoint of a parent, my conclusion (as well as that of other parents with whom I have compared notes) is that there is actually a growing element of randomness in college admissions these days, presumably due to the mountain of applications colleges now have to disposition and their inability to execute a detailed and robust review.

    I have to wonder if the same effect has not resulted from the ability of individuals to emit hundreds of templated e-mails and LinkedIn requests? Are the success rates for getting an interview for a post-doc position any higher now compared to the historical approach of sending a “custom” letter to a group leader/professor that contains actual content?

    1. Hap says:

      When I applied (1989) I applied to about 8 universities, for which my dad was not entirely happy (it was about $400, then). I was told to have safety schools I had 2), ones you would likely get into and would like to go to (3), and “reach” schools that you would like to go to but probably wouldn’t get in (3, one of which admitted me). None of these had common applications, though I used my essays for all, I think. I imagine having a common app makes it easier to shotgun applications (though the fees would hurt, which would be a feature and not a bug), but when I went, more applications than 2 or 3 were common.

  14. Peter Shenkin says:

    Free association here….

    When I was in grad school, my address there was “Frick Chemical Lab”.

    I once received a piece of junk mail, which, when I opened it, began, “Dear Mr. Lab,”….

    1. Colm says:

      Sounds like the mail merge mess up I got a few days ago.

      “Dear MPTP Hydrochloride,
      May I know what’s your opinion about quotation of MPTP Hydrochloride dated July 27th?”

      1. AlloG says:

        I got one too- “Dear Dr. Disco Biscuit”

        1. In Vivo Veritas says:

          Bart, is that you?

        2. C_B says:

          I would listen to at least one album by Disco Biscuit.

          1. Leo says:

            Their live material is far superior IMHO.

    2. DrGreen says:

      A friend of mine once had his workplace listed as a coauthor in a conference program: “Arboretum, Arnold.”

  15. Anonymous says:

    I also used to get numerous inquiries from overseas applicants. I used to send short, polite replies to many of them but it got to be overwhelming. Many were off-topic, random, and spam-like. Everything now goes to /dev/null.

    However, because I sometimes make things about me, I will mention my old strategy. I was able establish serious scientific correspondence with senior authors before I even brought up the subject of a possible post-doc or research position. One of my favorites involved a publication by a future Nobelist in Europe. The paper was on the cover of Angew, highlighted in C&EN, etc., but there was an error in their structure proof (they had failed to consider an accessible chiral conformation that undermined their claim of “chiral = correct” structure; they eventually got an x-ray that did prove that they had the correct structure). I received a very polite reply thanking me, acknowledging that I was correct, and a couple more friendly exchanges about science, their work and my interests. When I asked about the possibility of doing a post-doc there, the friendly reply was, ‘Sure! Would love to have you! … Bring your own money.’

    Maybe that would work on these new applicants from abroad: “Sure! Just bring your own money for salary, supplies, and overhead.”

  16. TMS says:

    There is an old Woodward story about getting a recommendation letter from an Indian chemist looking for a post-doc. He began to read the letter and eventually remarked as he read on that it was the best written recommendation letter from India he had ever seen. As he read on he called out to his secretary Dodi to come and see it as it was just a really excellent letter. She began to read it and then retreated to her desk. She came out a few minutes later with a copy of a letter written by RB on behalf of one of his former Indian co-workers. It seems that there was a black market in India at the time selling RB’s recommendation letter to students seeking post-docs in the US.

    1. Kaleberg says:

      That makes me wonder whether there are scammers out there selling mailing lists and spam form letters to graduate students. I wouldn’t be surprised.

      There are people doing this kind of thing with pyramid marketing schemes in the US. They sell mailing lists and materials down the pyramid. There is usually some kind of product, but the real money is in recruiting lower level sales operators. I can’t believe that no one in India is running such a scheme, and desperate PhD graduates from minor institutions make good targets.

  17. anon says:

    Since we’re talking about jobs and career development, I have a question for the audience. I have been a postdoc for about two years and I’m ready for a job in the “real world”. My postdoc experience has not been as “productive” as grad school, as my role was mostly to aid graduate students in the same lab (i.e. no first author publications). I am a little disappointed by the whole experience, because when I interviewed for my position, the PI explicitly said I would be given an independent role. I had (perhaps too naively) envisioned postdoc as an opportunity to perform as an independent researcher for the first time. But, sometimes you just gotta do what the boss says for paychecks and I did not have my own funding.
    Maybe I am just little too paranoid, but how much do companies care about each candidate’s publication record? I guess even if they did, there isn’t much I could do to change that at this point…

    1. Anon2 says:

      Depends on the company. Go for it. Your life’s about to get so much better when you get out of there.

    2. Anonymous says:

      anon: “not been as “productive” … (i.e. no first author publications).” Sounds like you got stuck with a Bad Project.

      In my rotation, you said, “Guaranteed!”
      “One year, first author!” is all I would need.

    3. Ted says:

      Hi anon:

      It doesn’t matter. Learn about the opening, learn about the company, figure out a connection (for god’s sake, HR is there to keep you away from people, go around them as much as possible…) and talk to them about [i]their[/i] problems, not [i]yours[/i]. If they have hangups about pedigree, publication record, race, personal hygeine, etc… you’re not going to get the job and you’ll probably never know the real reason why. If you can get them excited about your ability to solve their problems, you’re in.


      1. anon says:

        Thank you everyone for encouragement

  18. MALLAM says:

    Topic sounds vaguely similar to those generously announcing that you’ve just inherited or won a large some of money from someone you don’t know living in third world country, and indicating all you have to do is give name, address, account number(s), etc.

  19. winampdfx says:

    Dereck tries to help the desperate post-doc seeker. This is great!
    Personally, I am already used to getting hundreds of emails from staffing agencies, LinkedIn, Xing etc. with job postings of little relevance to my education and experience. Thus the ability to simply ignore irrelevant information can be useful.

  20. Harrison says:

    I have to give credit to Derek for actually responding. I get one of these a week and just ignore them. Most of them are from chemistry doctorates wishing to deepen their expertise in organic synthesis in my lab. They show no indication of having researched my publications. Given that I run a biology group, I won’t be of much assistance to them.

  21. Steve says:

    My in box filter is simple. If they (i) mention my name (ii) mention my research (iii) say what sort of work they are interested in I will always reply and offer help and guidance. Anything thing else goes in the spam folder.

  22. OOM says:

    Travon Martin died because of people like this blogger wearing uniform. ‘nough said. Keep voting for Trump.

    1. Nick K says:

      You win the prize for the biggest non sequitur of the thread.

  23. Indian says:

    The key word here is “obscure university”. I do believe doctorates coming out of the more well-known and well-funded university across India do know what to do after their PhD and where (typically Europe or USA). Either their supervisors/advisors help them out or they have seniors abroad helping them out. The research funding in India has been better in the present government where BSc graduates feel like it is worth making a career out of sciences. It still has a long way to go and will improve in the coming years.

    These letters indicate the desperation of those doctorates who have already realised that they are stuck in a hole and just trying to get out in any which way possible. Employment opportunities within India are also hard for these kids since their credentials dont work in their favour. It sounds pathetic for folks sitting in the US and those getting these unsolicited emails but if you are the patient kind, this kind of advice that Derek is giving in terms of a response will go a long way in helping out those poor chaps.

    1. Derek Lowe says:

      Thanks very much for the details. This is just what I’d been picturing – India has a *lot* of degree-granting institutions, and it’s my strong impression that they vary tremendously in their ability to prepare their graduates. Mind you, we have that problem in the US as well, and it’s especially acute for people who are the first in their families to even go to college at all. No one around them has any experience, so these people can end up at places or in programs that are doing them far less good than should be the case, and sometimes actual harm. At the extreme, many people don’t realize that if (for example) you can get admitted to a top-tier US university in the first place (which is certainly not easy) that finances will not be a concern. A really gifted person with no money will get a full scholarship if they’re admitted to a Harvard or Stanford.

      I hope that the situation in India does work itself out as you mention. There’s a lot of talent in that country that should be better employed!

  24. DrOcto says:

    I replied once.

    I mentioned that this is an incredibly lazy approach to finding a job, and also demonstrated a lack of willingness to actually RESEARCH a few key facts, such as the fact that I didn’t actually have a research group.

    Perhaps I crossed a line when I said that I had no interest in collaborating with lazy people that won’t research, because the reply I got after that was rather an angry one.

  25. Insilicoconsulting says:


    Very well put. Indians have scientific aptitude , talent but very few opportunities in India irrespective of the large no of CSIR and other research institutions and successive pay commissions that have improved postdoc salaries etc

    The sheer no of graduates and the propensity for mass education has however degraded education /research quality and thus their employability. While other sectors of the economy are opening up its a far cry from what the supply is.

    We used to produce great chemists, statisticians even doctors and engineers but for this audience the first might be relevant. Global winds of change and automation have not been kind to the indian workforce as well.

    Thus my constant opposition to Chindia brigade always disparaging research/work done here. Industrial research does fine (maybe not great) and yes academic research is nowhere near where it could and should be.

    Reason for writing is just to provide a further background to Nisha’s excellent description of the situation.

    As for the letter it reminds me of the 1990’s when this was indeed the case but surprised people still follow this tactic. Use AI and customise for the context at least 🙂

  26. S. Venkataraman says:

    This could be because of what I would like to call the ‘Ramanujan syndrome’. It is well known that the Mathematician Ramanujan wrote to many mathematicians for help and finally got help from the British Mathematician G. H. Hardy who responded. The story is well known, at least to the Indians. It was around the time of the first world war. When the feats of Ramanujan was reported in the media, many felt inspired, including Subramanian Chandrashekar, a Nobel laureate in Physics. It seems to inspire lot of people who are not as gifted like Ramanujan to follow this route.

    1. Derek Lowe says:

      I had wondered if this was part of the problem! There are these cases of great people like Ramanujan and Chandrashekar who had to struggle for recognition by the European/American scientific establishment. One of my thoughts that I’ve often expressed here on the blog is that there may be (in fact, must be) people out there in the world who could make great discoveries but are trapped by the circumstances of their birth and unable to do so. But as you say, the letters that many of us are getting are not exactly coming from people of their caliber. Unfortunately!

  27. Pusher says:

    Everyone being a corresponding author in a paper will receive tens of emails. I do, always without my name, just Distinguised Prof. or the like (i work in industry). Many come from the same Uni so I suppose there must be a running mail list there.
    I never replied.

  28. DTX says:

    That Derek spends the time to respond immediately suggested to me that he cares. When students in the US have contacted me in an inappropriate/off-base way, I’ve found it takes much time to diplomatically tell them this.

    Regarding responding to Linkedin messages: The cybersecurity firm Knowbe4 noted in its July 30 update: “Last quarter, more than half of all social media-related phishing emails imitated LinkedIn messages.”

    Hackers do this because they know people readily click them. Hence, only respond to linkedin messages within the website or app, not via your email account.

  29. luysii says:

    Well it worked for Ramanujan, but he sent along his incredible mathematical work to the right people (Hardy and Littlewood). Probably every struggling grad student and/or postdoc in India is well aware of this story.

    Things may change in 2020 when we have an Indian Vice Presidential/Presidential candidate (Harris) or in 2024 when Nikki Haley runs.

  30. Shashank says:

    Seems like Derek you knows best how to draw attention with the title of this blog .. ” Letters from India” wow.. You must understand that Indians travel worldwide for the pursuit of knowledge . You are not the only one who is spammed. Are you trying to tell India’s education system is so poor that they can’t succeed .. Check your facts of how may Indians have studied and made big in your country . They have adapted to your ways of communication. The Asian century beckons us and the time is not far when you or your likes will be searching for opportunities abroad. Indians will definitely welcome you because they seek knowledge above everything else but you might not be able to adjust to their ways with your mindset !

    1. anon says:

      If foreign nationals are so interested in the pursuit of knowledge, then why is it they almost always want to stay in the west? Easy: life is much better in the west than where they come from, and in part they are economic migrants. You really cant have any conversation about the purpose of them wanting to be here in the west with out acknowledgment of this truth.

      1. Chemistry123 says:

        Yes, so what? One who is talented, hard working and deserving must be rewarded compared to those who are non-qualified, non-deserving and only sleeping and claiming rights because they were born in certain region. Perhaps a fact check needs to be done, the institutions of the world run because of hard work that the people of this world altogether put and not because of people whose only achievement is to be born in a certain region.

        1. anon says:

          If economic migrants tighten the job market so much that qualified nationals cannot get a job then there is a serious problem—-the country has failed the people that live in it. Im against this. Countries need to favor its citizens first over those of migrants.

          1. Chris Phoenix says:

            If immigrants make a country stronger in the long run, then the tradeoff of tight jobs may be worth it. You’re performing the fallacy of “Analyze just until some cost, however slight, is incurred, and then declare that unacceptable.”

          2. anon says:

            Tell that the people in the sciences that have low-wage jobs or have frequent bouts of unemployment, or lost their job at 50, never to be hired again, because grad schools keep bringing in foreign nationals to train as PhD’s. Typically, people will take a view that benefits there own success over the others in society, and cherry pick data to support it. A pro-immigration stance from immigrants could be just that.

          3. Mosquito says:

            Anon, Anon Anon! I think it does not mean that the country has failed you, but, rather you have failed your country. Let me explain this a little more simply- you being busy all immersed in privileges, yet we, the under-privileged folk, catch up and outwit you quite easily! Pity isn’t it? Seeing your pitiable state, I do believe your country should tighten its hold over counting on its citizens first. To keep up that, you’d (your countrymen rather) should deliver with the same intensity of output as an international student. As most of your time is spent in replying to useless blogs like these and basking in your glorified sense of self-worth, it would be rather difficult to do that, no? Your jibes are probably coming from a place of frustration where you whine about losing your privilege to more deserving individuals just because you believe that this is your prerogative. Tut Tut! Get some experiments running. Get some results !

          4. anon says:

            This pretty much speaks for itself. If you think you are so great, why do you refuse to help your countrymen by taking your intelligence and skills to your land of origin? I think greatness also comes not only trying to support yourself (which you are clearly for) but to support your society and culture. *sigh*

    2. PhotoDeTox says:

      I agree with you “letters from India” is probably not the appropriate title here. But PLEASE let’s keep the discussion scientific and decent here. We all know how difficult it is to get a good job as a scientist these days – no matter where. We can only advance science globally. The challenges are huge and the funds are relatively small.

  31. Chemistry123 says:

    I agree with you that it is frustrating to keep receiving emails that are not well-written for a job application. In fact, India is a country full of diversity including in the level of science education. There are thousands of exceptionally bright students graduating from India every year and joining the labs of scientists who are pioneers in their fields. And obviously, a student with good academic background would apply to a lab/university which is prestigious and seeks to make breakthrough in science. Before application, students look for the attractive research being pursued and the publication output of a lab. I feel sorry that you were not approached by these brightest minds of the world and only received applications from the students who were on the other end of the spectrum. But a person’s judgement is only dependent on what little he/she experiences.

  32. anon says:

    Yea, that’s right, try to snuff a good debate about the benefits/detriments about immigration in the sciences by hinting of xenophobia and or racism (if you question immigration) by association with our current president *sigh*

  33. MosquitoWoman says:

    Funny you say that because both international students and you’d end up in the same area! Since you’d do fine with a lesson or two on controlling your bad behaviour Mr Schinder!

  34. reginaphilangi says:

    Derek, now that’s what I call a ‘Low(e) blow’!!
    Your article talks about an issue that I believe is rampant and I chide my fellow Indian colleagues who do indulge in this recklessness. I won’t go on to justify why they do whatever they do, but, I would definitely answer your question- ‘has anyone ever obtained a post-doctoral position by spamming people with a poorly worded, inadequately detailed email asking for a research fellowship?’
    The answer is yes! There are most people who judge by the e-mails that are written and yet there are others who understand these mails are often times than not, written by non-native English speakers and are thus more forgiving towards the senders. You see, we all look out for better opportunities and it is optimism that moves us forward. These position seekers are probably not eloquent but may be very hard-working and smart, and that steers them forward.
    You do realize why Indians and Chinese seem to write these emails and not others? That’s only because we are noticeable among the lot governed by our sheer numbers! I have read many weirdly worded emails from several European folks whose native language is not English (there was a Prof who constantly referred to our appointment as – ‘we are on a date tomorrow afternoon, right?’).
    Another proof of the fact that these e-mails work is the simple wrath that this blog of yours has garnered from privileged individuals, that believe their prerogative dies with them. Whatever happened to earning your worth?
    The reason I call your blog a low blow is that as a blogger your better concern should have been to raise an issue, spark a debate, etc. By singling out nationalities, you have sparked nothing but a sense of xenophobia. Come on, you are not that naive that you wouldn’t have seen this coming? You may feel sad or have the best interest in your heart, but the end does not justify your means, that you write something that may prove inflammatory in several aspects. I am grateful you refuse these people politely! Thank you for that!
    Also, congratulations are in order for becoming a star with this blog! Whoever said – ‘any publicity is good publicity’ was a genius!

    1. Anonymous says:

      I don’t think your criticism really hold up. You seem to feel that Derek was criticizing the grammar in the emails, but that wasn’t really what he was complaining about. I get these emails all the time, and they are often from students who know absolutely nothing about my work, or have training that is not appropriate for an incoming post-doc in my lab. So while poor grammer in an email may not make help to make a good impression, a much bigger problem is that prospective trainees do not seem at all serious if they can’t even take the time to narrow their search down to PIs who actually work in the same field as the student.

      In terms of the nationalities of the students, Derek is simply stating a fact about the emails. If he was guessing at the source then you might have a point, but he can see where the emails are coming from, and if these emails are actually mostly from Indian students then there is clearly a factual basis for what he wrote.

    2. NPs says:

      You acknowledge the fact that this practice takes place and is regrettable:
      “Your article talks about an issue that I believe is rampant and I chide my fellow Indian colleagues who do indulge in this recklessness.”

      You also acknowledge that these letters originate largely from India and China:
      “You do realize why Indians and Chinese seem to write these emails and not others? That’s only because we are noticeable among the lot governed by our sheer numbers!”

      Yet by shedding light on this phenomena, Derek has committed a “‘Low(e) blow’!!”… ?

  35. yfp says:

    I used to apply for position in big name lab by sending out my resume and publication in a big envelope. I usually received reply through letter signed by the person notwithstanding status.
    I guess we simply produced well too many Ph.D these days and there are too few principal investigators. Principal investigators start to regard postdoc as an employment position with remuneration commensurate with supply-demand condition instead of respecting their fellow Ph.D.s as peers.

  36. Anonymous Researcher snaw says:

    I get such messages. I think anybody who has been a named author on a scientific paper and/or a named inventor on a patent gets them. I am not in a position to hire them, and they rarely contain evidence of having done their homework, so I delete them. At least 85% of the clueless messages come from people with names that to me appear Indian.

    I also get email messages and LinkedIn messages requesting advice. That I can give, and in those cases usually the message contains evidence the sender gave it some thought. Thoughtful requests for advice come from all over the place; they don’t seem to be dominated by one country.

  37. Mister B. says:

    In Europe, I have experimented the same thing. Except students were from northen Africa (Algeria, Marocco or Tunisia). We are spammed with (french) poorly written emails that are not relevant nor to me, nor the my field. Just pure spam. ( I don’t do biology or geology, I am an organic chemist student … )

    So, I will agree with almost everything that Derek and Nisha Singh said. It also applies to the country I mentionned before …

  38. Paul Brookes says:

    I get a lot of these types of emails, so I use a couple of template responses…

    If it’s an undergrad’ looking to pursue a PhD, I tell them the truth – we don’t accept students directly into labs, and I point them to the University’s graduate education website so they can apply to one of the umbrella PhD programs. I also mention that if they get accepted, I’ll be happy to meet with them and discuss a lab rotation. Good luck, etc.

    If it’s a PhD grad’ looking for a post-doc, I usually indicate that the current funding/space situation does not permit my hiring any new people (often true), and I wish them the very best in their search for an appropriate position.

    Having email templates ready makes this a 10 second time commitment, and always sending a response is just the decent thing to do. You never know who is going to be reviewing your grants or manuscripts 20 years from now. I have enough enemies out there without adding “that moron who never got back to me when I asked about a job” to the list!

  39. An Old Chemist says:

    Derek, when you applied for a postdoc with Bernd Giese, if you had written your letter in German, you would certainly have written it up poorly, including incorrect grammar, diction, and style-all, despite that you are a *good* scientist. The smart students from India and China have a similar problem writing in English. Your act of singling out Indians in your famous well-read blog is not a smart move. Now, I am wondering if you have grown a beard only to look more mature and intelligent that you really are:

    1. Derek Lowe says:

      My problem is not their grammar, so much as the sheer inappropriateness of writing to someone in industry as if I’m a professor and asking to join my research group as a postdoc at my university. And to provide a fellowship to do so. This would be a problem no matter how fluently expressed.

    2. anon says:

      He said earlier that most of the letters he gets are from India, you dope. I dont think this is choosing to single out Indians.

    3. Estimeed Profesor says:

      I do not understand the problem with the post title, where do the letters come from?, India, 99% of the times. Thats the reality, the reason, I do not know why.

    4. Anonymous Researcher snaw says:

      Dear An Old Chemist: whether or not Derek’s letter to his future postdoc mentor contained grammatical errors, it must have contained plenty of internal evidence that Derek had done his homework. My first letter to the Professor who ended up supervising my dissertation was a detailed response to one of his books, which I read cover to cover before writing him.

      The spam messages that I get from people with names suggesting they are from the Subcontinent do not display any evidence that they have looked me up before sending them to me.

      And I do not believe I have bias against people from India in general. Right now I happen to be in what I hope to be the late stages of a job search. One of my former mentors, whom I just listed as a reference when asked for names of references yesterday, is from India!

  40. Anonymus says:

    As I read through this thread of comments, I have found things that are heavily condescending to seriously enlightening. Much to my despair, I believe this isn’t limited to post-doctoral positions and just to some ‘obscure Indian university’. Because this isn’t phenomena that can be singled out so easily. If you don’t believe this, you could just google it up and find many such posts by Professors and people in Industry getting automated emails from students from India. What is even more troubling is that many students from the IITs (‘so-called’ academic elite colleges for STEM education) also do it, in spite of being aware of the damage it does to the Indian student community at large(in the bigger picture). I believe the ‘Lottery theory’ is definitely helpful to explain.
    In my personal experience as an Indian student applying for graduate schools in the US, I found it terribly difficult to reach out to faculty members with shared research interests. But being really genuine and persistent didn’t always work. I remember one of my interviewers make a passing remark about the number of emails he got and that my gentle persistence paid off. I guess there is a line between being genuine (and gently persistent) and aggressively spamming others’ inboxes. It’s rather unfortunate that we won’t see many people realizing that line in the near future and I believe that blogs such as this will only continue to be a matter of amusement while you still receive loads of such email. Let me give you a spoiler, many people who indulge in mass emailing with *Dear Default* setting don’t read these posts or bother about them.

    Sincere Reader

  41. Anonymous says:

    Having done three (shudder) postdocs at pretty prestigious places, I can give some practical advice on this front:

    1) Personalization is everything. You are exponentially more likely to get a job or a job lead from someone you know. Talk to people at conferences about their work — not just in a networking way, but an actual friendly conversation about what they’re doing and what they might try next.

    2) Be brief, polite, and friendly. Something like

    Hi Professor X,

    We spoke at Conference Y. I’m graduating soon, and I’m hoping to stay in the field of Z. Are you currently looking for someone? If not, do you know of someone who is? Any thoughts or advice you might have on the subject would be greatly appreciated.

    I will of course be happy to send a CV upon request.

    Best wishes
    Hopeful Applicant

    A brief message like that works amazingly well. I actually got one email back from a professor on the morning that he won the Nobel Prize! (I wrote to him before he won). Another well known person didn’t have a position, but had a friend who had an as-yet unadvertised opening.

    What you want is to be the opposite of a guilt trip. At the very least, the recipient of this email gets a chance to hire a bright person from their field who they’ve already spoken with. If they’re not in the market, they can do that person a nice favor with a one paragraph reply. If neither of those two applies, the email is worded such that it is very easy to turn it down gracefully.

    As a rule of thumb, the easier you make it for someone to say no gracefully, the more likely they are to say “No, but have you talked to my friend Bob?” I’ve actually written thank you notes to people who considered me and ended up turning me down, just to make sure that there were no hard feelings. And again, all of this is exponentially more likely if you have chosen your recipients well — ie, if you are actually the sort of person they are looking to hire.

    Note: do not send your CV unless requested. It will be more valued if the recipient asks for it himself, plus it’s a chance to establish a dialogue.

    Second note: there is nothing magic about this note, so don’t use it as your new spamming template. The magic comes when you make scientific contacts with other people in your field. If you do that, you can write whatever note you want. Do be brief, though.

  42. Entitled White Old Man says:

    Another 3 posts like this and you will be eligible to be Grand Dragon of the local klan.

  43. Michael Cunningham says:

    If I have time I at least try to send this link of what NOT to do:

    I will probably be linking to this blog post in the future as well…

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