Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Holding out hand for handshake
Credit: VladimirFLoyd / iStockphoto

Cold emails and hot coffee, part 2

This is the second in a four-article series on the Active Career Exploration (ACE) plan for career development created by and for Ph.D. students and postdocs at the University of Michigan (UM).

How can you advance your career while simultaneously juggling your busy life, lab work, and Ph.D. training?  It’s as easy as talking to people in your field of interest, but contacting them can seem daunting. The ACE plan can help you set priorities and take action.

I received responses from about 40% of the people I contacted on LinkedIn. Seventy-five percent of those agreed to talk to me on the phone. 

—a second-year postdoc

One of the best tools in your toolbox is the cold email: a message sent to a person that you do not know or who has not heard from you in a while. Just give a short introduction and ask a question relevant to your future career, and you will be surprised how quickly you can advance your career knowledge and contacts.

Sending cold emails is the second step of the ACE plan. It is already being used effectively by Ph.D. students and postdocs at UM to rapidly learn about careers and meet people.  Informative career contacts are all around you. You can start local, but don’t limit your network to your lab, department, and university. Instead, expand your network by reaching out to strangers whose careers interest you. This may sound frightening, but the reward is worth any initial discomfort or awkwardness.

At the end of the first ACE article, we challenged you to begin identifying potential career contacts. Now you are ready to move forward.

ACE helped me polish and frame my email introductions. I received responses from about 40% of the people I contacted on LinkedIn. Seventy-five percent of those agreed to talk to me on the phone."

—a second-year postdoc

“I had an email draft that I could easily copy and modify to send to other potential connections—1 minute each. Those potential connections replied back to set up a time to talk to me—5 minutes. I then got to speak with these people—30 minutes or less. They then referred me to hiring managers who asked me to send in a resume. All this [happened] thanks to that first email I wrote in less than 10 minutes.”

—a fifth-year Ph.D. student

In this article, we discuss the most important components of an effective cold email. The Cold E-mails and Hot Coffee guidebook provides further details and additional email examples that have elicited responses from busy professionals.

Write cold emails that offer value

You may think people are too busy to respond to an email from a person they don’t know. But that is why offering value is so important. Recall from the first article that offering value is about helping the other person in any way you can. It’s about being considerate and sharing information, experiences, ideas, and resources. It’s about connecting on the basis of common goals and interests.

Rather than fixating on the question, “What can I get from this person?” think instead, “What can I offer?” To offer value, put yourself in the shoes of the people receiving the cold emails:

  • They get dozens or even hundreds of emails each day. Be respectful of their time. How do you reduce the time it takes to read your email?
  • They want to help trainees. Most established scientists—indeed, most people—get satisfaction from helping others. How do you make it as easy as possible for them to help you?
  • They value connection.  Help them establish a genuinely meaningful connection with you.
  • They have personal and professional goals.  How can you contribute?

This approach may require reframing your thinking. For example, “I want this person to help me” can be reframed as “I want to listen to this person, learn from her, and offer my gratitude—assuring her that her experiences and perspectives have helped a trainee.” You would not say this outright; just use this mindset to guide your own actions and your choice of words. See Table 1 to reframe taking value into offering value.

Taking Value:

Offering Value:

Long emails

Short emails that take no more than a minute to read and respond to

How do I get this person to respond?

I want to connect with this person on a professional and personal level.

Let the person figure out why you are contacting them.

Tell them explicitly how they can help you.

What’s the secret to getting into this field?

Please tell me your story about transitioning to this career from your postdoc.

Please help me find a job.

I want to learn about your career so that I can apply its lessons to my own.

Can we meet sometime this month?

May we meet this Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday at 4 p.m.?

This is important: Offer value, and don’t expect anything in return. It’s fine to hope for it; just don’t expect it. As time goes on, you will get better at offering value. Through practice, you are figuring out how to show people you offer value, and that is just what employers are looking for.

In this article, we will limit our discussion to offering value to the context of cold emails. Although emails are short, you will be able to offer more value as your professional relationship progresses, which we will discuss in the next article.

Basics of the cold email

Let’s dissect a cold email. As you read through it, try to identify the value that is implicitly offered in every sentence.

Subject: Postdoc interested in industry, referred by [person]

Hi Dr. [last name]

I am a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Michigan working on [research topic]. I am committed to transitioning to an R&D research scientist position in industry. I’d like to learn more about how others—including you—have made this transition.

I noticed that after your postdoc appointment, you moved to industry, where you have held several roles of increasing responsibilities, and your work focuses on [same research topic as me]. I would love to hear your story, learn a little bit about your job, day to day, and grasp the essence of how drug discovery and translational research are carried out in a large biopharmaceutical company like [Company].

Would you be able to talk to me by phone, perhaps Wed, Thurs, or Fri afternoon this week?

Thanks, looking forward to hearing from you. [person] sends her regards.

—[first name]

This email is eight sentences long; that’s a good rule for the maximum length that a cold email should be. The message rapidly orients the reader by giving a brief introduction and clearly explaining the goal of the email. It reduces how much work the person needs to do to respond by closing with a very specific question and giving specific options. It follows the “1-minute rule”; it only takes the recipient a single minute to read, think about, and respond to the email. Save them time by giving them only relevant information and making it supremely easy for them to respond.

Most importantly, send the email with a goal in mind that you communicate succinctly. Figure 1 shows a range of possible goals. The topics of your emails will evolve as you progress.

Figure 1. Some reasons to send a cold email.

Figure 1. Some reasons to send a cold email.

The purpose of your cold email should be in line with your career aspirations and your current situation. If you are a first-year Ph.D. student, you are not yet searching for jobs, so ask what the recipient did during her Ph.D. that helped prepare for the career. If you are raising children, find someone who has balanced career and family, and then ask what their career is like for parents. If you send an email asking about something that both you and the recipient truly care about, then you will be able to form a connection.

You may worry that your cold email does not offer sufficient value. Don’t worry; you’re not asking for much—just a further conversation that, as your correspondent knows, will likely be productive for both of you. ACE participants have been highly successful at getting responses based on the advice in this article.

“Although it’s called a cold email, … be warm and casual. A simple way to do this is by starting with “Hello Dr. X” instead of simply “Dr. X.” Do not go as far as to use their first name, but sign your signature with your first name. Let your contact know how you found them, and don’t be overly formal.

—a second-year postdoc

This is just the start. In the long term, as you develop these relationships and seek a job, you’ll need to offer more value in return. As in all relationships, you build on them as knowledge and trust increases.  The next step of the ACE plan (detailed in the next article) entails meeting one of the people you emailed; you will be able to offer more value at that point.

Send your first email now

You are ready to move forward with the second step of the ACE plan:

ACE Step 2: Send out 10 cold emails (3 hours), including at least five to people who have no idea who you are. We provide more details and tips in the Cold E-mails and Hot Coffee guidebook, but this article has outlined everything you need to write your first cold email.

Having trouble? Then you are likely putting too much pressure on yourself. Consider the following simple email from a first-year Ph.D. student:

Subject: Informational Interview

Hi Dr. [last name],

I am a Ph.D. student at the University of Michigan in cell and molecular biology. I was wondering if you would be willing to conduct an informational interview about your career path in publishing.  

Let me know if you have any questions or concerns.

—[first name]

Though not a perfect example, this cold email resulted in a 30-minute phone conversation with a senior editor at a Cell-Science-Nature journal. The student learned about the editor’s day-to-day responsibilities and exactly what a job interview at that journal would entail. So now you see that anyone can write a short, simple email that produces meaningful results. Lack of time is not an excuse.

Writing effective cold emails is a skill, so practice by sending emails now with the reassurance that your ability to make connections will improve with experience. Reduce the stakes by starting with recipients in early stages of their career, people who recently graduated and just successfully obtained a job (e.g. a recent alumnus from your institution), or by writing emails that ask for simple responses (e.g. ask a short question about the company, rather than asking for a coffee meeting).

“I started emailing friends I knew in industry and quickly realized that although the life style was attractive, I still wanted to belong to a medical research institution that is more patient-focused. As I moved up the ranks of different professors to directors, I realized [that writing] short and sweet emails asking for a little bit of their time is the best approach. Every Sunday afternoon, I carved out some time to send emails or follow up on past emails.”

—a second-year postdoc

“I waited 2 weeks longer than I should have [to write the email]. … [M]y friend told me to just do it, but I didn’t want to bother anyone. … Eventually I realized it wasn’t a big deal, and sending the email only took me 10 minutes. It took him a week to respond, but then he proposed a phone call.”

—a first-year postdoc

“At worst, they don’t respond. Keep moving on.”

—a fifth-year Ph.D. student

The information we’ve given you is only useful if put into practice, so take action! Don’t worry about being perfect. With practice, you will develop your own style and approach. At the very least, implement the tips outlined here in the next email you send.

Once you get some experience reaching out to strangers and offering value, you are ready for next week’s article on meeting them for a conversation. Through these meetings, students have built real professional relationships, learned how to prepare for specific careers, and received honest answers about what these jobs are like. 

Download the Cold E-mails and Hot Coffee guidebook here.