In 2014, half way through my four-year degree course in mechanical engineering at the Government Engineering College in Thiruvananthapuram, India, I was already desperate to start my career in research, so I started planning early. I began applying for positions overseas for when I eventually graduated.
I was one of three applicants shortlisted for a research internship on the ‘mu2e’ muon-to-electron-conversion experiment at Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois, but was ultimately unsuccessful. The disappointment pushed me to find a research programme in my preferred discipline of fluid dynamics instead, after I realized the importance of finding a focused field of interest and concentrating on that.
I e-mailed individual laboratory heads whose work looked interesting and also applied to specific hiring programmes. In the end, I wrote more than 700 e-mail applications, and was unsuccessful almost as many times. Often, I never even received a reply.
But the rejections taught me valuable, career-defining lessons, and led to the development of friendships and my receiving advice from scientists I have never met.
Given that pandemic lockdowns have resulted in researchers having fewer opportunities to meet each other face to face and network at conferences, I thought my e-mail-heavy approach to finding a research position might help others. Here’s what I learnt from my failures.
Avoid generic e-mails
At first, I sent a single templated e-mail to a number of researchers, simply changing the addressee. I quickly realized that people do not reply to generic e-mails. To generate replies, an e-mail needs to be more specific, containing information that is unique to the recipient, pinpointing a certain research area of theirs that interests me.
I started customizing my e-mails as much as possible, reading the recipient’s publications more closely and giving what I hoped were constructive thoughts on their research, suggesting better ways to solve the problem they were working on. In some cases, I even conducted preliminary experiments based on my ideas at home.
On one occasion, a friend and I built a small working model of a wind tunnel in my living room to study how wind flows around scaled-down models of objects ranging from cars to space shuttles. It was time-intensive and less rigorous than would have been possible in a laboratory, but I enjoyed it, learnt a lot and the pictures I attached to subsequent e-mails helped to attract attention.
My e-mails were full of diagrams, hand-written sketches of experiments, photographs of work I’d conducted at home, and requests for feedback. It usually took me a couple of days — sometimes up to a week — of preparation before I would finally send a carefully crafted e-mail to a lab head. I regularly stayed up late and spent weekends crafting e-mails.
This extra effort meant lab heads were much more likely to reply, appreciating my interest in their work and my passion for the topic (see ‘Seven years of . Sometimes they just wanted to explain why my suggestions were wrong. That was fine for me — it encouraged a reply and started a dialogue. I used that opportunity to ask for suggestions on how to improve my skills, so that I might be able to join them in the future, and was often rewarded with constructive feedback.
One researcher suggested I pursue a master’s degree at a better university in India, to improve my chances of securing a scholarship to do a PhD with him at the University of Auckland in New Zealand.
A second, at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, suggested I join a research laboratory and produce publications to increase my chances of securing a scholarship. This advice might sound obvious to many, but it wasn’t for me at the time: nobody in my network in Thiruvananthapuram had the experience to offer this advice.
A third researcher challenged me with a series of problems over a span of eight months to evaluate whether I was suitable for his group at Carleton University in Ottawa. I wasn’t successful, but I learnt a lot.
And one scientist at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) in Köln was kind enough to explain that he rejected my application in spite of my “undeniable skills and enthusiasm” because another candidate had a bit more experience in the specific area of research the lab focused on.
The importance of publications
I quickly learnt that my undergraduate degree was not enough to build trust in my scientific education.
I undertook some undergraduate research locally with S. S. Suneesh and Gopakumar Parameswaran. This resulted in my being listed as a co-author in two conference publications and two peer-reviewed journal publications. Highlighting these achievements led to my receiving more responses to my internship and research master’s applications.
Affiliation and networks are game changers
Thanks to those two papers, I secured a one-year research internship position at the Khristianovich Institute of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics (ITAM) in Novosibirsk, Russia, which collaborates with the European and Russian Space Agencies.
While working there with Georgy Shoev, who uses computational modelling to study physical systems, I continued e-mailing questions and applications to other labs. Being able to put “research intern at computational aerodynamics lab, ITAM” in my e-mail signature really made a difference. I found that principal investigators knew of the laboratory and were much more likely to reply to me; some suggested funding opportunities I could pursue and some even forwarded my e-mail on to colleagues who had positions that were more suitable for me. All of this gave me better opportunities to choose from.
Working in that lab also gave me another advantage: many of my colleagues were eager to suggest my name to their collaborators and to people in their extended networks to help me find a suitable research master’s position. I was no longer networking alone; instead, I was part of the larger, extended network of my colleagues.
Hard work puts you where good luck can find you
Last December, I completed my research master’s degree after working with fluid-dynamics researcher Steven Frankel at the Technion–Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, and I’m enjoying more positive responses to my e-mail applications than ever before.
I recently received offers of PhD positions at Imperial College London, the University of Melbourne in Australia and Barcelona Supercomputing Center in Spain. I was also offered a position as a research engineer at the German Aerospace Center — which rejected my application a few years ago.
I eventually accepted a PhD with Philipp Schlatter to work on high-performance computing at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm.
Start early and leave room for failure
Applying for positions from midway through my undergraduate degree gave me time and opportunity to learn from my failures and to use that knowledge to gradually ascend the career ladder. My desire to work in research motivated me to push through hard times — and the generous replies I received from those I wrote to were enough to keep me going. It took hard work, patience and, above all — and perhaps the best preparation for a career in research — the writing of many, many e-mails.