In the last decade, Chinese government has drastically increased investment in education and research. One important initiative is the Chinese Scholarship Council (CSC) which sponsors graduate students to study for 1-2 years at top foreign research institutions. Our laboratory has hosted a number of talented visiting students, many of which achieved impressive research results during their visits. In Dec and Jan right before these scholarship applications are due, I often receive many email requests from candidates. Quite a few read something like this:
Dear Professor Xiaole Liu,
My name is AB, and I am 2nd year PhD student from C University in China. I work on the mechanism of X gene / complex in the Y developmental stage of Z organism. From my previous studies, I know techniques D, E, F and G and have published a paper in H, I, J journals. From your website, I read that you are a cancer and bioinformatics expert, and I really hope to learn more about both. Recently I have been awarded the CSC scholarship, which will sponsor me for travel and living cost to study in the US for one year. I hope to have the opportunity to study in your lab, so I urgently need to get an invitation letter from you.
I look forward to working with you!
Is there anything wrong with such a letter? Let’s analyze:
1. People usually say Dear Professor (or Doctor) Lastname, not first last. So I should be addressed as: Dear Professor Liu.
2. In most cases, the XYZ research has nothing to do with what my lab is doing. The applicant is just interested in learning cancer or bioinformatics, or both, but why would our lab be interested in hosting them? This is the same with postdoc applications as well. Is there something that the applicant could contribute, e.g. certain experimental technique, qualitative skills, biological knowledge, clinical sample resource, etc, which might be valuable to the host laboratory?
3. Usually the first letter just explores the possibility that a is interested in hosting his/her visit. The invitation letter request should be mentioned after the host lab has agreed to host. It is inappropriate to ask for the letter in the first email, let alone to ask for it “urgently”.
4. Every graduate student (of course postdoc and faculty as well) should actively maintain and update a CV, and include the CV in the attachment of such an email. Resume and CV are used for industry and academic job applications, respectively, and they have different lengths and formats. CV gives the host laboratory a lot more concrete ideas about the candidate, his educational histories, test scores, publications, awards, and other professional experiences, etc. Many people put their CV online, so it is easy to find good CV online and see how they are written. I often look at the CV of really successful experts in my field, and see what areas I need to grow. For example, seeing what papers these big shots published, grants and awards they obtained, courses they taught, other professional experiences they had at my stage is very inspiring. Anyway, always include CV when applying for PhD, postdocs, visiting scholarship, etc, which greatly increases the chance the application will be considered seriously.