How not to apply for a job working with sharks

This week marked an important e-mail milestone for me: I received my 100th request for a job. I do not mean job offers (i.e. people saying “David, we’d like to hire you”), or requests for job advice (i.e. people saying “David, can you point me in the right direction?”). I’d be thrilled to answer any of those e-mails (particularly the job offers). I mean job requests (i.e. people saying “David, please hire me”).

I get all kinds of e-mails from readers, and I’m always happy to answer them. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that applying for a job in this way is incredibly ineffective. I thought I’d take some examples from some of my favorite job request e-mails to explain to you all how not to apply for a job working with sharks.

1) Don’t contact people who obviously aren’t in a position to hire. I’m a 26 year old graduate student living pretty close to the poverty line. The total budget for my research project is likely much less than the value of your car. While I may be the only person working with sharks that you know of offhand, I am not in a position to hire anyone.

2) Learn a little bit about people before you contact them.
I received several e-mails from people hoping to work with me doing things that I don’t do (“I would love to study great white sharks with you”, “I would love to work with you in South Africa”, etc). I too would love to study great white sharks in South Africa, but that’s not what I do. I study sandbar sharks in the United States. Asking to join me on something I don’t do shows that you haven’t thought terribly hard about contacting me, and that would make it less likely for me to want to hire you (even if I was in a position to hire).

3) Communication medium matters. A famous shark researcher I know (who actually is in a position to hire) told me that he gets between 25 and 100 e-mails a day asking to work with him. It’s pretty easy to delete an e-mail, it’s a lot harder to ignore a ringing phone. Please note that I am not asking you to call me (see advice #1, I can’t hire anyway). However, I use this to point out that how you contact someone matters. We once received a request for a job as a 3-sentence comment on a blog post (it may have actually been on our “about the authors” page, I don’t remember). This is not remotely professional or acceptable. It was several weeks before we noticed this comment, and it didn’t even include any contact information, so we couldn’t get back in touch with the person to direct them to advice #1.

4) I judge you when you use poor grammar in e-mails. If you are applying for an extremely competitive job that requires intelligence, demonstrate that you are intelligent by writing complete sentences and avoiding typos. It’s also important to note that spell check does not identify words that are correctly spelled but not the word you meant to use (i.e. you apply to the Wharton School of Business, not the Wharton School of Bunnies. This is a real example I just heard from a friend who works as an admissions officer for Penn- the applicant was not admitted). Take the time to read your e-mail more than once to make sure it doesn’t make you sound like a fool.

5) Don’t insult the person you are asking for a favor. Someone told me that none of the dolphin labs were hiring, and that sharks were always their second favorite animal. Andrew and I have a mutual acquaintance who asked us for help getting into marine biology graduate school after she failed several times getting into medical school- she wanted to take the “easier route” like us. Even if I was in a position to hire, I wouldn’t hire someone who insulted my career choice the first time we communicated.

6) Learn a little bit about the job you are applying for before applying. Lots of people tell me “they want to work with sharks” and then ask “what exactly do you do?” in the same e-mail. This again tells me that you haven’t thought terribly hard about this career. We like people who are motivated, and it’s hard to be motivated if you don’t even know what you’re applying for.

I hope that this advice helps!



  1. Scicurious · October 6, 2010

    I gotta say #5 pisses me off AMAZINGLY. It’s astonishing the number of people who consider research the “easy” route as compared to medical school. I especially hate getting the remark that I only went into biomed research because I wasn’t SMART enough to get into med school. EXCUSE ME?! Perhaps I just LIKE science?!?! Inconceivable, apparently.

  2. Chuck · October 6, 2010

    They have it all wrong. Obviously dolphins are a downgrade from sharks.

  3. Simon Pierce · October 6, 2010

    Actually, something that bugs me is that sometimes, when I’m feeling generous (okay, when I’m procrastinating…), I’ll actually take the time to craft a long, thoughtful response to a “request for job advice” email with what I think is some genuinely good advice, but I hardly ever even get thank you afterwards! C’mon!!!

  4. Southern Fried Scientist · October 6, 2010

    Also, never begin an application with “To Whom it may concern” or “Dear Sir or Madam”

  5. John Carroll · October 7, 2010

    I always say that I have plenty of volunteer positions available!

  6. Zuska · October 9, 2010

    There is no help for the people who actually need the advice in your blog post.

  7. Alison Kock · October 12, 2010

    I totally concur with no. 4. It says a lot about someone if they can’t even write a decent email. Simon, we are born from the same mother. I often (okay maybe I shouldn’t be admiting) reply and when I don’t get a response I am totally irritated.

  8. Katheryn Loften · October 27, 2010

    I seriously enjoyed this post. We (as a community), appreciate it. I have a very similar blog on this subject. Do you mind if I link to this article on my site?

  9. Michael Bear · December 1, 2010

    Many of your applicants who pick sharks as a ‘second career’ over cetaceans obviously don’t realize that dolphins are just ‘gay sharks.’ 🙂

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