Chemistry Blog

«

»

Jul 18

Finding a Postdoc Position is a Difficult Journey but here are 15 Tips to Help You Along the Way.

by Kenneth Hanson | Categories: Uncategorized | (46984 Views)

My impression, from the anecdotes of others as well as my own experience, is that finding a postdoctoral position is a widely unknown and undiscussed process that one learns about via “trial by fire.” For example, Mitch wrote about the surprises he experienced during his interview last January.

Unlike applying for college or graduate school, there is no formal application process for obtaining a postdoc. From what I have been told it more closely resembles the job search process, but for further complication, many postdoc openings are not advertised and only become available when the right applicant inquires. In an effort to support future postdoctoral hopefuls, I am going to expand on Mitch’s prior post with insight and advice I acquired through trial and error and gleaned from the stories of others. It is a long list but hopefully some of this information will be helpful.

Get your foot in the door…
1. Begin your search one to two years before graduation. A few professors shared this insight with me after they learned I began my postdoc search only nine months before my own graduation (oops). It makes sense now when I think about it because potential advisors need time to allocate money, resources and a project for your estimated date of arrival.

2. Find four or five research groups you are interested in working with. I focused primarily on finding groups working in the flavor of research I am interested in. Other searchers may prioritize location. Another variable, more important than either, is whether the lab you are interested in will serve as a stepping stone for your long-term professional goals.

3. Write a cover letter to each professor. This letter should include a brief overview of the research you have conducted and why you are interested in their work. I recommend subtly incorporating the skills, tools, and ideas you would bring to their research. I would also mention a willingness to pursue external funding sources or to request recommendations for any fellowships they may know that you could apply for.

4. Ask your advisor to send a short email on your behalf. It is not unusual for a top research professor to get several postdoctoral applications each week. Regardless of how good your qualifications may be it can be difficult to differentiate your email from the others. If your advisor is willing, have them send a truncated recommendation email saying something like, “I have a spectacular graduate student that is interested in being a postdoc in your research group and you would be a fool to pass them up. They will be sending you their CV and cover letter shortly.” If the professors know each other it can be huge advantage in your favor and sometimes this email is all it takes to get an offer.

5. Send an email with cover letter and CV attached. Example email text: “I am a fifth year graduate student in the …. research group at the University of …. This email is to express my interest in joining your research group as a postdoc starting in Month 201x. Attached are a cover letter and curriculum vitae. Letters of recommendation are soon to follow. I am happy to provide any other information you may find helpful.”

6. Send a hard copy of the cover letter and CV. Even if your email gets ignored you can pretty much guarantee that a physical letter will at least be opened and your name will cross the professor’s mind at least one more time.

7. Wait for a reply. Hopefully you hear back from the professor with good or at least a neutral (not no) reply. In the best case scenario you get a job offer or an interview. If they do not extend an invitation for a campus visit, you can insist on paying for your own visit and offer to give a talk. This option of course depends on how badly you want the position, as well as the state of your bank account. My theory is that it would be much more difficult to say no after a person has demonstrated that they are highly interested and competent (assuming you demonstrate these qualities). If you do not hear back in several weeks you should send a follow up email asking for an update on the postdoctoral position.

You have planned a visit. Before you go…
8. Do your homework. Looking into the research group’s goals and methods should be a no-brainer. It is unlikely that you will get a pop quiz on their research. However, your general dialog with the adviser and group members will flow much better and you will leave a better impression. Nothing says “I have a scientific mind” like asking a really insightful question. If possible, think of a proposal or direction they could shift their research. They might not want to pursue your ideas but it does show that you have them.

9. Have a one hour talk prepared. Instinctively you might feel the need to include as much of your PhD work as you can cram into an hour but it is much more effective to present a small subset of your research with a coherent storyline. This talk should also be tailored in a similar manner as your cover letter as to clearly demonstrate skills/tools/ideas you can bring to their research.

During the visit…
10. Consider how to dress. This is a point where I respectfully disagree with Mitch. If you are someone that is comfortable or enjoys wearing a suit by all means look more professional. However, I am not willing to sacrifice my comfort for appearance. The more relaxed I am the better I will perform in both my presentation and one-on-one meetings. For my postdoc interviews (and defense) I wore a nice pair of jeans and a suite coat.

11. What to expect. Your visit will most likely be comprised of a lab tour, possibly a short campus tour, a meeting with the adviser/grad students/postdocs, lunch and a presentation (either to the group or the entire department). Not necessarily in that order. If there are in-house collaborators, a meeting with them can be expected but thanks to Mitch I now know that you might also be asked to meet with other professors in the department.

12. Be prepared for a long, energy consuming day. You will likely be putting in an 8-hour day of constant discussions. I have heard rumors that when veteran professors are interviewing a candidate they will set up a meeting in the morning and one at the end of the day. The reason they do this is to first catch you in the morning to see how awake and energetic you are, and then at the end of the day to see if you are the same way. It is a method of finding out who you really are. It is very difficult to keep up a facade for 8 hours. Also if you can keep up your energy that entire time you are probably going to get a lot of work done.

After your visit…
13. Send a follow-up email. A few days after the interview I sent a follow-up email thanking the professor and their group members for their time, reemphasized my interest in their research group and closed by asking for updates on the position. If I did not hear back within a month I sent a second email asking for an update.

14. Funding. Even if you have received an offer that includes full financial support it is still a good idea to apply for postdoc fellowships not only for the money but also the prestige that comes with receiving a fellowship. Most advisors are willing to help you write a proposal based on their work or an original proposal idea. Whether or not you get the fellowship you will still learn a lot about your future projects.

15. Making a decision. Believe it or not, this might be one of the more difficult parts of the process. If you only receive one offer out of several attempts it greatly simplifies your decision. However, if you get a few offers it may be more difficult. This is the time to ask some honest questions about your future advisor and group members. Will they help you find a job? Do they like the area? What is it like working their? Many of us also have to consider the two body problem. Can my significant other find a job there?

The final advice I will give is that the process is so individualized that you should consult everyone you can that has undergone their own postdoc adventure. If others have any more information to share, please do so.

14 comments

Skip to comment form

  1. KJHaxton

    These are great points, a few things to add:

    Under no circumstances do you want the professor to feel that s/he has received a generic letter. You have to demonstrate that you have familiarised yourself with the research of the group you wish to join. This is covered nicely in point 3 – write a cover letter to EACH professor. I would consider making the email the cover letter however – fewer attachments to open makes it easier to consider you. (and make sure the attachment is a common file format or it wont get opened at all).

    Under no circumstances should you address the email/letter to ‘dear sir’. I delete anything that generic without further consideration (with added insult because I’m female). If you have to look up the email address and do your homework properly (point 8 above), chances are you can figure out a more appropriate greeting.

    If you are going to attach a document, triple check it is attached. There is nothing more irritating than receiving multiple identical emails from a prospective student/postdoc because they forgot the attachment. Seriously, if you can’t work email, how would we expect you to work science stuff?

    It is likely that everyone you meet on interview/visit day will be asked their thoughts on you – this may include graduate students, technical staff and administrators.

    When you send thank you emails after a long day, also ensure that you send them to any administrators or secretaries that helped with travel arrangements, accommodation bookings etc. Make sure you get their names when you are visiting. Make sure you treat them with respect.

    Jeans are fine but not scruffy, ripped, lab stained jeans. Consider smarter shoes than trainers. If you’re inclined towards a short skirt and open toed shoes, remember that some labs will have rules banning such clothes (health and safety). You’ll be touring the labs, so dress appropriately.

    Prepare a 1 hour talk, but have a 3 minute summary for anyone who asks what you do.

  2. Kenneth Hanson

    Thank you for adding insight from a professors perspective.

  3. Joel

    The timing and usefulness of this post could not be better. Thanks a zillion!

  4. Dr. Smalls

    I had to find my postdoc 3 months before I graduated. I relied on networking with the prof. in the dept. My psotdoc was in a different field on a different coast, but in retrospec, I would never have chosen it 2 yrs in advance. It just so happened my rush job turned me in to what I think is a better scientist.

    Necessity is the mother of invention.

    -or-

    If you must take any port in a storm, choose the right one ;-)

    good tips in this post btw.

  5. Dr. Smalls

    oh,

    I would never recommend jeans. Always dress better than the interviewer.

    I intervied for a job where I was the only person in the room of 45 people who was wearing a suit. The guy interviewing me made the following comment: “You must be a serious guy, professionaly speaking, ’cause you out-dressed the president of the company.”

    I was offered the job.

    1. mitch

      I also agree with you. I know chemists have a bohemian sense of fashion, but they should just suck it up for a day.

  6. sjb

    “Begin your search one to two years before graduation”, which is fine if you have 5-6-7 years in the programme, but if you only have 3?

  7. J-bone

    My 2 cents:

    I will not just recommend #3, but instead say that if you don’t do this you have no shot at getting considered. The job market is so impacted with qualified people that anything remotely generic and unpersonalized goes straight into the trash. I didn’t get any replies at all until I started personalizing my cover letter (and my resume/CV to some extent). Coincidentally (or maybe not), I also didn’t start getting replies until I did #6, because paper copies are harder to ignore than an e-mail. This is particularly true if you’re applying to a big name prof, they really do get dozens of requests each day for postdocs, you will be very hard pressed to stand out.

    I will agree with #1, but also say that my personal situation was very opposite. I started looking a year prior to graduation and most of the professors with postdoc openings were looking to fill them immediately (and I was not considered for some of them because I would not be ready soon enough). The one I ended up taking I did a phone interview, was offered the position a week later, and asked to show up for training another two weeks later.

    If you have a very foreign sounding name but are a US citizen it is imperative that you put “US Citizen” at the very top of your resume/CV. It wouldn’t necessarily hurt to mention it in your cover letter either. If you go by an American nickname I would consider using that name.

  8. sam

    This is a very helpful post. I agree with all the points. Point 1 might be a little excessive, two years before you intend to graduate is usually about three years before you actually do! If you start looking 6 months to a year before you graduate, the worst-case scenario is that you’ll have to take some time off before your new PI finds the money and you start in lab. That doesn’t sound so bad (that is, if you saved a dime during grad school!).

    And I would not wear a very nice suit to a *postdoc* interview, Dr. Smalls. In industry, dressing very well is important; in academia, it comes across as strange. I think nice slacks and shoes, a button-up shirt, and maybe a tie is the way to go. Just my opinion. I agree that cut-off jeans and flip-flops are probably not the route to go. :)

    1. cookingwithsolvents

      Always error on the side of being overdressed. A blazer (or suit) is a good way to go because you can always take it off (tie if you are wearing one, too) to dress it down for both men and women.

      Obtain and publish good results during your PhD and get your own funding for your postdoc and you are guaranteed a bunch of options.

      Outside of that, network throughout your PhD studies and remember that there are wayyyy less than 6 degrees of separation in Chemistry (much of it is just one: “east coast” or “west coast”) and only a few more if you include all of science. Everything is a potential job interview and if you are lucky enough to be an undergrad or grad student at a conference being sloppy drunk, dismissive/arrogant, or both can have drastic consequences later on…make a great impression and it could drastically work for you.

  9. JKM

    I would advise to make sure you go to several meetings before you graduate, and pay attention to who is at the poster sessions. This can be a great way to introdcue yourself in person to a PI that you are thinking about working for, or at least find out from one of their postdocs or students what the lab is like and what opportunities may be available. It sounds old school, but by connecting personally you may bypass the whole formal “application” process.

  10. bad wolf

    Perhaps someone could also comment on the mechanics of writing a training grant for a postdoctoral position–with or without the involvement of the future PI? based on his current research, or a new project of your own design? a general one for any future PI?

  11. sam

    also, i would plan a 45-min talk. a 1-hour talk will become a 1.25-hour talk with interspersed questions. and people can’t really listen after like 50 min!

    1. Chemjobber

      You know, this is an excellent piece of advice. If Phil Baran can do it, you can too.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Powered by sweet Captcha