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.