So you wanna do a postdoc...

Feb 23 2014 Published by under academia, mentoring

In my part of the science world, it is very common to do some postdoctoral training. I'm not going to get into whether or not doing a postdoc is a good idea, nor debate whether there are too many PhD's or anything like that. For the purposes of this post, let's assume that you have considered options and have decided that you just can't leave the academic bench yet and that you want to do a postdoc. Now what? Applying for a postdoc is not as structured as applying to graduate school. And I'm sure that the process is different for different disciplines. In my world of the "basic" biomedical research, this is basically how it goes (YMMV, etc):

1. Pick out some potential postdoc mentors.
You need to start this about 12 months before you are defending. For realz. You need to give us PI's a chance to figure out if we have the money and space to add a member to the team. If you contact me and want to start next month you might get lucky - but if you give me some notice then I may be able to juggle things and make something work. Starting early has the added bonus that you can apply for fellowships early and often! woot! 😉

There are a million ways to find labs in which you might want to postdoc. However, IME most labs don't advertise open postdoctoral positions. It's weird. We just sit there waiting for applicants. Maybe there is a announcement on our website (which may or may not be up-to-date :-/). Maybe. So don't be discouraged if a lab you are interested in doesn't seem to be looking for any new fellows. The right fit for you is going to depend on what, exactly you want to get out of your postdoctoral training. Want to learn a new technique? Move your research into a new field or subfield? Transition to industry? Get training in outreach/journalism/policy? Make a run at a tenure-track faculty position? Whatever it is, you need to identify the PI's that you think could help you advance your career.

After you generate a list of labs that you think would be a good fit for you, it is time to start vetting. Figure out how previous postdocs in the lab have done - are they in the kinds of jobs that you would like to have? Talk to people your advisor and anyone else that you trust. Ask them about the folks on your list. Do folks working in the same sub-sub-field think particularly highly of anyone on your list? Does anyone have a reputation of being difficult to work with, or unfair? Gather all the information that you can. Then pare down the list to something manageable. You should try to settle on a final list of 3-5, at most.    

2. Prepare your application.
Ok, there isn't really an application. Just a letter that you are going to send to PI's to tell them you are interested in working with them. More importantly, to convince them that THEY should be interested in having you as a postdoc. This is the key. What can you bring to the group? You don't need to go on about what you did as a grad student (that is why you are enclosing your CV!). Basically, I want to be able to quickly figure out the general area of your graduate research, including whose lab you are in, and approximately when you would want to join my lab. I also like to see some indication of WHY you picked my lab. Finally, explain to me what YOU bring to the table that should make me want to recruit you. How would you make my group better?  Put your letter in front of anyone that will read it. Constructive feedback is your friend. Also, you really don't want to have a typo in your letter.

3. Update your CV.
Your curriculum vitae - you life's work. If this is a mess, I assume you are a mess. Don't be a mess. Your CV should highlight your achievements. Organize it so that you put your best foot forward. There is no standard format for a CV, so you have some flexibility here. You should lead with your name, contact info, education, and research experience. After that the order depends on what job you are applying for. If you want to work in my lab, the next thing I want to see is publications and research funding you have been awarded. I don't need to see a list of research techniques, or a list of all the computer programs you know how to use (and please, please don't tell me how you are proficient in Word. please). If you have special skills, make sure that is obvious. If you are really good with Python or R, I should know that looking at your CV. List things in reverse-chronological order so that your most recent achievements (which are probably the most relevant) are at the top of the list.

The post-doc application CV is the only time I think it is OK to include manuscripts that are "in preparation". There are some projects that work out so that all the publications happen at the end, and you might not have them out when you are applying for postdocs. That can be OK. But DON'T list anything that isn't actually in preparation. If I ask your advisor about an "in prep" manuscript and they don't know what the hell I'm talking about that is bad.

I strongly encourage everyone to always keep the CV up to date. I have a "long-form" CV in my dropbox that I update anytime anything happens. It has EVERYTHING on it. When I need to send a CV for something I simply save this under a new name and cut out the parts that I don't need. Easy peasy.

4. Contact potential postdoc advisors.
Go time! Send an email to the potential postdoc advisor that includes your letter (in the body of the email), CV (attached as a PDF), and a list of references with contact information (can be included in CV or attached as a PDF). Now you just have to wait (sorry!). If you are writing to me you will probably wait longer if there is an approaching NIH grant deadline. If you haven't heard back in 2 weeks, you should follow up with another email asking if there is any other information that they would like to see. If you still hear nothing, then move on to someone else on the list.

And just like that, you too can be a post-doc! Good luck 🙂

6 responses so far

  • Spiny Norman says:


    Also: read some of the lab's papers. I don't mean look at the abstracts. I mean read them.Read the whole papers — including the methods sections. Carefully. Make it clear that you have read the papers. ASK QUESTIONS in your letter to the PI. What's next? Have you considered applying X technical approach to address the next-cool-question?

    Look at outcomes. Do people in the lab you're looking at end up in the sorts of jobs you envision yourself doing?

    Do some damned arithmetic. You are better off joining a lab with two postdocs that puts someone in a tenure track position every 3 years than you are joining a lab of ten postdocs that puts someone into a tenure track job once a year.

    Think about the work the lab is doing. If you stay in academia, you are likely to spend your first six years as a faculty member doing stuff you started as a postdoc. So you are making a one decade commitment to a field.

    Is this a field that is dilating, or contracting? Be like Gretzky: skate to where the puck is going to be. Not where it is. That is not necessarily what is trendy today. In fact, what is trendy today has already attracted ambitious postdocs like flies to shit.

    When you interview: talk to the trainees. They will tell you the truth, one way or another. About who is getting jobs. About whether the PI is absentee. About whether it's a good training environment. About whether the PI is risk-averse or wants to go after difficult, important questions. About whether, in such pursuits, the PI is careful to make sure that you get incremental papers out, or whether the PI will only attend to projects (and trainees) that will result in a GlamJourn paper.

    This is the most important choice of your career. Don't fuck it up.

  • Bam294 says:

    Being ever the contrarian, here's some *dont's*
    1. Please don't hunt me down cold at a national meeting after I've chaired some session and expect me to be able to process that you are introducing yourself and want a job.
    I'm busy doing my job. Like crazy busy. Those PIs who seem to be just talking about nothing are building relationships, finding homes for our trainees, grants and papers. Meeting potential mentors at national meetings is a great idea. If you want to really talk, I need you to have written me in advance to set up a time. Know that my meetings calendar and social time at these things is booked two weeks before I get there.
    2. Don't expect me to convince you that you should join my lab. I will be honest about my strengths weaknesses and those of the projects we discuss. I want to know why you are the right person and what you honestly need help with (in your opinion). If I'm out of town a lot, I likely am not going to be the best 'experimental planning' mentor if you if you have this kind if day to day issue. We should know that about each other.
    3. Know thyself. An earnest follow up to #2. I am a huge fan of reading business books on organization and management. I recommend Strengths Finder or other Meyers Briggs based methods. Flip side of this is that it's fair to ask me if I'm extroverted or introverted as well...adetail or big picture person.
    4. Read our papers before you reach out to me. It sounds crazy, but you'd be surprised how many people who write haven't read our body of work. Tell me what you liked. It will help me figure out what projects you might be interested in.
    5. Don't expect me to be 'all that'. Mentoring is best done by multiple people. I may be great at understanding the science and budgets but have zero clue about your life angst. There are many people up and down the food chain from glassware techs to dept chairs who have helpful mentoring advice. Be sure the place you are applying fosters that environment. You'll need it.
    6. Be proactive in developing an individual career development plan. It's a written evaluation you do and your mentor does yearly about strengths, goals and strategies. They are popping up all over the interwebs including one at Natl PostDoc Assc. Doing an exit interview w your grad school advisor using this format will help you determine strengths and areas to develop.
    7. Here's a good one...when you send me your CV and/or list of references make sure they are not only giving you A reference, but giving you a GOOD one. Ask to have coffee w anyone on the list you give me so you know their concerns before I do.
    8. Clean up your online act before you send me anything. True story of smart but somewhat quirky sounding applicant I googled. His Facebook avatar was him with a giant fuckken knife. Don't be that guy/chick.

  • Macrophagic says:

    This is all true for undergrads who wish to do internships as well. I've been getting random unsolicited emails from undergrads who want to work with me for summer internships. That's nice, I'm glad you're interested in my work, but I don't know you or anything about you. Tell me what you want to do with your internship, where you want to be in 10 years, why you want to work with me, etc. That way I can see if your interests line up with what I'm doing. I don't normally take on interns this way but will do so if I find someone who's organized, decisive, and who's career goals align with my work. Also, please tell me what time frame you have in mind and if you plan on relocating to where I am for the course of the internship.

    And, please, send a CV that's organized and makes sense. I don't expect undergrads to have much to put on their CVs, but I expect to be able to read and understand it. If English is your second language have a native speaker read it for you before sending it. Don't rely on Google Translate.

    Keep all of this to 3 pages or less.

  • katiesci says:

    When writing an email inquiring about a postdoc, is linking to previous papers from your lab good or bad? I figure if they want to look into our work a little I can make it easier on them but I'm not sure if they care or if it would be annoying.

    • gerty-z says:

      You should definitely include a CV that lists your pubs. Links are nice, but I don't think linking to other people's work make sense. Maybe a link to the lab website, though.

  • Civil Duty says:

    I know the purpose of your post is not to decide whether to do a post-doc or not...but this post is. Get out of science as fast as possible so you are not one of those post-docs that is about 10 years out of their PhD still looking for a job. You can love science and do other things that actually pay your bills instead of suffering for years getting paid sometimes less than grad students (because students aren't taxed if they get scholarships) and unable to contribute to your RRSPs because you are working enough to be taxed, but not enough to be recognized by the government as an actual worker. Having done my PhD and watching throughout my 4 years as post-docs apply for job after job, only to wind up doing yet another post doc, I can say with much conviction that pursing a tenure track position is equivalent of hunting a unicorn - if you find one, you're probably crazy and deserve to have the punishment that is professor-ship. Find another way to explore science - big pharma, teaching only (no grants writing), medical school (so you can actually apply all your petri dish crap to real actual life someday), or what most post-docs I know do - go back to teacher's college. Consider the job market and the type of life you want to lead. Feed your kids? - no post doc. Live like a starving musician? - post doc for you.

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