Transitioning from grad school to a postdoc

Successfully making the transition from grad student to postdoc is tough.  In the midst of trying to finish lab or field work, analyze your data, and write up your thesis chapters, suddenly you’re supposed to start thinking about new projects?  It sounded impossible to me at the time; I really didn’t think I had enough brain space to focus on both.

Getting a good postdoc takes time, so unless your advisor can keep you on after you finish your PhD (or you are independently wealthy), you generally can’t finish your PhD, then start applying for postdocs.  You need to have a postdoc lined up before you submit your PhD so you can maintain income/health insurance while you transition from grad school to a postdoc position.

All this left me in a bind- I had to carve out the time and brain space to think about new projects while still trying to wrap up old ones. So what worked for me?

Before I get into the meat of my post, let me add a few caveats.  First, there are many different postdocs, and I can mainly speak to research-based postdocs rather than teaching postdocs.  Also, my experience is with NSF and ecology/earth science postdocs. Finally, my own transition happened a few years ago now, so times may have changed (but probably not that much).

Broad overview

When navigating the postdoc world, I ended up classifying postdoc positions into three categories: 1) Postdoc positions sponsored by a PI, but where you have an active hand in writing the grant; 2) Postdoc applications that you write and where the money comes directly to you; and 3) Advertised positions.  The three types of postdocs operate on slightly different time scales, but most of them have a lag of a few months between applying and starting.

Here are a few things I found useful.

1) As stated several times already already, plan ahead.  At a minimum, when you are entering your final year of your PhD, start to map out a timeline to a postdoc.  However, I think you need to be thinking about your postdoc even earlier than that.

2) Start to cultivate relationships very early in your PhD.  Regardless of which postdoc route you go, your chances of getting a good postdoc are greatly increased by establishing productive relationships with outside collaborators.  And regardless of whether you get/take a particular postdoc or not, these relationships will stay with you through the years.

3) Start an “Ideas” document or folder.  Seriously, do this right now, no matter what stage you’re in.  You will have many random ideas over the years you are doing your PhD (and beyond), but not nearly enough time to pursue them all.  While most of the ideas won’t pan out, some might provide great fodder for a postdoc project.

4) Use your advisors and mentors.  Don’t be afraid to ask for advice or help from them.  If you want an introduction, ask your advisor if they know the person.  Ask your mentors to put in a good word for you or send along your cv to their colleagues.  Your advisors have been operating in academia for a number of years now and know a good number of people. You would be surprised at the unknown connections that emerge if you take the time to ask your advisor about a particular person. Use this to your advantage.

5) Use your friends.  I think we often overlook the lateral parts of our network.  As a grad student, you have spent a few years making friends in grad school, at conferences, etc.  Some of these folks are more senior than you, some of them more junior.  All of them together offer you connections to different sets of researchers, or tidbits about particularly good or particularly bad advisors.

Actually applying for postdocs.  

Different opportunities have different timelines.  I think that postdocs that fall within Category One requires the longest lead time.  You need to establish a relationship with a potential advisor, work with them to identify a new project, and then work with them to apply for a full grant.  All steps in this process take a lot of time.  This type of postdoc also requires a lot of buy-in from your new advisor because the advisor will be the actual person applying for the grant.  Depending on the funding source, the advisor may also be working against some hard constraints (e.g., with the DEB preproposals, they can only submit two grants per year as PI or co-PI.  Will one of them fund you?).  Finally, the time to notification is very long- 6 months at the very best, over a year at the worst (as in the DEB preproposal…due in January, full proposal due in August, initial notice of award in December, money available in March or April).

The second category are projects that you have more control over and where the money comes to you.  I’m thinking here of the DEB Bioinformatics postdocs (do they still have these?), the EAR postdoc fellowship, NMBIOS/SESYNC or NOAA proposals, U. of California or U. of Michigan President’s Postdoctoral Fellowships, etc. In this case, it’s sometimes required, and often helpful, to identify a local host or mentor, but it’s really a project that you are initiating, that you are writing, and where the money is coming to you directly.  So you have a bit more control over this, and the lead time might not be quite as long as postdocs in Category One.  I think I estimated about 3-6 months from due date to notification, though it varies by fellowship.

The third category is advertised postdocs.  When someone else gets a grant funded, or has start-up funds to put towards personnel, they will advertise for a postdoc.  In some cases, you have a lot of control over the work you do.  In other cases, the project is tightly constrained and there is a particular set of work you will be hired to do.  Most often, it’s a mix- there’s a certain set of work that needs to be done, but you have the opportunity to contribute your particular skills and interests to shape the project a bit.  These positions often want someone to start soon, so the time lag between when you apply and when you start can be less.  However, don’t be put off by the advertised start date.  Many PIs are hoping to get someone in position by a specific time, but they are also usually willing to negotiate on the start date, especially if it means they get a great candidate. So be upfront with your time constraints, but also don’t be afraid to just apply for the position. At the very least, you’re forming good connections with other people in your field.

My personal strategy was to focus on postdoc categories two and three.  Figuring that I would finish my dissertation in May or June, I put in various fellowship applications the prior fall (November through January deadlines) and assumed there would be a minimum of a 6 month lag until notification of award (or failure).  My rationale was that I would find out by April whether I had gotten one of these fellowships, and if I didn’t get any of then, then I could start applying for advertised postdoc positions.  FYI, I took my own advice about ignoring the advertised start date for one particularly interesting position and applied even though they said they wanted someone a full four months before I could start.  I got an interview, but pulled my application when I got a slightly more ideal postdoc.

Final thoughts

So there you have it- one woman’s journey through the grad student to postdoc transition. I found that once I started thinking about new and exciting projects, it was REALLY, REALLY hard to go back and finish my PhD.  At the same time, it really motivated me to finish- I just wanted to get it over with and get onto the next project.  And there’s nothing like the hard deadline of a new job to motivate you to finish the dang thing.

What about you guys and gals who are in the thick of it?  It’s been a few years now since I made this transition, so my memories have faded a bit and are possibly distorted or outdated.  Any other advice to add?

Also, hat tip to the anonymous commentor who suggested this post subject!

11 thoughts on “Transitioning from grad school to a postdoc

  1. thanks for laying this all out so clearly!
    i found my transition from PhD to postdoc took almost 3 years; 1. planning/applying, 2. completing my dissertation, 3. tying up loose ends following my PhD (getting those last publications out!) and transitioning into my postdoc project/role
    as a 2nd year postdoc (i funded myself through fellowship awards), i’m really enjoying your blog… it’s nice to have a female blog voice in this world of academia!

    • If I add in “getting those last pubs out”, then I would still be in my postdoc!

      Glad you’re enjoying the blog!

  2. Great advice! I just finished my PhD (in ecology) and am start my first postdoc next week. Using your classification system it’s a category 3.
    It seems you would have to really be on top of your game to go the category 1 route considering how long it takes. I am guessing this option is more likely for a 2nd (or 3rd) postdoc. Category 2 was something I was interested in, but it just doesn’t seem like there are many options, especially if you want to pick your location. I did my PhD in Europe so maybe I am out of the loop on funding opportunities in the US. I haven’t been able to find anything on the scale of the Marie Curie postdoc program in the EU (which you should definitely check out if you can swing moving to Europe for 2 years). Other than what you mentioned, I know of the NSF postdoctoral fellowships in biology, but there are quite a few stipulations (must have just recently finished your phd, new location, subject matter, etc.) and only 60 fellowships awarded a year.
    Category 3 was by far the path of least resistance. Throughout my phd I would notice at least one or two relevant post doc advertisements a month via email. And like you said, having a large network of friends and collaborators can help.

    The hardest part for me is having so little control over where you end up. I have loved getting to experience living in 3 (soon to be 4) places over the last 10 years, but it is much more difficult now that it is not just me that I have to care about. Fortunately convincing my partner to move to Santa Barbara (and her finding a job in her field) was not too difficult, but I don’t want to (and it is not fair to) ask her to do it all over again in 2-3 years.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Benjamin. I agree, category 3 is the path of least resistance. In the end, I ended up getting offers from cat 2 and 3, and chose a cat 3 postdoc so that I had the benefit of a lab environment around me, rather than being in one of the synthesis centers. And I was lucky because it was a long postdoc (3.5 years), so I only had the one and didn’t have to make too many transitions. All of these things add up so much over the long run!

      Congrats on the new postdoc in Santa Barbara! That is certainly a pretty nice place to live for a few years!

  3. I am glad to see consideration of partners (of both sexes, it seems) in these posts of peoples’ experiences. A generation ago, some of my women friends talked about doing PhT* while their partners did a PhD in some place far from home. The responders to these posts seem much more conciliatory – good thing, too.

    * Putting hubby Through.

  4. By your classification I applied almost entirely to type 3 postdocs. I started applying almost a full year in advance of my anticipated PhD finish date, although since I still had (external) funding that timeline was fluid. I had funding for nearly a full year past when I wanted to defend, and my PhD adviser was happy to keep me if I stayed, but understood that I was ready to move on. My plan was to write up my existing work as I applied to postdocs in the hopes I would line up a position I was excited for, and if I didn’t I wouldn’t submit my thesis and would stay on in PhD-land a little longer to tackle a side project.

    Applying (very) early worked out well for me as I didn’t feel pressured to take positions that weren’t a good fit just because they were offered, and the lab I eventually joined created a position for me even though they had to fill the position they had initially posted with someone else. Don’t be afraid to ask if a PI can work on a different timeline than stated in the ad!

    One thing that I found immensely helpful was making sure I had in-person interviews for the type 3 positions for which I was applying. My PhD adviser knew of a few of the labs I applied to, but I didn’t personally know any of the PI’s before I responded to their ads. I was able to rule out one lab very quickly upon an in-person visit, and before that visit it was my top choice. (Bullet dodged.) So if at all possible, I suggest meeting the PI in person, meeting other trainees in the group, and try to see how they interact before you accept an offer.

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  6. Pingback: Blog: Postdoc-ing for Dummies | dr natalie matosin

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