This is the second part of a two-part post on How to Get a Postdoc Position, written by Amy Boddy, PhD, Arizona State University, Michelle Kline, PhD, Arizona State University & Simon Fraser University, and Hillary Lenfesty, PhD, Arizona State University.
Part II. Tips for securing a postdoc
In our previous post, we talked of the what, why, and where of postdoc positions. As promised, we are now here to guide you in how to find yourself a postdoc, and a good one at that — because even once you’re convinced a postdoc is right for you, it can be challenging to find the right one. As we mentioned in Part I, many kinds of postdocs are not advertised, and postdocs that didn’t exist can sometimes be created (like other collaborations) through social networking. Frustratingly, someone may be planning to hire a postdoc that fits your description, one that would be downright ideal for you, but if your name doesn’t pop into their head, you may never hear of the position. (We have on occasion heard of a position we would have applied to, after hearing that a co-sufferer on the job market was hired for it!) This is a truly flawed system, yes. But we want you here, and you want that postdoc. So how can you find one?
Our #1 piece of core advice is that you do not depend exclusively on your Phd supervisor, and that you take action as early as possible by doing the following. Keep in mind that while this can be terrifying for academic bookworms, it is also a great opportunity to grow your academic network. Conferences are a great way to do this, but we recognize that there are many, many reasons that you may not be able to make it to conferences. So we’re including here virtual networking tools as well, and would love to see more work-arounds in the comments.
On that note:
- Create a strong network. By this we mean get people to know your name and associate it with your work. Participate in department events, professional conferences, and be active on professional social media. You absolutely need a website, or at least up-to-date ResearchGate, Academia.edu, and/or GoogleScholar profiles. Connect with others in your field via Twitter. Self-promotion can be difficult especially for junior academics and women, but you must be your own best advocate. Online forms of networking and sharing your research are even more important if you are not able to travel for conferences. (Note: If you’re invited to speak but can’t travel, see if participation by Skype or by a coauthor is possible).
- Tell your network you are on the market and ask them to help you. You can also ask them to suggest prospective PIs. If you already know your prospective PI, tell them when you expect your degree and ask whether you can apply for a position in their lab, write a grant, etc.
- Contact recently hired postdocs. Ask them for guidance on possible postdocs and/or on potential advisors. Ask them for copies of their applications, and any advice on those that were successful or not. Application writing is an art, and this may give you a head start.
- Put yourself out there at conferences and by cold-contacting potential advisors via email. In both cases it is entirely appropriate to mention your advisor/collaborator’s name(s), in order to help them understand what sort of stuff you do. Be persistent. The worst that can happen is that they will not hire you, which is no worse than where you started.
- Recognize that you are asking a PI to invest in you, even though you are Totally Awesome and Highly Independent. A postdoc salary may be around $50k, but it costs around 1.5 times that much to cover your position. For this reason get your letter writers in order, offering to write a specific grant to fund your own position, and be very clear about what you can offer.
- Cast a wide net. Do you see a job posting about really interesting work, but isn’t exactly what you got your training in? Apply anyways. This transition to postdoctoral work can be an opportunity to change things up in your research. Likewise, subscribe to Society/Department/speaker series’ listservs, Facebook pages, and follow these groups on Twitter, too. When PIs want to advertise but don’t want to pay for an official listing, they’ll circulate job ads to their collaborators, who may send them out over a random assortment of listservs. (The old boys’ club lives on in this sense, but many listings will end up on generalized email lists).
All of this can feel embarrassing, and we can atest to the fact that it is no fun at all being rejected outright. However, it’s extremely difficult to gauge who may have funds and who may want to hire you – especially when subtle personal and systemic biases are at work. Because of this, we encourage you to apply, apply, apply. There are many ways to go about finding a postdoc, but we guarantee that you cannot get a position for which you do not apply.
How to Court a Postdoc Supervisor
You should pursue any and all options for finding a postdoc. One of these is to email people you’d like to work with (aim high! contact your idols!). There aren’t strict rules on this, but there are issues of etiquette that can feel daunting and discourage students from reaching out. We, collectively, have spent many hours staring blankly, drafting-deleting-redrafting and editing initial emails so that they sound right. Frankly, some of this “professional” knowledge is inherently class-based. Many advisors will assume that all of their students know how to write a business-like letter in application for a research position, when this just isn’t true. So, here are some highly specific tips we’ve found useful:
- DO: contact multiple potential advisors at once. Many options will not work out, and a reasonable PI will not hold your choice against you, as long as you are straightforward with them and don’t violate a signed contract. Having multiple options may even allow you to negotiate your salary and/or other conditions. This can be particularly important if you anticipate needing special accommodations, for example: flexible location in order to live with an academic spouse, relocation funds, and so on.
- DO NOT: simply ask “Can I have a postdoc?
- DO: Introduce yourself, drop names when relevant, highlight your skills and common interest with the PI’s research. Finally, offer to co-write a grant. Bonus points if you name the funding agency and specific grant you have in mind to show that you are serious and capable. Be ready to pitch a project or focus if the PI seems interested initially
- DO: Be persistent and willing to email the same person more than once if you don’t get a response; a missed email is not a sufficient reason to give up an opportunity for a postdoc. The worst they can do is ignore the email again.
- DO: Be willing to ask your network to do some introductory emailing/phone calls on your behalf. Any potential PI gets a barrage of emails every day. Even as grad students, we started to receive spam “request for a postdoc” emails from people unknown to us, from abroad, and in totally unrelated fields. Your email may go into the trash along with those, even though it’s not spam. If you get no replies, ask a more established person (i.e. your advisor or other colleague of your future PI) to email an introduction to your prospective PI on your behalf, and cc you. This can facilitate a conversation that otherwise wouldn’t take place — but again relies on your existing connections.
- DO: Plan ahead as to whether or not you will mention a partner or dependents, especially if you are seeking a second position or want to work remotely. There is no single best approach to this question (and there is lots of advice out there), but know that you are not obligated to disclose your personal information until you choose to do so. The prevailing advice we have followed is not to mention a spouse until a job offer is made, on the assumption that even pro-family and pro-woman departments or PIs are likely subject to implicit bias. The exception to this rule is if you already have a position, and are being recruited for another position that you will only accept if you are given specific accommodations (a position for your spouse, location flexibility, particular working hours, etc.). In any case, seek advice from those who know you and who have dealt with similar problems in the current job market. If you don’t know anyone that falls into this category personally, we suggest, once again, online networking through Twitter and resources like this blog.
As for your initial email, keep it brief, professional, and offer something of use to your prospective PI. Sample email:
Dear Dr. Romanoff,
My name is Diana Prince and I expect to earn my PhD in Bad-Assery from Awesome State University in Spring of 2017. I work with Dr. Barbara Gordon on the topic of Bat Flight. My focus has been on [Idea X]. I’ve attached my CV for further background.
I am contacting you because I am interested in your work on [P] and [Q], and would like to pursue a postdoctoral research project on [Big Question]. Does your lab currently have any postdoctoral research positions open? Alternatively, are you interested in co-writing a [Funding Organization & Name of Grant] grant that would fund an X-year postdoc for me to work in your lab? This application is due [date], and would fund [salary/research funds, etc.]
I hope to hear from you soon, please let me know if you are interested and we can follow up via email or through a Skype meeting. [Or, at relevant big conference.]
Diana Prince, PhD Candidate
Department of BadAssery, Awesome State University
*[link to your webpage]
* The webpage link is great to include, because it means the Prof you are emailing can easily click on your official webpage and poke around your CV and publications as needed. It also makes a haphazard Google search less likely, which matters because it might lead them to your less-professional social media sites (or someone else’s by the same name), instead.
As with all things in academia, this is a process that takes awhile. It is not uncommon to start the job app process up to a year before you actually defend and graduate. If you’re writing a research-based proposal to fund your own postdoc, you can’t simply apply on your own, and you may need to start the process even earlier. You’ll need to work with a new PI to sketch the plan and draft the proposal together. Once you know the deadline, contact potential PIs as early as 6 months to a year before you will actually apply.
It’s who you know
We all agree: let faculty/committee members and colleagues know when you are “on the market.” They may be able to contact individuals or send you postings they see. They can also suggest you as a guest speaker, which will raise your profile and potentially scrounge up some job opportunities. All of us have found that we — and our graduate school friends — have been more likely to get postdoc offers from people who already know us professionally. Yes, this is incredibly unfair. It puts those of us who went to smaller institutions, can’t travel to conferences for financial, personal, or health reasons, and who don’t look like the prototypical scientist, at a disadvantage. We cannot change that reality with this post, but there is some power in sharing this knowledge.
There is no shame in needing a job, and in letting people know it. There is no shame in asking for help. On the other hand, it is a good idea to avoid treating these same helpers as your sounding board for job-market misery. When you’re recruiting help from advisors or courting prospective PIs, avoid making negative comments, or indicating that you are “desperate” and would “take anything” (even when this is true). This may make prospective employers doubt your interest in their work, or they may misattribute this to you as having a “bad attitude” (even though this is a realistic way to feel in the present job market). Instead, turn to your grad student or other early career friends for solace. Turn to the academic Twitter community, blogs, and online commentaries for ways to think about your job market struggle. And know that while it would be wonderful to get an ideal postdoc leading to that coveted tenure track position, the selection process is far from fair — so it cannot in any way be a judgement of the value of your researcher or of your potential as an academic.
Do your homework on the lab and PI
You may be desperate for a job, especially if the opportunities seem bleak. But don’t accept any offer without first doing your homework. You want to avoid toxic supervisors, which can be worse for your mental health and career progress than a period of un- or under-employment. (Note: we know the latter two may not be feasible, especially for those with families or with ongoing healthcare needs. In this case, form coping strategies for your mental health and career, as well as an exit plan).
You can’t just walk into a lab and ask if the PI is a baddie. Here are some alternative strategies:
- Find out who past students or postdocs are and whether their careers have advanced. Did they publish while at this person’s lab? Do they still work with this person? You can ask the PI some of this directly, but you can also snoop online. This also applies to the inclusivity of lab membership: for instance, of women and people of color in a prospective lab. Have women graduated from this lab and succeeded?
- Ask current (or past) postdocs or students if they are happy. This is an easier question for them to answer honestly than whether their PI is good to work for; it can also shed light on the broader workplace climate and livability of the area. If you are particularly concerned about, for example, gender, arrange a coffee or skype meeting with only those members of the lab. If there are no women in the lab at all — and depending on the discipline — this may be a red flag in itself.
- Ask colleagues and advisors whether this new person would be a good supervisor for you. (And know what kind of supervision you work well under). They can answer this without tearing into the prospective PI, so long as you frame it as a question of “fit.” And it may really be the case that you work better with a particular mentoring style, so you can consider fit in earnest. At least one of us has been told directly not to pursue a collaboration with a very relevant male PI, because he has a horrible reputation for harassing women. Ideally, this person would lose his position and wouldn’t be a possible PI. Until that is the case, we still need the “whisper network,” and sometimes you have to ask directly to get that information. This is yet another way in which connections can matter, in this case not just for your career health but for your personal safety.
- Remember your meetings with the PI are also an interview for them (even if you need them more than they need you). Ask the PI for specifics about working hours, opportunity to be first author, whether there is funding for conference travel, and opportunities to gains specific skill sets you want in your next career phase. Even if your new PI is pure awesomesauce, it is still best to start with a clear idea of what you each expect from each other.
- Finally, if the PI is pre-tenure and just starting a lab, you may be taking a risk. Every new PI is bound to make mistakes, and like you as a new postdoc, is trying to figure out how the heck to even do this. This isn’t necessarily bad. As we see it, new PIs may have super exciting ideas and will want to move quickly because they are on the tenure clock; that is good because you are on the job market and also need to move quickly! The flip side of this is that they may have to put their own careers advancement first and may still be building social capital; senior PIs may be able to prioritize your career advancement. It will also be harder to get an idea of a new PI’s track record as a supervisor and advisor. In contrast to a new PI, more senior PIs may be out of touch with how to get a tenure track job in the current market.
On this note, wherever you end up, cultivate multiple advisors and seek out different kinds of guidance from different colleagues. Being a postdoc is one step closer to being a truly independent researcher–being your own PI–so think of it as a chance to stretch out, build new skills, professional networks, and communities of support.
In the end, what matters is that a postdoc can keep you moving toward your career goals, with minimal sacrifices in other areas of life. We’ve focused on a tenure-track trajectory here, but postdocs can also facilitate the transition into a non-academic or alternative-academic career. In our pooled experience, post-docs can range from ugh, to meh, to woo hoo! We want for this process to be more equitable, and we can each work toward that in our own careers: for example, by circulating postdoc positions widely and by not asking about marital status; by not conducting interviews at conferences; by budgeting for moving costs so that accepting a position is not financially prohibitive for some applicants, and more. However, this post deals with the world as it is now. In that light, our advice is to aim for an ideal postdoc, but also consider what it will take to find a postdoc that simply fulfills some basic needs on your career path. And don’t accept anything less than that.