How to get a Postdoc: It’s never too early to start thinking about it.

By Abigail Pastore

Assuming you intend to incorporate research in your future career, you will probably need to get a postdoc position.  Most academic positions expect job candidates to have at least a year as a postdoc to provide evidence of their skills as a researcher beyond their dissertation.  Possible career paths facilitated by a postdoc include professor positions at R1 institutions, small liberal arts colleges (SLACs), primarily undergraduate institutions (PUIs), and conducting research for government, non-profit or industry jobs.  

Regardless of your career plans, there are a few different strategies that an individual can mix and match to find the postdoc position that is correct for them.

A continuum of certainty

Graduating students generally fall on a continuum of how certain they are about what they want to research at the next step.  Some individuals know exactly what questions they want to address and how, and just need to find the support to do the work.  Other students may feel that a wider range of research topics would be acceptable. Depending on where a student falls on this continuum could dictate the path leading to their ideal job.

Here I outline three strategies for finding postdocs depending on the student’s degree of certainty regarding research topics.  These strategies are not mutually exclusive and can be mixed and matched.

On one side on the continuum: ‘I know exactly what project I want to do next.’

If this is the case, then write up that proposal ASAP.  Seriously, go write a rough draft right now.  There are several grants that you could apply for to take funding into your own hands, and the sooner you start preparing these grant applications the better.  Plus, it never hurts to clarify your ideas with the process of writing!  The added benefit of writing your proposal now is that it will be easier to talk to EVERYONE you meet about it.  This will help you get lots of feedback and aid in networking to find someone who might sponsor your research.  If you already have someone in mind to work with on the project, email them right away and talk to them about prospects of working together.  Send them a decent draft of your research proposal to show them how you are committed.

On the other side of the continuum: ‘I would be happy working on any number of different projects.’

If you’d be happy working on many different projects and are a bit crunched for time, getting on relevant listservs will give you an idea of what jobs are available.  Popular listservs are ECOLOG and EVOLDIR.  They are fun to watch in and of themselves, but you may want to filter emails using the word ‘postdoc’ so you don’t go nuts from getting hundreds of additional emails a week.  As you see job ads go by, make a spreadsheet that helps you keep due dates and application requirements straight.  Start early and apply for as many jobs as you can stomach.  The advantage of starting before you are ready for a job is that the first version of your applications will not be the best, so work out those bugs before its crunch time. And who knows, the perfect job may be willing to wait for you.

Anywhere in the middle of the continuum: ‘I’m not totally certain what I want to research, but I’ve narrowed it down.’

If you have some project ideas or favorite faculty members in mind, you can go ahead and start contacting people about opportunities they might have.  Make a list of the people you’d like to work with and email them to ask if they are interested in having a postdoc.  Ask if you can write a proposal together.  Start very early if this is the route you want to take because you will need a bit of luck for things to work out.

Mix and match these three strategies to suit your individual needs.  Common factors: (1) Start early. (2) Talk to lots of people.  To that end, be visible in the community, give talks at conferences, participate in national societies, and take other opportunities that arise.  When you talk to as many people as possible it will help refine your ideas, and improve your odds in this numbers game.  Talk to other graduate students and postdocs- it’ll put you in touch with other labs, and postdocs often become faculty members with big startup salaries from which they could hire you as a postdoc.  Finally, be productive so that people trust that you will help them be productive.

General tips for applications and interviews:  Always be genuine and honest about your interests and abilities-you want a job that fits you well.  If you go somewhere under false pretenses, everyone loses.  Emphasize what you can bring to the table, not what you are hoping to gain.  Do your homework- show researchers that you know their work and are interested in them specifically.  Once you get that interview, remember: you need to find out if this is the right job for you!  You are not begging for a job, you are looking for the glass slipper that fits. Talk to all the people in the lab you are interested in to find out about the lab culture and what it is like to work with their PI.  Also ask lots of questions to determine if these are the people you want to be spending your work day with.  You will get a job you want, it might just take time (and publications).  Most importantly on this journey: don’t panic!

Also check out some more blogs on the subject!


Have you got additional advice for prospective postdocs? Questions not addressed here? Job search horror stories?  SHARE THEM IN THE COMMENTS BELOW☺