You have been toiling away at your thesis project for years and you think the end is in sight. Now the big question is “What’s next?” If you think you might want to move away from the bench, then you should check out our suggestions for alternative careers for scientists. If you think your future lies in research, then more than likely the next step for you is a postdoctoral research position, simply termed a postdoc.
I have seen a variety of approaches used to find a position, and have spoken to a fair number of professors about what they see and how they view hiring a postdoc, and I’ll outline here is what I think the best approach is for giving a graduate student the most opportunities (interviews) to find the academic postdoc that is best for their future.
The right perspective
One common issue that I’ve seen among graduate students is the tendency to under-value their ability and contribution to a lab. This leads to the view that they would be lucky to land a position in another lab, or that another professor would be doing them a favor by “taking them on” in their lab. Not only is this is not the case, I believe in some cases this lack of confidence can cause a graduate student to lose opportunities. The reality is that most academic labs live, breath, and grow by the efforts of the senior graduate students and postdocs. There are some exceptions, but the vast majority of established professors are not working at the bench, and even if they are, they cannot devote enough time to it to accomplish the amount of work required to move the lab and their own research career forward.
I believe a postdoctoral position is best thought of as a symbiotic relationship – the professor is getting a relatively-cheap, intelligent, innovative bench worker that will write papers to make him or her more famous, and the postdoc is receiving training to round out his or her skill-set and launch the next phase of their career. The reality is that professors are looking for talented, intelligent potential postdocs as hard as you are looking for a great postdoc mentor and lab.
Timing the Search
Many people start the postdoc search too late. The nature of the academic world is such that the lab that you want to join might not be able to take you for several (to many) months, and this is after a search that could easily take four or more months from start through interviews to an offer. So if you wait to start searching until you have defended your thesis and spent a month or two recovering from the event, you could easily be “a year old” before you start in the new lab. This matters because the career clock starts ticking the day your degree is conferred, and time spent sitting in your old lab doesn’t do much for you. For example, several of the most prestigious postdoctoral fellowships in the US are only available to postdocs “less than a year old” and that have secured a position in a new lab.
There isn’t a universal consensus on this, but most people I’ve talked with agree that the time to start actively searching is at the point in your graduate work when the end-point becomes clear. This isn’t when you hope you’ll finish, but when you, your boss, and your committee all agree what experiments remain to be done to finish you thesis, and agree on what that time-line looks like. Then you can start searching with a reasonably solid prediction of a start date for potential postdoc advisors. (This doesn’t have to be the day after you defend – I would recommend taking a little time off before starting in the new lab – but ideally it wouldn’t be more than a couple months after you defend.) This may have another benefit – for some strange reason mentors of graduate students with a position lined up seem to be less prone to the “just one more experiment” syndrome that plagues so many professors. But how do you start looking for a new lab?
One of the best places to start is your network. At a minimum, this is your thesis advisor and your committee members, but hopefully your network is larger than this. If not, and you are still early in the process, you need to start networking. Amongst some hard-core academics “networking” is a dirty word, and it shouldn’t be. If you are of this opinion, then look for a future post from yours truly debunking some of the myths surrounding networking. For now, though, let’s talk about ‘academic networking’.
Ask your advisor, committee members (if you have a committee), and other faculty that you have a working relationship with for suggestions. This might sound too simple, but sometimes they’ll come back with suggestions based purely on other professors that they think you would be a great match for, or other professors that they think are doing some particularly exciting work, or a combination of the two. Even if these conversations don’t yield any suggestions right away, they might plant a seed in their mind that yields suggestions later, and the conversations will almost always evolve into broader discussions of hot fields to get into, cold ones to avoid, and just lots of great advice in general.
Many programs have seminar series which include graduate student lunches with the speakers. These can be great opportunities to meet potential postdoc advisors, and many of these visiting professors use these lunches to go “postdoc shopping” for new lab members. If you aren’t having much luck having professors come to you, then you should travel to them – start going to every conference you can. If you can put yourself face-to-face with potential postdoc advisors, then you have given them a great opportunity to evaluate you for free, and you have the same opportunity to evaluate them. If you try talking to a professor and he or she blows you off, then you just gained a valuable piece of information about what life might be like working for them. The only real rule here is don’t start the conversation by asking them if they have room in their lab or any related “please hire me” questions. Ask them specific (but not challenging) questions about their research. They will likely ask you about your research – think about how to accurately and succinctly describe your project ahead of time. The conversation will evolve from there.
Networking is also quite valuable even if you aren’t talking to professors. Your network can be a tremendous source of unwritten information about postdoc opportunities or about potential postdoc advisors, which leads me to my next topic…
Research the Environment
Time to apply your crazy data gathering skills. Some of what I’m mentioning here was also discussed by Joanne Kamens in her recent webinar “How to Choose Your Next Lab” in our Life in Science series, and I highly recommend you watch it if you haven’t already. I’m leaving the redundant advice in this article, just to reinforce the message.
I’ll assume that you already have figured out what field you want to go into, if you are changing directions, and who the top people are. Are they hiring postdocs? If they say they are (advertising on the lab website or job posting sections of Nature’s or Science’s websites), then they are probably looking for people to come in a work a specific project. If they don’t say they are, then you should still plan on applying. Some professors get enough unsolicited applications from high-quality candidates (like you) that they never actually advertise positions.
What questions are left to ask? Who has the professor mentored in the past? Have they ended up with the type of job that you want? Some labs are good at making industrial scientists (either through the research, connections, or both) while others are better at making professors. Does almost everybody who leaves the lab opt for a non-research career? That could be a red flag…
You have already looked at this professor’s publication record, but did you figure out what the publication output looks like when you factor in the lab size? A biochemistry professor that publishes 5 data papers a year out of his or her own lab (where he or she is the last/corresponding author) sounds good, but if they have 30 postdocs in their lab, the number starts to not look so good. (I’m using an average of about 1 publication per year for a molecular biology oriented biochemistry postdoc, but this expectation is obviously very field dependant.) If they are “under-publishing”, do they look more impressive because their publications are predominately in the top journals? This could indicate that manuscripts that the professor thinks have little chances of making into Cell/Science/Nature get little attention. Do they have a lab alumni page? If so, are there people who left with no publications?
Do their postdocs win fellowships? Sometimes this is listed on their website, but if it isn’t, you can look in the acknowledgments section of the lab’s papers and see if any fellowships are mentioned there, since this is almost always a condition of the fellowship. For certain career directions, fellowships are important, and the training environment is important for winning some of these awards.
What is their funding situation? If they are in the US and doing biomedical research, then the bulk of their funding probably comes from the NIH. You can look them up on the NIH RePORTER and see how many grants they have, for how much, and when their grants are up for renewal.
Mine your network and see what you can find out about the professor’s reputation. Bear in mind that a professor might have a very different reputation amongst his or her peers than they do with the people who have worked in the lab. Joanne Kamens had some great suggestions for exploring the lab environment of a prospective lab in her webinar here on Bitesize Bio.
The CV – The Postdoc Version
While you are doing all this research, you should also be putting together your CV. I think when you are applying for a postdoc you have a lot of latitude for much of this document – academics are pretty forgiving here. As a general rule, be brief, spell check(!!!), and only include the information a future postdoc mentor cares about. Most don’t care at this point what awards you won in high school or what your hobbies are – just stick to the science. Put your publications on there along with any “In press” (it has been accepted by a journal), “Submitted/In review” (out the door, but not yet accepted), and “In preparation” (not yet out the door). Some professors don’t count the last category for much, so I might separate these into their own category to make it clear that you aren’t trying to “fluff” your CV. (If your current mentor confirms that the papers are real in the letter of recommendation, then this helps.) I put my name in bold in the author list to make it easier to find. If you have a co-first authored paper in which you are listed second, DO NOT list yourself as first on your CV. Some professors don’t care if you do this, but others think it is dishonest and will kill your application right away.
The area of the CV that I think a lot of people could improve on is the list of scientific references (letter-writers). Many people have gotten hung up on the idea that you should have three, but there is nothing magical about this number and in my opinion, three is just a minimum. When a position specifies that they want three, then give them three, but on your CV you can list more. Why should you? Because it betters the chances that the person you are applying to knows somebody personally on your reference list. If they can pick up the phone and call a friend for an informal recommendation, they will, and it will count for a whole lot more than a carefully-crafted written recommendation.
So who should you include? You should include professors that have interacted with you, preferably one-on-one, several times during graduate school, and who have agreed to write you a letter. I repeat: DO NOT list somebody if you have not received their blessing first! Start with your graduate committee, if you have one, but feel free to ask any professor that you have had meaningful interactions with, even if they aren’t at your institution (such as a collaborator). I would only include non-scientists and non-professors in the rarest of circumstances. I would then order them on your CV with the mentor first, then the most famous/well-established faculty, followed by younger faculty. This way if the potential advisor wants to only look at the top three, the ones that have the best chance of landing you the interview are at the top of the list. Make sure you include the official titles for you references (The [Rich Donor] Endowed Chair of…, Howard Hughes Investigator…) and triple-check the accuracy of the e-mail addresses and phone numbers. All this being said, don’t go crazy here with the number of references – I think going beyond ~6 might start running the risk of making some professors uncomfortable.
The Cover Letter
Even if you have met the professor that you are applying to, I think you should spend a fair amount of time crafting a professional cover letter (e-mail) to ask about a potential position in their lab. The most important thing you can do is to write this letter in a manner to make it clear that it isn’t a form letter that you are using to apply to 200 other labs. They get a lot of these. I’m a postdoc, and even I get a couple of these each year. Unless there is something there that catches their eye (like they know your boss), they get tossed very quickly. You will likely be applying to several different labs, and there will be paragraphs that you will be able to re-use (“For my graduate work in Dr. Bigshot’s lab, I purified…”), but you need to include unique material for each lab to have the best chances of getting the interview. You can do this by mentioning specific papers that they have just published and explaining any potential connections to work you have done, if any exist.
You can also write a paragraph that contains some ideas about projects that you might like to work on in their lab, if you are not applying to an advertised position where the project has already been defined. At a minimum, this could be just a general statement about something they already do (“I’ve always found protein X interesting, and would love to work with this in you lab”), but it might be even better if you propose something novel. This has to be of interest to them, of course, and fit under the umbrella of their funding (you did read what you could about their NIH grants already, right?). All of this should be qualified with a statement like “Of course I’m also open to working on other projects…” to make it clear that working on the proposed project isn’t a condition of you working in their lab. A paragraph like this not only shows them that you are specifically interested in working for them, but that you are smart, innovative, and have already invested time and energy into the position.
Of course it is critical that this is all very well written, both in terms of presentation and mechanics (grammar). Think of this as the written portion of your “postdoc entrance exam”, since your potential postdoc mentor will interpret a poorly written cover letter as a sign that a candidate may not be able to win a fellowship, or that manuscript writing and editing will be painful and time-consuming.
This should be obvious, but I’ll say it in case it isn’t: Please bear in mind that everything that I’ve said here about the timing of the job search, the CV, and cover letter is very focused on a graduate student applying for an academic postdoctoral position, and some of the advice here is not be the best approach for applying to industrial research or non-research positions.
If you have any other suggestions, please add to the discussion in the comments!