Unlock the Blackbox of Finding a Postdoc
Updated: Mar 24, 2021
Postdoc, short for postdoctoral research fellow or associate, is a type of academic research position that one can hold after their doctoral degree. Postdoc positions can be offered from universities, research institutes, government, and industries. It is designed to be a transitory position for people who would like to have an additional research profile beyond their PhD before applying for tenure track positions, government scientists, industry scientists, and so on.
To my surprise, almost everyone I talked with had a different experience of how they searched for a postdoc position, what the interview processes were like, and which factors were involved in the decision making process. I hope to summarize some of the key points based on what I have learned during my postdoc search. This article is suitable for people who are wondering if a postdoc position is something they would like to pursue, or for those who are applying for postdocs.
Why do a postdoc?
There is no universal answer to this question. The important thing is to ask yourself, do I need to do a postdoc? Why or why not? How would doing a postdoc contribute to my career plan, if at all? What are the skills that I wish to learn? How much time am I willing to allocate to a postdoc before moving on to the next stage of my career? Life happens, and plans constantly change. Is doing a postdoc the best option for you given the circumstances? Well, it was for me.
In the beginning of my job search, I was not looking for postdocs (in academia) because I wanted to taste what it is like to work outside of academia. Doing a postdoc would serve as a great transition and an add-on to my existing research skills. After many rejected applications to the industry, I knew I was lacking two things: first, being an international student, I don’t have immediate work authorization and it takes at least three months to acquire. That is not desirable for industries because oftentimes they want people to come onboard as soon as possible if an offer were to be extended. Second, many industry positions specify in their job post that they, though not required, prefer research experience beyond a PhD.
The decision of whether to do a postdoc or not really depends on the available opportunities you have at the time you are about to receive your degree, the connections you are able to establish during graduate school, and the portfolio (both research and soft skills) you have to present to employers. You should only do a postdoc if that is something that suits your interests and can advance your career.
When is it a good time to find a postdoc?
The short answer is, anytime. Postdoc is probably the most flexible position ever, but timing is everything. Oftentimes, a PI would start hiring postdocs when someone in the lab has moved on, or if they have a newly funded grant proposal. It is hard to predict when these situations might happen. Therefore, it is common to see postdoc openings posted all year round on social media, university websites, conference and professional society job boards, etc. It is always good to start the search early if you can. Postdoc openings are often limited in a given lab. The earlier you reach out to the PI, the higher the probability the position is not yet filled, hence increased chance that you might get the offer. In short, any time is a good time when you are ready to look for postdoc positions. Now here comes the question, how to find a postdoc?
How to find a postdoc?
Most PhDs today are trained in interdisciplinary fields. For example, I got my PhD in plant pathology, and I have experience in molecular biology, microbiology, and bioinformatics. This means that I am capable of doing research in many different fields beyond plant pathology. Therefore, one of the biggest questions you want to ask yourself before you start looking for postdocs is, which field(s) do you want to learn more about? The first step to finding a postdoc is to set up your own expectations and understand what you want to get out of the postdoc. Below is a Venn diagram of some of the things you might want to consider before sending out inquiry emails or applications to PIs.
Once you have a good idea of what you want to achieve in a postdoc, you can start sending out inquiry emails to the PIs you are interested in working with and closely monitor for any postdoc posting on different platforms. The inquiry emails are especially important when you are contacting a PI that you don’t personally know. The email would include basic information about who you are, what makes you interested in their lab, and ask if you could have a brief meeting (less than 20min) with the PI. Asking for a short meeting is extremely important, because up to this point, the PI is just a person on the website, and you are just a person in an email. A short meeting would allow both of you to interact with each other beyond what is on the papers.
Don’t get discouraged when some PIs never respond to your inquiry. They have a lot going on and maybe they simply don’t have an opening in their lab. Please don’t take it personally and think you are not qualified. Just keep on looking!
I recommend making good use of your existing connections and resources, including your current advisor, your committee members, your colleagues or friends in your professional network. Let them know that you are on the postdoc search so that they can keep their eyes open for any opportunities that might come along or they can connect you with PIs you might be interested in.
The interview process for postdocs is also variable because each PI does their interview differently. It is common for the candidate to give a seminar-like talk to the entire lab about their thesis research. Then comes the 1-on-1 chats with everyone in the lab about their research, work-life situations, or any questions the candidate may have about the lab. I think the individual meetings are the most important component of the interview process. Those meetings are great ways for the current lab members to get to know you as a person, as well as for you to learn more about the lab culture, PI’s mentorship style, and career development support, etc.
Keep in mind that you are not just being interviewed, you are also interviewing the lab and see if they suit your interests. The key is to be well prepared for the meetings, do extensive research about the lab personnels so that you tailor your questions to the individual person. And most importantly, just be you!
You have postdoc offers, now what?
Once you have received postdoc offers, it is time to make a decision on which one to accept. Different people have different priorities when they weigh the different offers. I will provide a couple things that I valued when I was weighing my options.
How much of what I can learn from this lab contributes to my future career?
It is important to have a clear idea of what skills you want to build up, what type of connections you want to establish and maintain in preparation for job search, and what opportunities you need to look out for. Then you can match what the lab has to offer to how it can serve you in order to decide if this lab is the right choice for you.
What is the PI’s mentorship style?
Different people value different things in a PI. For example, some value the PI’s respect for work-life balance, some value productivity, some value open communication, and so on. There is no perfect PI, so you have to balance the pros and cons when choosing a PI to work with. Do you prefer a PI that is hands-on or hands-off? Do you want a PI that has industry connections? For people who want to pursue tenure track positions after their postdoc, is your PI willing to let you take your research product with you when you move on? There are many things to consider when deciding if a PI is right for you. It is also informative to learn what positions the past postdocs or graduate students have moved on to and have a glimpse into the PI’s mentorship style.
Is the geographic location desirable for me?
Picking geographic locations can sound luxurious when you are near graduation and desperate to find a position to move on to. However, your physical location can determine what social circle you will be in and what connections you can build for the next couple of years. These will greatly contribute to your future job placement. In addition, some might want to be close to family, friends, or loved ones. Therefore, picking a place that you can see yourself living and being happy for the next couple of years or even longer is very important.
Once you have fully evaluated the pros and cons of each offer you have, it is time to make a decision of which offer to accept and which to reject. Don’t be shy to ask for other people’s opinion as they can provide views that you might not think of. For the offers you decided not to take, make sure you write to the PI and let them know your appreciation. It is important to maintain the professional network even if you decide to reject their offer.
A couple tips for international scholars
Living in the US on a VISA is difficult. I came to the US on the student VISA (F1). The F1 VISA can have one year (plus two years if you are in the STEM fields) of work authorization after graduation. The work authorization required for a postdoc might get delayed or rejected. It is imperative to plan for the worst, including having enough savings for a few months unemployed, knowing who to contact if the application does not come through, and having a support system that can be there for you when things become hard. In addition, traveling outside of the US on work authorization (F1-OPT) can be challenging. There is always the risk of getting stuck at customs/border when you come back to the US. Therefore, plan your international travels before you graduate and get ready to not be able to travel outside of the US for the few years following your graduation.
Exploring the next chapter of your life following your PhD is a rewarding but challenging task. Doing a postdoc is one of the exciting options for you to continue building up research skills while giving you a buffering zone while you search for the next position. Everyone has a different experience finding a postdoc. I hope I have shed some light on the postdoc application process based on my personal experience to support people who are considering taking this route.