Holly Hamilton was a travel awardee for the Advocating for Science Symposium and Workshop in Boston, 2016:
After completing 23+ years of education, you may come to realize that one thing you do not know is how to land your first job. If after careful consideration and research, e.g.:
you have decided that a postdoctoral position is your next step, here is your how-to guide to success.
- Identify faculty in fields that interest you.
For a postdoc position, job boards are nearly useless. Most professors do not use job boards to advertise positions and are notoriously bad about updating and listing job openings on their lab websites. So unless you know for a fact that this faculty is not currently seeking a postdoc, keep them on your list anyways. After spending several years on your doctoral thesis on one very specific subject, you may feel compelled to stay within that field. However, if you plan to stay on the tenure-track, you should know that many granting agencies (ahem, the NIH) prefer to see a postdoc in a subject that is entirely separate from your graduate training. Why? The NIH believes that the purpose of a postdoc is the train you on a new subject-area and methods. You can explore other fields by attending scientific meetings. And when you are there, network, network, network. You may meet your next boss. At the very least, you can decide whether certain fields are right for you. And since one day you will want to get paid, pay close attention to fields that are “hot” and growing. Ask yourself, after finishing my postdoc could this research lead to a grant or skills transferable to an Industry position? If the answer is no, I suggest you look elsewhere.
- Read at least 2-3 of their most recent publications.
When I say read, I do not mean skim the abstract then run your eyes lazily past the results. Annotate each paper as if it were your next thesis project. If you cannot get past the abstract without spacing out, how do think you will feel as a postdoc in that lab? Highlight interesting results, write questions in the margin about conclusions you do not understand, and most importantly read the methods thoroughly. You will likely perform most, if not all, of the methods described in a faculty’s recent publications. If you do not think you can or want to do those methods, keep looking.
- Contact faculty.
Your first formal contact with a potential postdoc advisor is an opportunity to make a positive first impression. Take the time to write a well-thought-out email that has been edited by yourself and multiple colleagues. I recommend using the following format:
Subject Line: Short and direct.
Greeting: Be professional even if you have met this person before, this is your potential employer not your buddy.
First Paragraph: If you have ever seen this person give a presentation or workshop (or one of their lab members), now is the time to mention it. If not, then use their most recent publication instead. Talk about a time when this person’s research caught your attention. Briefly state what about the topic interested you. End this paragraph with 1-3 questions regarding the presentation or publication.
Second Paragraph: Express your specific interest in their research. This paragraph requires that you know the current state of the professor’s field. Before you’re ready to write this email, you should catch up on the literature. Demonstrate that you know where the current knowledge gap is in this field and that you have or can learn the necessary skills to address this gap.
Final Paragraph: End your email with 1-2 sentences indicating you are actively seeking a postdoc positon and on what timeframe.
Closing and Signature: The ending should be as professional as the rest of this email.
The email in its entirety might look something like this:
Subject: Interested in doing a postdoc in your lab
Dear Dr. Hashimoto,
I enjoyed your talk at Veridian Dynamics on how stress affects hormone regulation within the thyroid. Your conclusion about current health guidelines on determining healthy levels of TSH in the blood was both informative and surprising. Has your research aided you in determining recommendations on revised clinical guidelines?
When reading your 2015 Science Paper, I realized that additional work is needed to determine the efficacy of hormone-replacement therapy on patients with APO antibodies that fall within normal TSH and free-T4 guidelines. A bioinformatics approach of clinical data could determine whether hormone-replacement slows thyroid degeneration. As an intermediate bioinformatician all I need to begin this project is access to the necessary clinical data and your guidance.
I would like to discuss doing my postdoctoral fellowship in your lab and I anticipate graduating this fall. Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to discuss this further.
First Last, Ph.D.
Now that you have emailed your top postdoc advisor candidates, you will be restlessly awaiting responses. As you know by now, professors are busy and do not always respond to emails. But before you jump the gun, give them at least one week to respond. After that, it is completely acceptable to follow-up. Reply to your previous email so they will see what the text of your last email. Then write a line expressing your continued interest in their research. You may not receive responses from ever professor you contact. Many professors will tell you that they are not looking for postdocs at this time or for some reason are just not interested in you in particular. Either way, be professional and give a polite response thanking them for their time.
To best anticipate what to expect from a postdoc job interview, make an effort to attend other interviews. If your lab has not hired a postdoc, talk to your committee members about whether you can sit in on an upcoming postdoc interview. Otherwise, talk to current postdocs about their interview experiences. And if all else fails, see below:
A postdoc interview usually consists of a presentation of your PhD research; meeting with the professors, her/his colleagues, and lab members. Your research presentation should be somewhat similar to your thesis defense. However, unlike your thesis you want to stimulate discussion and show off what you have done in the lab. Minimize talking about portions of your research that were done by lab mates or collaborators. Focus on the project that best showcases your skills, particularly the ones that will assist you in the professor’s lab.
You may find out which professors you will be speaking to prior to your interview. If so, read a couple of their papers. If you are thinking, “Ugh, I am so sick of reading the literature. I thought that after my PhD, I could take a break from Pubmed.”, then a postdoc is not the right position for you.
Lastly, spend some time looking up the lab members. You at least have enough time to read the entire laboratory website including current lab member bios.
- Choosing the right mentor
As a PhD student you have had a least one supervisor and have likely either experienced or heard the horror stories about unpardonable mentors. Think about the traits you require and the ones you want to avoid as you transition from a PhD to a postdoc. Consider mentor attributes such as:
- How much time she/he will have to spend with you? Helicopter PI vs. absent mentor
- Career paths that they either specialize in or support. If you want to move into industry, finding a mentor with industry connections is ideal. Conversely, you want to avoid mentors that have actively interfered with a trainee’s efforts to continue their career.
- Work-life balance expectations: Are they okay with you being a single parent? Will you be permitted maintain your nightlife and come into the lab at noon?
Considering other factors
If you are fortunate enough to have multiple job offers from professors who fit your ideal mentoring style consider other factors.
- Do you want to live in this location?
- Is this the best institution for me to complete my postdoctoral work?
- Does this position include benefits such as health insurance?
- Did current or previous lab members make statements that concerned you?
Accepting the job
Although you are now jumping up and down at the prospect of working in Dr. Awesome’s lab, calm yourself down enough write an intelligible email response stating that you have chosen to accept their offer. If you are still corresponding with other professors about possibly joining their lab, wait until you have signed an official job offer. Now that you have selected a postdoc mentor, you kindly inform anyone else who as offered you a postdoc position.
Remember to take your time researching each person’s laboratory research, mentoring styles, and talking with previous trainees. Make the choice that is right for you. Good luck on your search for a postdoctoral advisor.