Looking 2 years ahead when it comes to a job/postdoc search can help scientists prepare more thoroughly.
Contributor Shimi Rii
“It’s never too early to be looking, so always be looking,” advises Ty Samo, postdoctoral scholar at the Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research and Education (C-MORE) at the University of Hawaii.
Whether your ultimate goal is to become a tenure-track professor or not, if you like research, becoming a postdoc is still a common next step for many graduating PhD students. By becoming a postdoc, new PhDs can (finally) receive a full-time salary to conduct research and diversify their skill set, making themselves more marketable for future job searches. As I started preparing to seek out postdoc and job positions for next year, I asked five postdocs for advice. It seemed that many followed a general timeline, set before prospective graduation.
1-2 years: Start making a list of potential postdoc advisers and laboratories of interest
Have conversations with your professors. Talking to prospective employers to see if you’ll be happy working with them is as important as the research they’re doing. Samo started emailing professors he met through summer programmes 2 years before defending his thesis. Stuart Goldberg, postdoc with the Hawaii Ocean Time-series programme, spoke to one of his thesis committee members because he felt that he could see himself working with her, and because she employed skills in her research that would help further his career.
Network. “Don’t underestimate the power of networking at conferences,” says Olivia Nigro, postdoc with the Center for Dark Energy Biosphere Investigations. Many positions are spread via word-of-mouth and people you know will vouch for your workmanship. “A few days before scientific meetings, there are small professional development workshops for early career scientists,” says Nigro. “It’s a great opportunity to promote yourself in a more intimate setting.” However, conferences can be overwhelming. Instead of meeting many people, focus on making meaningful connections. If there is a professor you’re interested in working with, ask your adviser to introduce you. “If you meet someone you get along with, you’ll stay in their mind and they are more likely to think of you when a position comes up,” says Samo.
Join a professional society. Connections made in professional societies can be an asset, not just for networking but also for reference letters. Michele Guannel, science education postdoc with C-MORE, says that being a part of the Graduate Women in Science helped her to make connections with scientists from different fields.
Look outside of the box. A postdoc may be the time to switch topics, fields, or learn new skills. Look deeply into yourself to find out where you want to go with your research, and there might just be a lab that’s perfect for your next step. Email professors in different departments to see if you can set up a meeting.
6-12 months: Take action – start job hunting and follow up with connections you’ve made
Peruse job boards. Christine Shulse, a postdoc with C-MORE, started looking intensely at job boards about 9 months before defending her PhD. She advises using careers websites like Naturejobs or professional societies like Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography, amongst others.
Apply for postdoc fellowships. I recently attended an informational session about the Ford Foundation Fellowships, giving me a feel for what the agency is looking for in the application. Before Nigro applied for the American Association for the Advancement of Science Policy Fellowship, she went to an informational session on campus and met with the programme director. She believes talking with the director about the fellowship helped her to obtain an interview opportunity. Since many of these fellowships are due in the Fall semester, awarded for the following Fall, plan accordingly.
Forge collaborations. Many postdoc salaries are funded on grants, so it might be worth collaborating with an established principal investigator to write a proposal with your salary accounted for. Both Samo and Nigro came up with research ideas and urged their professors to submit a proposal. “Look at Request for Proposal calls on websites for private and government funding agencies – see if you have ideas that match your skill set. Approach a professor who might already be working on something, and they might write you in as a postdoc,” says Nigro. However, “learn to not take the rejection so hard, it’s very competitive right now.” Nigro’s suggestion: In the case of rejections, modify your unsuccessful research ideas to fit other proposal calls.
0-6 months: Finalize your options
Contact people and set up interviews. With a clear timeline, follow up with people you’ve contacted and set up meetings. Clearly articulate your goals and what you would like in a contract. “Be extremely persistent,” says Shulse. Professors are busy, but you need to know your future. But when you do get an offer, do your research on the job and “think about salary and benefits.”
Don’t be afraid to accept before you finish. It seems that many PhDs accept a postdoc position before they graduate, deferring the position until the defense (even for as long as 2 years!). Postdoc positions are funded by a grant, so the start date is often flexible. Shulse flew out to Hawaii for her postdoc position 9 days after her defence. If you are reading this and feel that you are way behind in the general timeline, don’t fret. It’s likely that you made connections in the past that are worth following up on, so start taking action! Final Tip: As she contemplated her search, Nigro says, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Broaden your search and be open to lots of opportunities.”