Unwritten rules of applying for postdocs
Insider tips on how to make your postdoc application stand out from the pack.
Guest post by B. Duygu Özpolat.
While some graduate students have resources and institutional support to help them navigate the transition to postdoc life, not everyone has a mentor to guide them through the many unwritten rules of this complex system. As a PI who has just advertised a postdoc position, I compiled a few “insider” tips for grad students on how to set themselves up for success in their postdoc applications and beyond.
Don’t be afraid to contact the PI first.
Be proactive. If you’re interested in working at a particular lab, you don’t need to wait for the PI to advertise a postdoc position to get in touch. Tell the PI why you’re interested, and ask if there are any opportunities at their lab. If you are a good match for each other, they might be able to hire you if they have funds available. If they do not have funds readily available, they can help you apply for fellowships so you can join their lab. Some institutions have internal postdoctoral fellowships that the PI might know about. Even if they’re not able to hire you, they may offer to help in other ways—for example, by referring you to other PIs who are hiring.
Research your options.
At least a year (or more!) before you defend your dissertation, start actively looking into options for your next career move. If you’re interested in continuing in research, learn what postdoc positions and fellowships are or will be available. Researching your options in advance is especially important if you feel strongly about working for a particular PI or place, as it will give you (and the PI) time to secure funding.
Have a plan, even if it’s flexible.
You may have a very exact idea of what you want for your future, or you may want to take a more flexible approach. Either way, it’s important to outline some general career goals, stay up-to-date on literature, and take note of what interests you. This will come in handy when someone inevitably asks what you want to do after your PhD. A genuine answer, even if it’s not completely focused on one career path, will demonstrate your independent thinking skills to PIs. (Also, be sure you don’t fall into the trap of simply repeating keywords on the lab’s website. PIs can easily tell if you’re not sharing your real thoughts!)
Learn to highlight your skills.
When reaching out to a potential employer, be sure to mention the benefits they will gain by having you on the team, not only what you will get by working there. Emphasize the expertise you will bring, how you will help elevate their research, and any other relevant skills you have. Do not forget to give details about the skills you have that are specifically highlighted in the job advertisement. This goes for any job application, at any level!
Prepare project and funding plans.
Be prepared to write your own project proposals when you join a lab (unless the PI specifies otherwise). In your cover letters, tell PIs about project plans and what specific fellowships you could apply for to acquire funding. This is key even when you are applying for an advertised (read: funded) postdoc position, because those jobs are typically advertised for two years. PIs do their best to maintain funding, but things happen, so it’s imperative that you don’t depend solely on them to fund your projects. Plus, being able to secure your own funding will give you the freedom to do research that interests you, which will benefit your growth as a scientist.
Don’t let timing stand in your way.
Unless there’s a strict timeline for the funding or project, PIs are usually flexible about when you can start working, so don’t let timing issues discourage you from applying. If your application impresses the PI, they will try to find a way to hire you that works for everyone. They understand that you might need time to get a visa, relocate, finish one last experiment for a paper, etc. Talk to the PI about your situation during the interview process, and see if you can work something out.
International students, don’t get discouraged.
I myself was an international student, so I understand the unique challenges it presents. Fellowship options for non-US students are limited, but they are out there. To give yourself the best chance for success, make sure you thoroughly research all the opportunities available to you. Personally, as a PI, I like to see in your application that you did your homework and that you looked into these opportunities. Also, keep in mind that you will need to have publications to be competitive in these applications, so try your best to plan ahead and get those papers published! Getting independent funding will be extremely important down the line for faculty jobs (if that’s what you want to pursue). But if there aren’t any fellowships available to you, don’t be discouraged. There are always exceptions, so keep trying and focus on showing your productivity.
Good luck in your search!