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Tips for Tackling the Postdoc Search and Application Process

The search for a postdoc position can be a daunting task in your last year of graduate school. I’ve recently undertaken this exhausting adventure and hope the lessons I’ve learned help those of you planning to take that step.

job search1. Don't rely on job postings

This is what makes the postdoc search so hard. Yes, there are some faculty members who will post ads on their websites or job boards, like Indeed, but that’s rare. Faculty members are bombarded with email inquiries about postdocs on a regular basis, so the need to explicitly advertise isn’t necessary. That means it’s up to you to find interesting labs and send out emails.

2. Narrow your search.

The postdoc search process is massive considering the number of faculty members out there, so you need to weed out choices. Use your interests as a guide. Is there a research area that fascinates you? Is there a technique you want to learn? Come up with a couple of criteria and start a literature search to find the active members in those fields. If you choose too many topics, you’ll find yourself overwhelmed very quickly.

3. Find mutually beneficial labs.

Your postdoc is still a learning opportunity, and most fellowship organizations prefer candidates who are broadening their training. Keep in mind, though, that you’ve spent years honing valuable skills. Try finding labs that could benefit from you as much as you could benefit from them. I’m joining a lab that asks questions broadly related to my thesis work, but the systems they study and the techniques they use are completely different than my expertise. That provides an obvious training benefit for me and allows me to argue that I can think critically about their science and broaden their investigations to new areas.

4. Do your homework.

You have to find a way to stand out in a deep sea of emails. The best way is to really show you’ve dug into the research they do — not just from their website — and thought about how specifically you could benefit them. It is also key that this comes across during your interview! Keep the body of the email concise, but use attachments. Draft a detailed cover letter, provide a copy of your resume and update your LinkedIn profile so the professor gets a clear sense of your credentials.

5. Consider funding options.

Who says no to free labor? Acquiring a fellowship before postdoc hunting isn’t required, but it helps to mention your willingness to apply. Take the time to find relevant fellowship options, especially if the professor has not posted an ad. Funding may be a concern here, so if you show a willingness to provide your own money, that might extend the conversation.

The postdoc search is stressful; there’s no sugarcoating it. But you can do yourself a big favor by starting early. I started a year before graduation so I could take things slowly. Sometimes the biggest stress relief is knowing you have plenty of time to find a job if something doesn’t work out.