Postdocs make up a crucial component of the scientific workforce. But the application process can be mysterious. In many fields, there is no central bank of job advertisements for postdocs, unlike what is typically the case for faculty positions. And there is no typical “season” when postdoc applications are due, unlike graduate programs. In this column, we try to demystify the application process for prospective postdocs.
Thinking through your options
Those of us who did postdocs have fond memories of our postdoc years. Looking back now, we appreciate it as a time when we had the freedom to devote most of our workdays to research. Our postdoc years also afforded us an opportunity to develop new skills, try new research areas, and forge new professional connections. But the reality is that postdoc positions aren’t for everyone. Too many Ph.D. students treat a postdoc as the default next step in their career path, without fully thinking through their goals. So before committing to a postdoc, we recommend taking time to do some soul-searching and reflecting on whether a postdoc is necessary for accomplishing your long-term goals. (For more discussion on this topic, see these stories.)
If you’ve thought it through and decided that a postdoc is the best career move for you, then the next step is to think through what kind of postdoc you want. Although the goals of postdoctoral fellowships are highly variable, most are intended to support early-career researchers who already have some specialized training but need more “incubation time” before they’re ready to become independent researchers. To land a postdoc that will help you incubate in an optimal way, it’s important to have a clarity of purpose on what you are seeking from the postdoc experience. Consider your own strengths and room for growth. Are you seeking training in a specialized research area or on how to use a new technique or tool? Do you want a different kind of mentor who will supplement your existing training in a particular way? Or are you simply looking for more time to produce original work? Understanding what you want to gain from a postdoc will guide your search and provide further clarification about why you want to pursue the postdoc path in the first place.
Making a list
Start your search by brainstorming a list of options. For instance, you may want to think about principal investigators (PIs) whom you’d be excited to work with. Perhaps you’ve become a fan of a lab’s papers or attended an interesting talk by the PI. Noting those PIs is an excellent place to start. But keep in mind that doing a postdoc can also be an opportunity to stretch beyond the most obvious places. Some academics use a postdoc as a pivot point to transition to a new research focus. Leah, for example, began to study an almost entirely unfamiliar topic as a postdoc to stretch her expertise in a new direction. Consider your own range of interests and whether there’s a field that you’ve been eager to crack your way into. Identify labs that are doing work in that area, and add those to your list, too.
Of course, adding an option to your list requires thinking about other factors, such as geography. You may be tied to your current location because of family considerations. Or, you may have a personal preference to live in some regions but not others. If the latter situation is true for you, keep in mind that your preferences may overlap with those of other researchers, and that there are often a handful of places that attract the most interest. Given that postdoc jobs are not forever, we’d recommend broadening the list of places you’d be willing to live—if that’s something that you’re able to do. Geographical openness increases the odds you will land a position.
One of the most elusive aspects of postdoctoral positions is their funding structure. Sometimes Ph.D. students will reach out to a potential postdoctoral mentor about whether they have any available postdoc positions, and the PI will respond by saying, “I’d be happy to have you if you obtain your own funding!” To translate, this means that the PI does not have funds available for you. However, you could undertake efforts to obtain your own funding and could “spend” that funding within their lab.