How to find a postdoc position.
After submitting your PhD thesis, you may want to consider finding a postdoctoral position. A postdoc gives you the chance to further refine your skills and expertise, under the guidance of an experienced researcher. A postdoc doesn’t need to be on the same topic as your PhD, you can switch fields or techniques if you want, although if you switch both you may have a harder time and need to plan for a slightly longer postdoc. In many fields it is becoming increasingly common to do multiple postdocs, typically 2-4 years each. In future posts we will talk a bit more about how to choose a position, how to apply for them, how to find funding etc. For today, I want to share some tips for how to go about finding potential positions to begin with.
When should you start looking?
Typically people suggest you start looking 1-2 years before your expected graduation date. The application process takes time, as does obtaining funding if you plan to apply for a grant, and if you are moving overseas for your position, visas can also take an unexpectedly long time to obtain. However, I recommend that you start before then. If you think you might be interested in a postdoc after you graduate, I think it is a good idea to start looking as early as possible for what types of positions are out there and what types of labs you might be interested in. This will not only mean that you have a better idea of what you like and what’s out there, but it will also mean that when it does come time to start applying you won’t be overwhelmed by the process.
Start with a simple list
During my PhD I kept a small shortlist of names that I updated as I went along. If I heard someone give a cool talk, or I read a paper that had me riveted, or I met someone interesting at a conference, I would add their name to the list of potential future supervisors. It was an intentionally exclusive list (the name had to be someone who’s work I not only liked, but also work that I could see myself wanting to do for several years), but it nevertheless grew with time. This meant that when it came time to start actively thinking about who I wanted to work with next, I didn’t have to stare at a blank screen with panic. I had a starting point.
Join mailing lists
Mailing lists are old-school listservs that allow people to send out news, job openings and other advertisements to all the people who have signed up to receive them. Some mailing lists also allow for discussion and can be places to ask for and receive help. Some are very narrow in focus (e.g. dealing with a specific method or technique), while others have a wide scope, encompassing an entire field. There are also society mailing lists and university mailing lists that you can sign up for. Some of them require you to be a member or student, but many of them are open.
Mailing lists are an important resource not just for finding postdoc positions, but for finding out about all kinds of interesting things going on (workshops, conferences, etc). I would recommend signing up for these as soon as you can (they are useful for Masters students too, as they often have PhD positions advertised). You can typically choose to get either individual, daily or weekly summaries of the posts. The frequency with which I kept up with the mailing lists grew as I progressed through my PhD: while at the beginning of my PhD I might have checked once a week, by the end I was looking at least every day or two.
The trick is in finding out which are the most useful mailing lists in your field. They can be hard to find online, and if you’re not having much luck it might be a good idea to ask around if anyone has any to recommend.
Many researchers will announce at conferences that they have or will soon have a postdoc position available. Others try to time their hiring so that they can conduct interviews at conferences. It is therefore a good idea to also time your search with the big conferences in your field. You can email the PIs who advertised positions in the mailing lists to set up an interview, or you can email the people on your list of potential future supervisors to ask for a meeting or a coffee, which will give you the chance to get to know them a little better, and for them to get to know you. That way when you are ready to start applying, you do not have to ‘cold call’ them, as you will already know each other.
In fact, I got my first postdoctoral position after meeting my future PI at a conference poster session. That conversation turned into a conversation about a potential collaboration a few weeks later, which turned into a job offer a few months after that! I know several people with similar stories. I think the important thing is that I didn’t enter the conversation with a job offer in mind: talk about interesting things with interesting people, don’t try to ‘network’ for networking’s sake – you won’t enjoy yourself as much and it won’t produce the results you want anyway.
Networking at conferences isn’t just handy for meeting future PIs, it can also be handy for finding out about positions, for meeting potential future lab members and finding out more about the lab environment, and for getting your name out there. It’s a good idea to keep your shortlist of future PIs in mind, so that you can find out a bit more information from their students, which will help you decide later on if the lab sounds like a good fit for you.
I’m seeing more and more PIs tweet about postdoc openings in their lab, either before the official ad goes up, or sometimes even instead of! In fact, responding to a tweet from my current postdoctoral PI is what got me my second postdoc position! You are probably already following the people who’s work you like on Twitter, but if you are not, it would be a good idea to start doing so. My recommendation would be to not respond to a job ad via Twitter though. Send them a brief email, referencing their Twitter post and expressing your interest and interests, and attach a copy of your CV. While some researchers wouldn’t mind a DM in response to a tweeted job post, many would, and there’s really no reason to risk it. It also seems like a bit of a waste of time, since they will likely ask you to email them at some point in the conversation anyway.
University Job Boards
Many universities have online job boards where they advertise funded postdoctoral positions. You may even be able to sign up for email alerts for new postings. If you are someone who needs to stay in a specific area/city for whatever reason, keeping track of university postings in your preferred area is a good idea.
If your future choices are less constrained by geography, I would skip this step. University postings are usually cross-posted or linked to through other channels, and they typically take a bit more work to sift through what is relevant to you.
Check lab sites
Look up the lab website of the PIs on your list. You can not only get a better idea of the type of work they do and the kind of lab it is, but you can also often see if the PI is currently looking for someone.
Arrange lab visits
If you are going to a conference or even if you will be in a new place for totally unrelated reasons, have a look at if there are any labs nearby that you would like to visit and send them an email asking if you can. It will give you a chance to get to know the lab and the PI in person, and it will let them get to know you too. You will have an ‘in’ when it comes time for applying, and even if they aren’t able to hire you themselves, they might be able to suggest someone else who can.
For similar reasons, you should always sign up for the lunches or dinners that are arranged for visiting researchers. Often your department will send out an email asking for who would like to join, but if they don’t you can contact the person who invited them – or the researcher themselves – to see if you might be able to join or arrange a meeting. Depending on the size of your department, you may even be able to arrange a one-on-one meeting. I would recommend you do this even if they work on a somewhat different topic – yes, it can be scary and intimidating at first, but typically the researcher will remember how scary it was when they were in your shoes, and will do their best to make it welcoming and comfortable. I have yet to have an experience with one of these sorts of meetings that was anything short of wonderful.
Email your future PI
Once you’ve narrowed down your shortlist, you can email the PIs you want to work with directly. What to include in this email is a whole separate blogpost, but in brief: introduce yourself, what you want to research, why you want to do the research with them/in their lab and attach a CV. Keep it brief and to the point – PIs are busy people. You can either ask if they have (or anticipate having) funding for a postdoc, or you can ask if they would consider applying for a postdoctoral grant with you.
If you send an email and then don’t hear back for a few weeks, I would send a polite follow up. If you still don’t hear back after that, I would move on to the next name on your list. Importantly, do not email everyone on your list at the same time and do personalise each email to the lab to which you are applying. If an email looks like it comes from a student who has sent the same email to 500 people hoping to get lucky, it is likely to go straight to the trash. If you can, stagger your emails. I know of a PI who received an email from a potential postdoc, and they forwarded it to a friend at another institution, thinking they would be a good fit. Turns out that friend had also gotten a similar email, and his enthusiasm for that candidate was all but wiped out when he discovered that the postdoc was emailing seemingly indiscriminately. Starting the whole ‘looking for a postdoc’ process earlier means that you can afford to take it one lab at a time.
Do you have any other tips for finding out about postdoc opportunities? Do you have any questions that we didn’t cover above, or that you’d like us to cover in more detail? Let us know in the comment section!
Alexandra (Alya) is a postdoctoral researcher at the Donders Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging. She is interested in figuring out how we make decisions and what makes us curious.