Applying for postdoctoral positions in the sciences (part I)

Having recently gone through the postdoc application process along with some of my peers, I thought it might be useful to summarize some of the things I learned.  But first one major caveat: the application process varies considerably across disciplines, even across subfields of the same discipline.  Just within physics, the process is fairly different for particle physicists versus condensed matter physicists versus biophysicists.  (NB: my area is theoretical and computational biophysics.)  Thus the universality of any one person’s experiences may be fairly limited, so please bear that in mind with everything I say!  So here goes…

  • Start early.  In some fields there is a well-defined application season (e.g., starting in the fall and concluding in January) and in others applications are accepted all year, but starting early is important in either case: you want to have the longest possible window to find opportunities.  In general, I think you should start looking about one year before you intend to graduate and start the new position — so start looking now if you will graduate in the spring of 2015.
  • Cast a wide net.  As you make a list of groups, fellowship programs, etc. you’re interested in, be as broad as possible.  Ask your advisor, other faculty, current postdocs, and other students for suggestions; there may be lots of interesting opportunities out there that you haven’t heard of.  You want to have as many options as possible.  For one thing, unlike undergrad or grad school applications, there’s usually little cost in applying to a huge number of these things (no fees and many have identical application requirements).  But besides that, many of these opportunities are very competitive and also subject to a good deal of luck.  Sometimes your dream group just isn’t hiring the year you’re looking for a job, or you just happen to apply when they are changing directions or when a rising superstar applies as well.  So your top few choices may become unavailable for lots of reasons, and you want to be prepared for that.
  • Apply for competitive fellowships.  Besides postdoc positions in individual research groups, many fields have fellowships for postdocs.  Some are federally funded (e.g., NSF or NIH), others are funded by private organizations, and others are specific to an institution.  The Graduate School-New Brunswick’s GradFund program has lots of resources on these, so check out their website and appointment offerings.  Fellowships tend to be extremely competitive, but you should apply for as many as you can anyway (remember the previous point?).  Many require the same materials you’d submit for any other postdoc application, so they require little additional effort.  Even if you don’t get a fellowship, applying to them can still have benefits.  Writing research proposals is an important skill, and the more practice you get, the better.  Maybe you’ll at least interview for one or two, providing another chance to meet people and practice interview skills.  Or maybe they’ll get your foot in the door for another opportunity.  Something like this actually happened to me: I applied for a fellowship that I ultimately didn’t get, but the process got my foot in the door with the group that sponsored my application and enabled me to receive a separate offer from them.
  • Write a research statement, but first figure out how it will be used.  Most applications ask for a “research statement” without specifying what this should include or how it will be used.  Since this may vary across disciplines and types of postdoc positions, I recommend trying to figure out the conventions for your field so you prepare your statement accordingly.  For example, one field I know consists of two subfields, and faculty merely use the research statement to determine which of those subfields you’re in.  So in this case the details of the statement don’t matter much and therefore aren’t worth a huge amount of your effort.  This was generally my experience as well — I doubt anyone read my statement in much detail beyond skimming the general topics I listed.  (Note: this is in contrast to a research proposal for a grant or fellowship, which likely WILL be scrutinized carefully!)
  • Have a decent CV and website.  Besides your research statement, most applications will require a CV.  I won’t cover how to make a CV here, but spend some time making it organized and easy-to-read if you haven’t already.  I also recommend setting up at least a basic website if possible.  I made a personal website early in grad school, but for the most part it hasn’t served much purpose.  So I was a little surprised to realize people were looking at it when I applied for postdoc jobs.  I’m sure they didn’t peruse it in detail, but they at least saw my picture and probably glanced at my papers, research interests, and teaching activities.  This probably doesn’t make a big difference, but it’s another data point to confirm your legitimacy, especially for a professor drowning in dubious applications.  So if you already have a website, make sure it’s up-to-date and be aware of what you put on it; if you don’t have a website, consider setting up a basic one.  It doesn’t need to be fancy, just a place to post contact information, your CV, maybe a photograph.  If you don’t know HTML, web services like WordPress offer easy-to-use templates, and even simple composers like iWeb or Microsoft Word will get the job done.  Get it linked somewhere on your department’s or advisor’s page to make it easier to find.

I hope these thoughts are useful to some of you — next week I will post part II.  In the meantime, feel free to share your experiences and ideas in the comments!

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