Applying for postdoctoral positions in the sciences (part II)

Last week I began a list of things I learned from my recent experience applying to postdoc positions — here is the second half of the list.  As I mentioned in the previous post, keep in mind that the process can vary a lot across disciplines, besides the fact that even in the same field different people can have quite different experiences.  So this just represents my own experience in biophysics, but I hope it will be useful to someone else!  We will start the second half with what I think is one of the most important points…

  • Have alternative plans.  I once heard a professor claim that people should only do a postdoc if they are “academia or bust,” and it really irritated me.  There is no “or bust” in life — even under the best of circumstances, there is always a chance things won’t work out the way you wanted, and we all must have alternative plans for every aspect of life.  Do think carefully and realistically about your career goals and whether a postdoc is a good fit, but even if you decide a postdoc is your first choice right now, it should definitely not be your only choice.  (Corollary: doing a postdoc because you don’t know what else to do is usually a bad idea.)  So spend some serious time contemplating what your next moves will be if the right postdoc doesn’t work out.  Even if you end up doing a postdoc anyway, careful planning now may pay off if you arrive at a similar juncture later.  But moreover, knowing that you have other options will make your whole application experience much less stressful.  You can rest easy knowing that even in the worst-case scenario for your postdoc search (i.e., no offers), you’ll have other options and life will go on.
  • But still be persistent.  Don’t give up if your first few applications or inquiries go nowhere (of course, having those back-up plans will help to make this less discouraging, too!).  Unfortunately, many applications or inquiries to professors receive no response.  If you are just contacting individual professors asking if they even have a position available, I think it’s worth sending a follow-up e-mail after about a week if you don’t hear from them.  If you’ve formally applied to a group or fellowship program, you may need to wait a few months to hear back, although I think it’s still worth following up at some point if you haven’t heard a response.  If someone really isn’t interested in you or just doesn’t have an opening, you deserve to hear them say so.
  • Be prepared for your visit/interview.  After applying, you may get invited to visit the group or department.  Sometimes you’ll give a formal research seminar to the whole group; other times there is private interview with just faculty.  The Graduate School-New Brunswick has held workshops on such interviews in the recent past, and they are worth attending.  You also usually have a series of meetings with faculty, current postdocs, and possibly grad students.  Besides having ready a good spiel about your research and career goals, do your homework on the people you’ll be meeting.  Make sure you know what kind of work they do, and plan some things to discuss with them.  Of course you may discuss each other’s research in these meetings, but they are also key opportunities to get inside information on what the group is like and whether you’d be happy working there.  Don’t discount the meetings with the postdocs and grad students.  Besides the fact they can give more honest feedback on the working conditions, their advisor may ask them later what they thought about you, so try to leave a good impression.
  • Negotiate.  Once you receive a formal job offer, you should go over the terms of the contract carefully and consider what is negotiable.  Salary and the length of the contract are obviously important, but also find out about health insurance, access to funds for travel and equipment, if they will help you with relocation expenses, employee privileges (can you use the campus gym?), and any other benefits.  My understanding is that salary is usually not very flexible for postdocs (since salaries are often set by grants from the federal funding agencies), but some of these other things, like relocation expenses, are.  Talk to your current advisor or other postdocs to find out what’s typically negotiable in your field.  It usually doesn’t hurt to ask if you are reasonable about it.

So that’s it.  I hope the above points are useful to others out there, but if you disagree with something or have other points to add, please post a comment!

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