Advice and Tips for Getting a Job/Postdoc

(For a list of links and places to find Postdocs to apply to, see the Resources for Finding a Postdoc page)

Some "starting" questions about postdocs

(Derived from discussion during the Career Development Seminar "Being a Postdoc". Thank you Kat Volk, Mike Sori, Vivien Parmentier, Gijs Mulders, Prajkta Mane, Andrea Banzatti and Jennifer Fernando for your advice!)

Why should we do a postdoc?

If you are staying in academia, it is virtually the only path going forward. For industry, postdoc is not necessary (and perhaps frowned upon in Europe), but it is good if there is a particular useful skillset that you want to pick up.

The main objective for a postdoc is to expand both your network and skills/experience. It is thus advisable to work on a topic different from the PhD dissertation topic. However, since getting the postdoc position requires demonstration that you are well-suited to do the project, the postdoc research area cannot be so different that you are too clueless. The larger network and broader experience and skills at the end of the postdoc puts you in a better position to be an effective scientist capable of working independently and initiating collaborations.

The postdoc should be seen as an opportunity for personal development. You should go into the postdoc knowing exactly what you want to get out of it, and not because it is the “natural” next step.

A small reason for doing a postdoc is to demonstrate that the dissertation is not the work of the PhD advisor.

What type of attitude should one have going into the postdoc?

The 2-3 years of postdoc is much shorter than the PhD (especially since 1 year of it will be spent on applying for a subsequent job). So there is less time available to pick up a new topic like during the PhD. The postdoc is also the only time in the academia route where there are no additional responsibilities other than research.

How should I go about looking for postdoc positions?

Many postdoc positions are not advertised, and advertisements are often done for “formality” with a particular candidate already in mind. So you should focus on what you want and go create the opportunity, rather than choosing from what is already out there. Postdocs are generally welcome everywhere – they are a source of cheap (or free if you have a fellowship) labor.

It is good to start preparing beforehand. Network in conferences, get to know potential postdoc advisors personally. Side projects with them help to “test out” potential advisors before going into a postdoc stint with them. For the postdoc, whom you work with is more important than what you work on.

That said, some people do apply to numerous openings. Ultimately the number of applications depend on how many you actually want to go, and how many you want to write. There is nothing wrong having only a couple of applications, as long as there is a backup plan.

What are fellowships?

Fellowship applications are distinct from the postdoc job applications in that the former is financial while the latter is administrative. Fellowship proposals are written with the potential advisor to work on a particular topic. The job application is required to formally hire you as a postdoc. Fellowships will fund 100% of the postdoc income, and because of that advisors almost always agree to be on a fellowship proposal (free labor, more publications, bring prestige to department).

While there is a clear defined timeline for fellowship applications in the US, the different systems across the European countries means that it is advisable to first contact the potential advisor who will be more familiar with the funding sources available for working with the advisor. There is only one “European” fellowship – the Marie Curie Fellowship – and all the others are national fellowships.

Depending on your expertise, the relative work you and your potential advisor will put into writing the fellowship proposal will vary. If you are going into a relatively new field, then the advisor is likely to contribute more.

What should one do before making the decision?

It is important that you do not go into the postdoc blind. Talk to your own PhD advisor, students and postdocs of the potential advisor before committing. It is also important to discuss expectations before signing the contract, and usually time commitment is explicitly mentioned in the contract. There must be time for you to pursue your own research.

How is postdoc life different from graduate student life?

They are not too different, especially compared to the later part of the PhD where you mostly do research. The difference is more like, during the PhD you are learning how to walk, while during the postdoc you are sufficiently confident with walking to not think about it, instead enjoying the places you can go walking around.

Also, many postdocs struggle with loneliness to a greater degree than grad students. This is often because they lack the social support structures they had in grad school — the built-in relationships. It can be difficult because you are not yet a faculty member, but are past being a grad student. Worth being aware of. 

General advice

  • Publish early and frequently!

  • Start talking with people and applying for fellowships about a year before graduating. If they need to write a grant, it takes about a year of lead time. Bear in mind that grants are no sure thing, so don't put all your eggs in one basket if the funding isn't in hand. Personally I think it's fine (even best) to be up-front about that with people.

  • By far the most important thing you can do is publish multiple useful papers, preferably early. Publications a) are kind of the whole point of research, b) get your name out to people, and c) are the best way to demonstrate that you can do a useful amount of publishable work. There is no magic formula - the best way to have a science career is to become a productive scientist. If you do that, it's highly likely that things will work out, and if you don't, networking probably won't save you, at least for long.

  • It's a good idea to try something "different" in your first postdoc. Don't play it safe and just turn the crank and update what you did in grad school. This is your chance to add breadth to your experience. E.g. if you did spacecraft data analysis in grad school, try to find a connection that will allow you to expand into lab work. If you are sticking to the research science plan (either soft money or academia) your postdoc is your last chance to really have time to learn new skills. Ask yourself - where are my weaknesses as a scientist, what do I want to know how to do that I currently don't know, who possesses a body of knowledge or skills that I really wish to learn from?

  • Ask for help! (practice talks, example applications, proofreading . . . )
  • Advisors can be hard to get information from about these things, so you just need to ask the right questions. Most PhDs aren't in academia. Ask them what their grad school classmates are doing. What are their former students and postdocs doing? They know plenty of people with degrees in our field that are doing other things (or have moved into adjacent things like EPO, spacecraft ops, etc.) but you might have to poke them a little bit to remind them that they absolutely have contacts that could be useful if this is a direction that you want to pursue. In this way the list of what alumni are doing can also be useful, but don't just look at the LPL list! Caltech's website [link?] has a list of what their alumni are currently doing and I'm sure other departments do as well.

  • If your advisor cannot or will not help you, go ask other people. Step 1: other committee members. Step 2: the GAAC, dept chair, etc. Step 3: tackle random people in the hallway! Most people will try to help if they know that you need help. Some advisors will be incredible resources during this process and some will not. If yours is not, you just have to accept that and move on.
  • "The thing to remember with these prize fellowships is that you shouldn't be scared to ask a person if they are willing to be your faculty contact because if you get the fellowship you are going to be free money and labor for them. If it works out for them great, if it doesn't they didn't risk or lose much in the process."
  • "Apply for prize fellowships, departmental fellowships etc. Having your own money demonstrates to the community that you are becoming an independent scientist who is developing the skills required to be a self-sustaining member of the community. How much flexibility you truly end up with depends on the situation."
  • "Don't let your fear of contacting people 'out of the blue' get in the way of trying to find a job."
  • Start talking to people EARLY. If there is someone you know you want to work with, then you should talk to them well ahead of time (a year or 2) so that they can write you into a proposal. A lot of people are perfectly happy to have postdocs but don't usually ask for money for them unless they have someone specific in mind. Even better is if you can approach them with an idea for that proposal and help write it.
  • Networking: Explore how your research will be useful to others and talk to them. Telling them who is your boss is will be a good starting point. Usually people who are friendly to your boss will be friendly to you, too!
  • If someone is known to employ postdocs and you know them even somewhat well (talk with them about research at conferences, etc.), I don't think it's awkward to just ask about a postdoc. If people know that you're close to graduating, they know you need a job. Asking about fellowships is a good way to start a conversation with someone. (Sample email I wrote at one point, and this really is the entire text except for trimming names:
"Dear XYZ, I saw that the XYZ postdoctoral fellowship is being offered this fall. I'm trying finish my thesis this spring, and was considering applying. I would certainly be interested in working with you--are you currently looking to take on any postdocs? I'd be happy to discuss further if you're interested."

Specific tips

  • For the love of all things, make a website. (See: How do I set up my own LPL web page?) Keep it updated. You should have a website from day 1 of grad school. Keep your publications, CV, research interests and short bio online and up to date. Join ResearcherIDResearchGate and keep a google scholar profile all up to date (with links on your website and your website listed in the bios on those sites). If you cannot be googled, you might as well not exist. Lower the activation energy for people who want to find out about your work and experience. I was asked to help put together suggestions for a faculty candidate search recently and it boggled my mind how many people we discussed who did not have a webpage or they did but it wasn't up to date. Don't make me do an ADS search to see how many publications you have or what you have been doing. If you don't have a website and/or it isn't up to date I am just going to assume that you do not need a job (and don't want to be invited to give a talk, etc.).

  • Just because a fellowship doesn't require a faculty contact doesn't mean that you shouldn't try to make some. Departmental fellowships often boil down to having someone who will fight for you. Definitely contact someone at the institution where you're applying well ahead of the deadline. This could be as simple as emailing them your CV & a summary of your proposal and asking for some feedback, or whether they'd be willing to collaborate with you.

  • Start everything re: applications as early as possible!
  • Quite a few fellowship applications are due in mid-January. Pay attention to deadlines & don't get post-LPSC abstract burnout!

  • When filling out applications: Label everything, triple-check institution names etc, follow instructions.

  • It is strongly recommended to apply for postdocs where you can PI your own grants (this is a tricky bit for the NASA fellowships). Note that PSI can host grant proposals, even if you are at another institution.
  • Tip: if you see a postdoc advertised, it's probably either required that they advertise, or no one wants it. For example, if it's only in one issue of Eos, they probably already have someone in mind & just had to advertise it. This doesn't mean it's not worth applying! That other person might not work out. Just keep in mind they are looking for something very specific, and tailor your application to that.

Misc./unorganized

CV

Teaching Statements, Research Statements, Cover letters, etc.

  • “Worksheet for developing a teaching statement,” SERC Workshops, 2005 - Questions that you need to ask yourself before writing a teaching statement.

  • “How to write a statement of teaching philosophy,” Chronicle of Higher Edu., 2003 - Excellent article describing the key points of a statement of teaching philosophy

  • “Writing a statement of Teaching Philosophy...” University of Michigan (PDF) - Great explanation on teaching statements and a rubric for evaluation

  • “Developing your research statement,” SERC Workshops - Great bullet points and do’s-and-don’ts for writing a research statement

  • “Getting great letters of recommendation,” Chronicle of Higher Edu., 2001 - Nice article describing the intricacies of reference letters

  • “The Basics of Cover Letter Writing,” Chronicle of Higher Edu., 2000 - Key points to writing the letter, with example.

  • “How to write appealing cover letter,” Chronicle of Higher Edu., 2000 - How to appropriately tailor a cover letter to the institution you're applying to.

Interviewing, Job Talks and Negotiating

  • "Academic Job Interviews," Carleton College. Many great tips about interviewing.

  • “The academic interview process and how to prepare for it,” University of Chicago (PDF). Excellent review of all types of interviews and how to prepare for them.

  • “Academic job interview advice,” University of Maryland. General hints and tips

  • “Shifting attention spans,” Tomorrow’s Professor, Rick Reis - Great article on the attention of your audience during presentation interviews

  • “Giving a job talk in the sciences,” Chronicle of Higher Edu., 2001 - Article detailing the key points of a great interview talk

  • List of negotiable areas when offered an associate professor position, SERC

  • Summary of points in a offer letter and where negotiating takes place, SERC

  • Negotiating from the point of faculty, Chemical & Engineering News

  • “Go Ahead, Haggle,” Chronicle of Higher Edu., 2005 - Article on the importance of negotiating and keys to doing it the proper way

  • “The right start-up package for beginning science professors,” Chronicle of Higher Edu., 1999. Negotiation points that will give you the best chance of success at the position.

Non-electronic resources

  • Bloomfield & El-Fakahany, “Chicago guide to your career in science”, ISBN: 0-226-06064-0

  • Bolles, 2011, “What Color Is Your Parachute?: A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career-Changers”, Ten Speed Press
  • Gibson, “Good Start: A Guidebook for New Faculty in Liberal Arts Colleges”, Anker Publishing, ISBN: 0-962-70423-7
  • Heiberger & Vick, “The Academic Job Search Handbook”, University of Pennsylvania Press, ISBN: 0-812-21778-0

"Once Upon a Time, I got a job..."

...stories by individual alums (names & places have been redacted) about how they got a job. Since peoples' experiences vary so widely, some of these might be useful.

  • "I had met [Dr. X] at one meeting when I was a 3rd year. I didn't have a poster or a talk. I hadn't seen or spoken to her since then and she had never seen any of my science except for papers. I had no idea if she would even remember me. I finally got up the courage to email her and basically said that we met at this meeting a long time ago, I don't know if you remember me but this is what I have been up to (CV attached) and these are the kinds of things I am interested in. I was thinking about putting in an NSF proposal what do you think. She said okay yeah great we emailed a few ideas back and forth and then I put together the proposal pretty much on my own."
  • How did you initially find your position? "Mainly through some pre-existing relationship. I end up got 3 postdoc offer. In one of them I did go through an official application, but we know each other well (I think that is important). I also applied a fellowship. Made to the final list but somebody else got it."
  • "What I actually did: graduate, then hang around for 1.5 years working for my advisor before finally starting an outside postdoc. I got my postdoc working with Dr. X on the [mission instrument] science team--we had worked together a bit previously and he was aware of my work through the team meetings. (Spacecraft science teams are a great way to get to know people professionally, since the team meetings are much smaller than the big conferences.)"
     

Suggested Schedule For Your Last Year

See also All About the Dissertation and the Defense

(This one is adopted from one written by Rachel Bezanson for astronomy grads planning on graduating in the spring - adjust for your own graduation timeline. Planetary seems a little less adherent to this strict yearly schedule, so deadlines and dates may be different for you, but the general process is similar.)

“The early years”

  • Research/publications are the key to applying for jobs
  • Outreach/teaching can be important for some jobs & for eventually applying to faculty jobs

  • Make sure to collaborate - your project should involve others (3 letters of recommendation)
  • Give talks and go to conferences! (and keep track of them on your CV)
  • Make a webpage (picture, CV, advisor, thesis title, research interests . . .)

The year before you want to graduate:

  • Try to get your last publications finished up before the fall (if you are graduating e.g. in the spring)
  • Go to conferences & give talks - as many as possible now!

  • Look critically at your CV/Publications list and see if there is anything you can work on
  • Make a webpage - even more important now!!

May/June

  • Plan your talk tour (note, talk tours seem less common in Planetary than in Astronomy)
  • Figure out where you want to visit
  • Send a nice email introducing yourself to the current seminar organizer(s) & ask about giving a talk

July/August

  • Start thinking about research proposals - projects that you would like to pursue as a postdoc, who you would work with, and where
  • Finalize reference letters & TALK to writers (ask: "Would you feel comfortable writing a strong letter on my behalf?")

  • Finalize CV, publications list (you can keep updating these . . .)

September

  • Start checking AAS and other job registers (listed above). Keep an organized list, and keep track of deadlines.
  • Writing begins in earnest.
  • Don’t underestimate how long your first applications will take!
  • Keep track of meeting abstract deadlines (e.g. AAS abstracts are due Oct. 1)
  • This is the year to write your best abstracts and give your best meeting talks - keep in mind the opportunities for networking and prizes!

October

  • Check AAS postings & update your application list

  • Start submitting applications!
  • Travel around and give “job talks” - October-November (December is ok, but a little late)
    • Usually 45 min - 1 hour seminars
    • Giving the talk is only part of it - email people with related interests and schedule meetings! Ideally the talk organizer can help, but... that doesn’t usually happen
  • Make sure that your letter writers are prepared for the barrage (dates, detailed instructions in his/her preferred format)
  • Submit applications as early as possible (some systems don’t request letters until you have!)

November

  • Check AAS postings & update your application list

  • Job talks
  • Most fellowship applications are due in November or the first of December

December

  • Check AAS postings & update your application list

  • Finish Job talks
  • Finish fellowship applications (mostly at the beginning of Dec.)
  • Start writing personal postdoc applications
  • ...and the waiting begins... (you could start hearing things in December if you’re lucky - esp re: shortlists)

January

  • Probably no new postings to the AAS job register
  • AAS meeting
  • Finish applying for personal postdocs (the last due dates will be ~Feb 1)
  • Don’t take the rejection letters too personally. they’ll start flooding in around now...
  • Prize fellowships announced ~late January...

February

  • Hopefully make some tough decisions!
  • Unofficial/agreed upon decision date for most jobs: Feb 15th
  • Start thinking about scheduling a defense!

Application materials

(See also external links above)

Cover Letter

  • Try to address to a person
  • Brief introduction to your work/research interests
  • Briefly describe your plans & why you’re a good fit for the job/institution

CV

  • Name/Contact info
  • Research Interests
  • Education
  • Additional Research Experience
  • Conferences/Talks (contributed vs. invited)
  • Teaching & Outreach

  • Grants/Awards/other?
  • (Referees)

List of Publications (submitted and accepted)

  • The longer the better - so start publishing early!
  • (Obviously first author is key here)
  • Some people highlight their name in author lists

List of References

  • Usually 3 required
  • plan this early
  • select writers carefully
  • same people you will ask for recommendation letters while applying

Research Statement(s)

  • Previous/Current Research
    • ~2/3 pages (could be 1, could be unlimited, depends on the application)
    • Try to tie everything into a complete story
    • Remember that people are skimming these (at least initially)
    • Attractive color figures that will also look OK if printed in B/W
    • Highlight your skills!
  • Research Proposal
    • clearly set the stage/define problem in context of bigger questions
    • keep everything organized
    • customize for each job
    • identify potential collaborators
    • clearly state timeline/feasibility etc

Non-Academic Career Resources

See Non-Academic Jobs

Many thanks to all of the alumni, postdocs, and mentors in various positions who have helped contribute to this page!

  • Colin Dundas
  • Sarah Hörst
  • Matthew Chojnacki
  • Christopher Hamilton
  • Rachel Bezanson
  • Fan Guo
  • Emily Rauscher
  • Serina Diniega

LPL alumni are one of the best resources for finding out information like this. Many are willing to help, give advice, introduce you to people, etc. If you're considering a position and want more information about it, find an LPLer who worked there before and ask them about their experience.