What? I need to find a postdoctoral position a year in advance of my defense?

May 04 2009 Published by under Careerism, Mentoring

I've *realized that a greatly overlooked topic around these parts is the panic felt by the **N-th year graduate student who is finally sighting down the barrel on the thesis defense date. This poor individual is in high gear, finishing experiments, making papers out of data, thinking s/he'd better finally write a dissertation and, finally, facing the biggest hurdle of graduate education- getting all of the committee members in the same room at the same time.
And then somebody throws out a casual mentoring thought: "You know, most postdoctoral training slots are arranged a year in advance".
AIEEEE!!!!!


Ok, Ok. First of all, calm down. While it may be true that many postdoctoral slots are arranged with significant (many months to a year) lead time, there are plenty that emerge within a month or two of the defense. Sometimes the newly minted PhD will actually stay in the same lab for a few months to a year (as a postdoc) while seeking the perfect opportunity. So there is no reason to think that you have missed your opportunity to find a good postdoc slot, no matter where you are relative to defense date. So stop panicking already!

Rule #1:

Do not decline a job which has not been offered to you yet! This is no doubt an old and very popular bit of advice but in certain of the drug-abuse research superfamilies this is one of "Joe Brady's Rules" (see p. 12). For grad students searching for postdoctoral opportunities, this means if you have an inkling you would like to train with someone, apply. Do not hesitate because you think you are not good enough, do not come from a famous enough lab or any other reason. Apply.
Selecting Labs to Approach:
This takes a little bit of thought, but hopefully not much.
The Science is teh Hawt: Perhaps obviously, the bottom line is to think about what really interests you scientifically. What papers have you been reading in your past N years of graduate school that really excite you? What thing have you wanted to do as a grad student that just had to be put on the back burner because your current lab couldn't do those experiments? Take some time to go back to PubMed and run all your usual searches, this time thinking about the people and labs that are currently involved. Perhaps even venture over to CRISP and perform some of the same keyword searches. If you haven't bothered to retain the information about where all these labs are located, do so now. Check the most recent papers carefully because scientists do move about, at every level of seniority.
Geography: I advise people to fully credit geographic location in their choices. You may be there for five or six years, find a spouse and/or start a family. These are better bets than is the one that you will spend two-three years as a science acolyte and then get an assistant professor job in Geographical Paradise. It had better be a damn unique scientific opportunity to suffer in a place that you hate. Nevertheless, make sure it is not just reflexive bigotry driving your choices...Think about the differences between the red state/blue state distinctions (in the US) versus the county-by-county maps. Many University towns offer distinctive cultures.
Connections: You will also want to approach the PIs that you know in your department, University or even elsewhere. Simply say you are looking and would appreciate any thoughts or advice. The reason you do not do this first, is so that when they ask the inevitable questions about the above issues, you have thought of them already and can look reasonably with it. People like with it. The reason to do this is that older figures in the field know a lot of information that may not be readily apparent to you from the public record. Who has a great training record for particular job types or subfields. Who has just recovered from a disaster of one kind or another and who is facing one. Who is on the job market. Who is about to be hired in a new position. Etc. It adds to your data set. Also, you never know when the person you are asking will say "Um, do you want to come work in my lab"? This happened, very successfully as it turned out, to YHN.

Applying:
This is a simple process. Send your CV (with the contact info for three references) and a cover letter which outlines why you want to get training from that lab to the PI. In my view, the most important part of this is not to show your intellectual depth and list off a bunch of novel experiments because you have no idea if the PI is really interested in that area. What you are trying to do is show that you understand what the lab is working on, is capable of working on and what they have worked on in the past. In short, no spam mail letters.
Notice that I got to this before discussing any strategy about funding, competition, publication hawtness, reputation and the like? This goes back to Brady's Rule about jobs- there is no point making strategic contrasts until you have received an offer.
Improving Your Chances of Receiving an Offer:
In rare cases, I suppose, there are super star graduate students in super star labs for whom their own reputation is sufficient to get any and all PIs to pay attention to their application.
Postdoctoral position listings: Wondering why I left this so far down the list? I'm not saying you shouldn't pay attention to job postings on your society email list or web site. These are good things to read over because it may give you some ideas. But do not assume that just because a PI doesn't have a postdoctoral solicitation that you can't approach her. Nevertheless if one of your target PIs does happen to have a job listed, it may give you some clues as to how to get her to pay attention to your cover letter. It can tell you which of the lab's many scientific directions is most urgently in need of a postdoc and has grant money ready to spend on that postdoc's salary.
Networking: This is the biggie and one of the main reasons you need to be talking to your local PIs and postdocs about your job search. It is unlikely, (even if you bother to search out pedigrees on Neurotree.org or similar) that you will have a full appreciation of the personal networks within your subfields. Some of the strongest may be between like-minded folks who hang together at meetings, study section, editorial boards, on blog (!), etc.... but may not have obvious connections otherwise. Some may be distant branches of an academic tree who still have tight interactions with the core scientist(s). The point of this is not because it guarantees an offer in your PI's BestBud's lab (although this can happen). It is to get you and your CV past the usual fog in that PI's brain so that your talents, accomplishments and qualities get considered. This is no small thing, believe me.
This is running way long and I am going to have to continue with how you evaluate postdoctoral offers in another post.
__
*despite what any specific readers may think, this is motivated by a pastiche of issues that have recently arisen IRL and as DM.
**it is not polite to discuss this number for values greater than 4

37 responses so far

  • That's good advice. It's certainly worth starting the search early, because once you do have the next stage settled, it makes finishing up your PhD much less stressful. Certainly be ambitious, and don't hesitating contacting any PIs you might be interested in working with. Also, make nice with your current boss, because his/her letter of recommendation can go a long way.

  • leigh says:

    DM, you are my new hero! i don't know how the hell you just read my mind, but that first paragraph pretty much sums up the last month of my life.
    so i did all of the above, and scored a first interview for teh srsly-awesome opportunity. it went well. i followed up with a thank you via email 2 days later (received an immediate encouraging reply), but i forgot to include the contact info for my references. should i send another email? i don't want to be annoying. i am also going to be in opportunity city in a couple of weeks- is it inappropriate to invite this PI to meet for coffee?
    this is far too much like dating if you ask me. i want to stand out and demonstrate how perfect i am for the job (because i truly am), but somehow do that while not sounding desperate. argh!

  • Send your CV (with the contact info for three references) and a cover letter which outlines why you want to get training from that lab to the PI. In my view, the most important part of this is not to show your intellectual depth and list off a bunch of novel experiments because you have no idea if the PI is really interested in that area. What you are trying to do is show that you understand what the lab is working on, is capable of working on and what they have worked on in the past.

    Absofuckinglutely! There is minimal possible upside to presenting a "research plan" as part of your application for post-docs, and plenty of possible downside. The only possible upside is if you propose something that the PI hadn't thought of that sounds totally fucking awesome. Despite how brilliant you may feel as you complete your PhD, this is pretty unlikely. The possible, and much more likely, downside is that you come across as naive and/or inflexible.

    i followed up with a thank you via email 2 days later (received an immediate encouraging reply), but i forgot to include the contact info for my references. should i send another email? i don't want to be annoying. i am also going to be in opportunity city in a couple of weeks- is it inappropriate to invite this PI to meet for coffee?

    Go ahead and e-mail the contact info for your references, but don't invite the PI to meet you for coffee. You already had the interview, and there is nothing you can do at this point that is going to further help your case.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    leigh, yes it is always a good idea to make sure your target PI has your reference contacts in hand. always.
    if you are going to actually be in the location of the PI, yes, I'd say contact and see if they are available. Although I guess it depends what you meant by having interviewed. In person or on the phone? If the latter, heck yes. If the former, I dunno. Guess it depends on timing and circumstances and how you stand with that PI. Probably wouldn't hurt to ask.

  • leigh says:

    the interview was in person, we both just happened to be at the same meeting so we met up. i will skip the coffee invite, since it seems to be iffy. thanks, guys. i will get the references' contact info to the PI asap. the position is ubercompetitive, so i don't want to be at a disadvantage in any way.

  • TSS says:

    All good points of advice for people living in a world in which A) the economy is NOT in the toilet, B) PIs are receiving enough funding to not only keep their work afloat, but to bring on post-docs, and C) major universities are NOT downsizing every department. As these describe a world opposite to the one we currently live in, I have let the despair sink in. Makes me actually not want to hand in my dissertation next week. After N years (this number is not grotesquely above 4, BTW) I ALMOST want to stay in grad school. Almost.

  • Beaker says:

    I'll add another reason to start early: it increases the chance that you can land your own funding. Besides first author papers, nothing impresses on teh CV more than evidence that you earned your own postdoc/training fellowship. Almost all of these are co-sponsored by the postdoc PI. If you have landed a postdoc position well ahead of time, you have time to work with the PI to write an NRSA or whatever else you are eligible for. The PI will almost certainly help you do this. If you earn a fellowship, you'll have more prestige, more supplies money, and more freedom. And your PI will love it because it frees up your postdoc salary to bring in another postdoc.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    TSS you are violating Brady's Rule!!

  • Novi says:

    Finding a postdoc is a piece of cake. Finding a postdoc in which you don't want to kill everyone you work with is a different matter.

  • Mad Hatter says:

    I cannot agree more with DM on the importance of networking. None of the labs I applied to for a postdoc had advertised a position. The lab I work in currently, which has ~10 postdocs, has never to my knowledge advertised a postdoc position.
    But aside from helping you get your foot in the door, the other reason to network is to address what Novi said above. The more people (not just PIs, but other grad students and postdocs) you talk to, the more likely it is that you'll hear about the skeletons in the closet before you join the lab.

  • Alex says:

    Good advice, DM. I interviewed with (and got offers from) 2 groups, and neither were advertising. Both were cold contacts. I had a famous advisor, but I wanted to change subfields, so they had heard of him but did not know him.

    the biggest hurdle of graduate education- getting all of the committee members in the same room at the same time.

    Wrong. The biggest hurdle of graduate education is getting the dissertation margins and section headings and whatnot tweaked to satisfy Graduate Division, or the Librarian, or whoever the Authority is at your school. Even with computers and template files and all that, for some reason this continues to be a hurdle. I used the same damn template that a bunch of other people used, and for some reason I still had to make changes to satisfy Graduate Division.

  • kiwi says:

    Great advice. I had no idea about any of it when I finished my PhD. . .

  • Teresa says:

    @ #1: Damn.

  • Grad Girl says:

    Someone understands my current state of mind! (or out of mindness) Hurrah!
    I am trying to follow the standard advice of postdoc-ing in a slightly different field, but so far my impression is that, while PIs like to give this advice, they would rather hire someone who already does Exactly What They Do.
    Also, my experience so far with sending thoughtful but unsolicited applications to Hawt Stuff PIs is that 50% of them are too Hawt to reply--not even a one line "bugger off" email.

  • a cover letter which outlines why you want to get training from that lab to the PI. In my view, the most important part of this is not to show your intellectual depth and list off a bunch of novel experiments because you have no idea if the PI is really interested in that area.
    I have been told explicitly by two quite different successful PIs in my field that they only bother to answer these emails if the postdoc has proposed some specific possible experiments. These don't have to be the experiments the person ends up working on (and acknowledging as much in the letter is fine) but both these PIs said they would discard or ignore an email that said, "I want to train in your lab to learn X" without any mention of the experimental idea behind their learning X, or potential scientific contribution that they can make to the lab.
    And postdoc prospects who visit the lab and cannot answer the question, "What project do you envision working on?" are not given offers. The PIs never expect the postdoc prospects to produce an entire plausible and scientifically thoughtful project plan, but they do expect some thought to have gone into the question ahead of time.

  • But since you're on the topic--one thing I hear a lot from grad students is that they don't feel comfortable soliciting postdoc positions without having a first-author paper at least in press, preferably out. Yet due to the end-loaded nature of most PhD theses, this special moment may not occur until quite late in the game. How would you respond?

  • ecologist says:

    I have also had grad girl's experience. Even with a well crafted emailed letter in which I have attempted to eg explicitly say why I want to join the group, with a cv, mostly Hawt PIs don't bother even replying (with some very nice exceptions). My current mentor also tells me he never bothers to reply to emailed approaches. Instead, its all about who he knows.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    they don't feel comfortable soliciting postdoc positions without having a first-author paper at least in press, preferably out. Yet due to the end-loaded nature of most PhD theses, this special moment may not occur until quite late in the game. How would you respond?
    You make the best of what you have, of course. This is one place where if all you have are "submitted", you have to put them on the CV. probably "in prep" too, but it had better have some poster presentation to back it up. that or the strong word of your PI.
    PI taste can vary, obviously. but most are not completely oblivious. They understand this timeline stuff and account for it. Some won't, sure. Maybe they have their pick of perfection but so what? What do you have to lose by applying? Those types aren't even going to remember your name 6 mo later when, paper in press, you write them again 🙂

  • antipodean says:

    So the lesson in that is to start writing early. Do not fuck about when paper writing, especially if you have no papers.
    If your project isn't in any position to get any papers out of yet then ask your PI for something you can analyse and write up. There are usually much hated manilla folders of stalled unpublished projects in most labs. Do yourself and everybody else a favour and get them finished. Failing this write a review paper.
    Inside the same field a PhD graduand attempting to get a ostdoc looks a lot better bet when they have 6 papers than when they have 0.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Grad Girl and ecologist,
    yep, and this is why you need to have many prospects and send out plenty of inquiries. and to remember not to take it personally. with all the varieties of PI attitudes and situations, you just never know what the factors are. the person could be about to change Uni's, could have just filled up her lab with new trainees or whatever.

  • Pinus says:

    I am but A noob pi, but I can say that the most appealing thing at this point is a potential post doc who has an interest in the problem and some sort of specific strategy. It seems like I have been inundated with people who just ngeed a paycheck, that is not whAt I want.

  • It's probably worth pointing out that once the NIH ARRA funds start actually flowing, there is likely going to be a sudden loosening of the post-doc job market.

  • bsci says:

    Grad girl & ecologist
    I'm not sure what you did or didn't email, but your application email needs to be very short. It should be 5 or 6 lines stating who you are, why you want to work for them, what skills you bring to make them want to work with you, and ask whether they might have space. If they know people who you've directly worked with, this is a good place for name dropping. Of course attach your CV if they want to read the details. My own advisor wouldn't respond to his own grad student's emails if they were more than a few lines and many professors just filter out long emails.
    If they care enough to consider you, they'll reply and you'll have a chance to give more details.
    If someone you really want to work with isn't responding, networking can help. If you now a professor who knows you and that person, a brief email asking the person to look notice your email never hurt.
    Grad girl's 2nd point in comment #14 varies greatly by lab. Very small labs may not have resources to support someone who wants to take the labs research in a different direction, but larger labs often have some flexibility. Even still, my first postdoc was in a very small group with someone who was an expert in method A, but dabbled in method B. The person was glad to have a method B expert who was able to educate and expand that part of his research. I wanted to learn more about method A and use it in conjunction with method B.

  • NeuroPostdoc says:

    You can get postdoc positions without first author papers depending on the reasons behind why you don't have first author papers--if you have a body of work that is obviously publishable, but perhaps not in the journal that your PI would like to publish it in (PI wants CNS/junior CNS, work is obviously suited for JNeurosci) or there are some other mitigating circumstances, some PIs are able to look beyond the lack of publications and see potential.
    I applied to 3 extremely well-known labs & had interviews and received offers from all 3 labs all without any publications. I will say that it does take a toll on one's self-esteem to not have publications when everyone else around you does and everyone expects you to as well, so I don't suggest it if you can avoid it, but if it's unavoidable you shouldn't hold yourself back from applying because of it. The other thing is that if you don't have publications I would say that it's very important to get out there at conferences and meet the people that you want to work with, so that your name is at least recognizable when you e-mail them--also, giving talks helps as then they can see that you have done the work even if its not published yet.
    As a side-note on choosing a lab...I am actually going to be doing my postdoc (I'm currently finishing things up in grad lab) in the lab that published the first journal club paper I ever chose to present in grad school--I didn't realize this until after I accepted the position. Look at the papers that you're drawn to naturally (perhaps even independent of what you're working on currently), if there are labs whose papers you constantly read & look forward to, apply...it never hurts to apply and you won't even be considered for a position if you don't apply.

  • Grad Girl says:

    Novi-
    I think finding a postdoc used to be a piece of cake. This year my impression is that the post-doc market has about as much liquidity as credit markets--e.g. people aren't moving.

  • Cashmoney says:

    I am totes hiring postdocs! So are my department peeps. You guys must be in the wrong fields.....

  • neurowoman says:

    Postdoc seekers - there are lots of more junior faculty out there that have grants and are seeking postdocs. They have a harder time finding good people b/c they aren't as well known. Try looking at younger faculty in the same department of the bigwig who won't respond to your emails. Or meet up with a recently hired faculty member in your own department and ask them if they know anyone in your desired field who could potentially be hiring, and ask for an introduction. Their grad school buddies are jr faculty all over the country.

  • Novi says:

    Grad girl, depends on your field, I guess. I found a postdoc position really easily this year.

  • Pinus says:

    I am hiring postdocs as well. And personally, I think going with a young PI who has to prove them self as an independent investigator is the way to go. Did I mention that I am biased here?

  • "Sometimes the newly minted PhD will actually stay in the same lab for a few months to a year (as a postdoc) while seeking the perfect opportunity."
    What if you're in a situation where this isn't exactly feasible, due to personal reasons, and you don't have a postdoc when you are done? After 2-3 years of a long-distance marriage, when I graduate, the prospect of staying for additional months twiddling my thumbs waiting to see if I get a job offer sounds torturous. Should I wind up in that situation, would it be potential career suicide to pack up and move to where he is, and NOT be working until I find a postdoc position in his general locale, as opposed to hanging out in my graduate student lab for however many additional months until I secure a postdoc?

  • whimple says:

    Would it be potential career suicide to pack up and move to where he is, and NOT be working until I find a postdoc position in his general locale...
    Yes. Being unemployed is potential career suicide. Not necessarily, but potentially. After you vacate the premises in your old lab, 'gone' tends to equal 'forgotten'.
    ...as opposed to hanging out in my graduate student lab for however many additional months until I secure a postdoc?
    Also sub-optimal, which is why you should get the postdoc offer before you graduate.

  • leigh says:

    my grad lab has made it perfectly clear that there is no money for me to stick around after the defense. there is also the dual-career issue in my household, and the big question of where to go next is scary. i have had younger faculty solicit me for a postdoc job, but only one was even in neuroscience. it is my policy to not completely shut the door on an opportunity, though...
    i think it's hard on both sides: these faculty tell me it's hard to find a *good* postdoc. i'm finding it kinda hard to find/land a *good* postdoc position that will also take me where i want to go in my career.
    those young faculty could hire mediocre postdocs, and i could take a medicore position. but i don't think anyone ever sets out looking for mediocrity. at least, i don't. maybe that's the hard part all around? i'm just speculating.

  • anon says:

    leigh,
    Because of dual-career issues, I knew there would be a good chance I'd need to move less than 2 years after finishing my PhD. I entered the postdoc knowing I might not be able to go straight to a faculty position afterwards. I picked up useful skills and I was useful to the group.
    Assuming the postdoc market really is much worse than a few years ago, there are worse things than taking an imperfect job and needing to find a second postdoc later. Just make sure it's a position you'll get something out of and that you are up-front with your future boss about your potential future plans. If you want a research career, the number 1 rule is not to work somewhere that doesn't let you do research that interests you (either because they don't have the needed resources/equipment or because your interests have no relation to their interests)

  • crystaldoc says:

    My husband and I were both looking to land postdocs in the same geographical area at the same time. The strategy that worked very successfully for us in getting offers was to pick the geographical location where we wanted to go (this area included several major research universities and many strong labs in both of our fields), to figure out who was doing the work that was interesting to us in that location, and then to e-mail the PIs letting them know that we would be in the city during a particular week and that we would really like the opportunity to meet with them and discuss postdoc training opportunities. I wrote to 4 PIs; all responded, all were willing to meet with me that week, and all ended up offering me positions in their labs. I did not at that time have any first authorships yet out of my grad work, though I had one minor authorship from my grad lab, and one first authorship and several minor authorships from a lab where I teched before grad school. None of my pubs were CNS or even remotely high impact. I think that all the PIs were willing to meet with me because an hour of their time was a relatively small investment on their part, and then I got the chance to sell myself as a candidate in person. One had me give a formal seminar in group meeting, one took me to lunch, and the others met with me informally in their offices. The same approach worked well for my husband, too.

  • Bill says:

    I'd second DM's advice not to sacrifice your life to the science god. You may think you are married to one subfield and absolutely HAVE to work on the phoshorylation of Protein gagledygook in response to lah-dee-freaking dah. However, if the only lab hiring for that topic is located in Crawford, Texas, and the PI is a known asshole and time micromanager who eats postdocs for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, you may want to reconsider your options. Quality of life (both in and out of the lab) is very important; a postdoc does not have to be miserable.

  • You may think you are married to one subfield and absolutely HAVE to work on the phoshorylation of Protein gagledygook in response to lah-dee-freaking dah.

    Yep! If you are conceptualizing your interests that way, YOU ARE DOING IT WRONG!

  • Great post, DM. I didn't go through such a complicated thought process myself, but this is probably the best approach. And there certainly is hope for those who wait to apply- most postdocs hired in my lab arrive 1-6 months after being hired.

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