Applying for a postdoc position

As a faculty member, I receive any number of email letters inquiring about a postdoctoral position in my research group.   Most begin with the salutation “Dear Esteemed Professor….” and come from students in either China or India.   I usually do take a few moments to look on the hope that I’ll find a diamond in the rough.  However, most of the time it is clear that the person who wrote the inquiry has no experience or expertise in my field of research (theoretical chemistry and condensed matter physics), had not bothered reading any of my papers, and likely had pulled my name and email off a server.   On the rare occasion, one will have actually pulled the title of one of my papers off the web and inserted its title into the letter, expressing interest in the topic, but then launch into a description of his or her research in a totally unrelated field.  I refer to these as “Robo-postdoc” applications since I very much doubt that any human hand had any influence on the content of the letter. Most of these end up in the electronic trash bin. 

The first step is to do good work as a graduate student and write papers that are published in good journals.  

The second step is to not send out blast emails fishing for a position. 

Assuming this…

  1. Know your field.  Unless you have developed some remarkable cross-disciplinary skills or experience as a graduate student, making a dramatic move from one field to another is very difficult.  Not impossible, you just need to do your research and focus your search. 
  2. Know the field of your potential mentor. I can’t emphasize this enough. Read his or her papers.  If you have not me the person, at least mention in your letter that you have been reading his or her recent papers and that you’ve become interested in the topic. 
  3. Talk to you PhD advisor on possible postdoc mentors.  Take advantage of their peers.  A strong personal recommendation is worth its weight in gold when it comes to a job search. 
  4. Develop your own connections.  Towards the end of your PhD, go to conferences, present posters, talk to potential postdoc mentors both formally and informally.  
  5. Go to research seminars–even if the topic is a bit out of your field.  As a graduate student at U. Chicago, I went to 2-3 seminars per week (attracted by the free coffee and cookies) in various fields of physics and chemistry.  I got a really good understanding of what the hot-topics were, who the top people were, and a good idea of various research styles. 
  6. What are you long-term research goals? The best postdoc applicants have a research plan included with their letter that spells out some possible avenues of research that they are interested in pursuing and how they are related to on-going efforts in the mentor’s group.  Having a topic in mind and some ideas to run with means that your are going to be months ahead of the game and will more likely have results and publications. 
  7. What do you want to do after being a postdoc? What are your long-term career goals.  Be upfront and honest.  Whether you want a job in industry, a national lab, a major research university, or a small college, you need to be thinking about this.  A good  postdoc mentor  help guide you there.  It is in the mentor’s interest to see that his or her postdocs are eventually employed as working scientists.  Also, a postdoc position is by its very nature a temporary/transient position.  You need to want to move on after 2 and at most 3 years.  
  8. Funding.  Postdoc fellowships were difficult to get 20yrs ago and are only becoming increasingly difficult to get.  As a graduate student, you should look for and apply for various postdoc fellowships in your field.  At the very least it is a useful exercise in proposal and grant-writing.  At the very best, it gives you tremendous flexibility in both your research topic and location. Having a prestigious fellowship also opens doors when you go to apply for faculty positions later on.  Most postdocs, however, are funded off of their mentor’s federal grants.  It’s important to keep this in mind since your future is now tied to the success of your mentor’s research program and in most cases, vice versa.  Also, don’t be offended if your potential mentor says that he or she doesn’t have an open position or doesn’t have funding for another postdoc.  Grants expire and need to be renewed on a regular (3-5 yr) cycle.  Hiring a postdoc requires 2-3 yr. commitment of funding. You and your potential mentor may simply not be sync with regards to funding.  
  9. As a postdoc, either your postdoc mentor or some funding agency will be investing a lot of money into you. Recognize this. 

It is important to realize that you are being offered a unique opportunity to  do great work, in a great environment, and with the time and freedom to really focus.  You will likely never get another opportunity to simply do science. Once you’ve crossed the barrier to a “real” job, that freedom is more or less gone to various degrees. 

As my postdoc advisor, Peter Rossky, would say “Now, go discover.”

Eric Bittner

Ps.  20 years ago, Phillip Anderson wrote an article in Physics Today giving advice to graduate students who were looking for postdoctoral positions.   I think his sage advise also rings true today:


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