Author Archives: ebitnet65

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:


Job Interviews

Q. What is a typical interview like for an academic job? For an industrial job? How can I succeed?

by Mark Wilson

A. The typical academic interview includes a research talk or a sample class lecture (or both), depending on the type of institution, plus meetings with faculty, groups of faculty and administrators. In addition there are sometimes social events – which, make no mistake, are also opportunities for evaluating candidates. The interviewers will ask directly or indirectly questions that are also implied in their job advertisement (so reread the advertisement before the interview, and prepare). The interviewers will also listen for indications that you have an interest and appreciation of their accomplishments. They will get a sense of how you would be as a colleague over many years.

Industrial interviews have one primary function: to determine how well you will fit in to the job environment. This is an opportunity to display your “soft” skills – communications, interpersonal rapport building, enthusiasm—fit the employers work environment and corporate culture. When you get to this stage in a hiring process, your technical background will have been vetted. You should expect subtle probes into what you know, and your work experience, but this is a context for a future employer to assess how well you will work with the existing staff, how you present yourself and how you communicate. It is wise to pay attention to dress and general appearance in preparation for an interview. While the industrial work environment is becoming more casual, it is more formal than in the typical student environment. When in doubt, it is better to over-dress.

Marketing your Physics PhD.

Q. How do I market myself for an industrial job if the job advertisement doesn’t specifically mention physicists?

by Dr. Mark Wilson

A. Apply anyway if your expertise matches the job. The issue in industrial settings is satisfying the job requirements. If you are a recent graduate, you should reply to job postings and ads by matching the employers stated requirements to the course content, extra-curricular activities and internship experiences you’ve had. For example, a response to a financial analyst job could stress business, economics, finance, statistics and math courses as well as experience in the business world. Look for a fit where you could use your specific background and experience can contribute to the business. After you have addressed your future employer’s stated requirements, point out that your background in physics adds an additional dimension to what you offer. Your analytical skills, understanding of technology and in-depth understanding of “how things work” give you the tools that add to your long-term value as an employee. Finally, your having completed a demanding degree program demonstrates both your intellectual capacity and your work ethic.

If you are ready for a career move the task of positioning yourself becomes easier, for two reasons. First, you will have had experience and know how industrial hiring managers think and work. Secondly, your work experience expands your value to a new employer; you bring more to the table. You will be able to relate your broadened experience to the key elements of a job specification in terms that a hiring manager will understand. At this stage, your experience becomes the dominant aspect of what you offer an industrial employer.

About to graduate?

2. I am finishing my Ph.D. When should I begin the process of looking for a job?

by Prof. Michael Johnson

At least 12 months before you expect to graduate. At that time you should begin to view your search as your most important job – more important than completing yet another paper or running yet another experiment. It may seem paradoxical, but it can be harder to find a job with a Ph.D. than without. The reason is simple: these are not routine hires. Nearly all Physics Ph.D.’s find fascinating jobs – but each is an individual fit to an individual person. There are many job postings for electricians but few for Physics Ph.D.’s. You have to do your homework to find that wonderful job, but if you do then you will.

Your two big tasks are, first, deciding what type of job really appeals to you; and, second, identifying, researching, and applying for jobs. These are logically separate issues but in practice they
are intertwined. As you research possible jobs, or interview, you are likely to learn more about your own likes and dislikes. Do you want a postdoctoral position? Half or more of Physics Ph.D.’s go this route. Your advisor may be able to help you identify possibilities. People you have met at conferences, or who have cited your work (or vice versa) are also good possibilities. There is no magic technique for other positions. Approach your job search like a research project in a field that you are just getting into. Dig into the literature (of how to search for jobs), hunt for opportunities, forge connections, and apply. Like any research project your results are more likely to be positive if you put in the necessary work – and avoid presuppositions.

Please do not assume that the academic path is superior. So the academic life suited your advisor. So what? Those of us running graduate programs have discovered that many students feel almost apologetic if they choose another route. We would like to offer what we have told many other finishing students: only you can decide what is best for you.

It is normal to be anxious while searching for jobs. But don’t feel compelled to accept your first offer. It is important to like the job you take. While a Ph.D. does not make your job search easier, it does
make it much more likely that you will be able to find something you love.

Getting an Academic Job.

Q. What is the process for acquiring an academic job and what skills besides my physics research would make me more marketable?


by Prof. Eric R. Bittner

A. Unfortunately, there is not a simple answer to this question. The first thing to do in applying for an academic job is to do some serious self-reflection. Go to as many seminars and conferences as you can to try to get to know some of the leaders in your field. Give as many posters and talks at local and national meetings as you can. One of the keys to success is to know how academics interact, what’s expected in a good talk, and how to engage your peers in your research. If there is a particular seminar visitor you want to meet (especially if he or she is in your field), ask your mentor or advisor to set up a meeting. One way you know you’re doing well is if your mentor or advisor is talking about your work when he or she goes to meetings and gives seminars.

When you’re ready to begin the application procedure, read over the job advertisement carefully and include every thing completely. It’s also a good idea to specifically state in your cover letter and in the research proposal how you think your proposed work would integrate well with current research directions in the department you’re applying to. You will still need to be able to establish yourself as an independent investigator. However, given the current funding climate, it’s good to be able to immediately join in on collaborative projects and centers.

Be realistic. Hiring committees are wary of proposals that are too flashy and overloaded with hype. Write a solid proposal, one that will serve as the basis of proposals sent to NSF, DOE, NIH, etc over the first two or three years of your appointment. Most departments want to see that you have a clear plan for getting preliminary results that you can rapidly turn into a funded proposal.

Understand that education is an important part of your job as a professor. You need to be able to communicate clearly. If you are thinking about a job in the US or UK, you will need to be able to teach in English (if it’s not your native language). If you are not a native speaker, take an ESL class and use English as much as possible in your daily life. It’s common for students from the same country to congregate and only speak to each other in their native language. Make it a habit that when you talk about science even amongst your friends you do so in English. Even if you are only interested in going back to your home country, being fluent in written and spoken English is essential if you intend to publish papers and give talks outside your native country.

Be aware that the top 10 to 15 or so candidates for most academic jobs are more or less equally qualified. If you’re on a “short list”, then your outside letters of recommendation, personal contacts, field of research, etc. will be carefully considered by the hiring committee. Usually, 3-5 candidates will be selected for an interview visit.

If you are called for an interview, realize that you have been vetted from a deep pool of applicants and have risen to the top of that list. If you are still interested in the position, be sure to communicate that interest to the person who called you. If you are really not interested or have an offer you intend to take, politely decline the interview so the hiring committee can move on to the next person. Don’t string things along hoping to leverage a better offer from some place else.

Typically, you will be asked to visit for 2 days. This is your chance to learn about the department, the university, the location, etc. You will typically meet with several members of the department. They will be interested in finding out what kind of colleague you will likely be. If you are hired, you’re likely to be in the office next door for the next 25 years. During the interview visit, you will be asked to present a research seminar to the department and give a proposal talk to the hiring committee. You need to practice each and make sure each is well presented, carefully crafted, and exudes the excitement you have for your research projects. It’s a good idea to practice your talks in front of a group that is not in your specific field. You need to communicate your science to an educated group of non-experts. If you have been involved in a large collaboration, be absolutely clear and honest about what work is yours and what work was done by others. If your proposal talk involves collaborations, be up front about your role in this collaboration. If your work involves making measurements on materials provided by another group, specifically spell that out and be clear about how that collaboration might progress with you as an independent researcher. Your work will need to stand on its own when it comes time for a tenure decision. If your collaborator is someone significantly senior (or a former mentor), then your contributions to that project–no matter how significant–may be entirely overshadowed by your more famous collaborator.

Be realistic in negotiating a starting package. Deans and Department Heads have a good idea of what’s going to be required to get you going. If there is a specific piece of equipment, ask for it. If you need time in a specific facility, ask for it. This start up is what you will use to build your lab and get it up and running so that you’ll be able to acquire the funds to sustain your research program. Don’t under estimate what you need thinking that it will make you somehow more attractive, in fact, it may hurt you since it would appear you really have no clue about what you need to do your work.
On the other hand, asking for everything under the sun is not going to work either. You need to have a realistic list of the equipment and supplies you will need to get you going for the next 2-3 years. You’re only going to get one startup package. Going back to the Dean or Dept. Head in two years to beg for more money will generally not get you another dime.

If you have multiple offers, make a decision and move on. Don’t string things along hoping for a better offer from a better university. This only serves to upset your future peers and colleagues. Most offer letters come with a “time-bomb” of 2 weeks. Be aware this is a “buyer’s market” and offers can be withdrawn.

Ask about the promotion standards. Know up front what will be expected. There are three basic criteria: Research and Scholarship, Teaching, Service. In going up for tenure at a research-level university, you will need to have an established record of publications and funding for your research—typically this means you are the PI on at least one major federal grant. You will need to have demonstrated competence in the courses you have taught as based upon the student’s evaluations. Also, you will have to have been a good departmental citizen. At most institutions, you will prepare a “tenure package” at the end of your 5th year. This is sent out to various “arms length” reviewers (i.e. people in your field who are not your former mentors). Their comments are important since they should be able to provide an unbiased assessment of the impact of your work to date. The department’s tenure and promotion committee will consider these comments carefully and make a recommendation to the department, which begins a sequence of events and decisions going all the way up to the top. Most places will provide a specific time-table for when all this will occur along with a well-defined appeal process.

Eric R. Bittner is Professor of Chemical Physics at the University of Houston. His research focuses upon quantum dynamics in condensed phase chemical systems. He is the author of 70 publications and two books.

Learning to write proposals.

I noticed that my advisor is always applying for some grant, but I don’t know the first thing about writing proposals and my advisor is too busy to help me. How can I learn this skill?

by Dr. Benjamin Brown

It goes without saying that securing research funding through federal grants is essential to maintaining a thriving research program. The good news is that succeeding with grant proposals is a skill that can be learned. The bad news is that few senior researchers take the time to expose junior researchers – even those about to make the leap to “PI-hood” – to the proposal-writing process. While many scientists recoil from the notion of “marketing” themselves or their work (“my work speaks for itself”) learning how to sell yourself and your research is obviously critical to success at many stages of your scientific career (e.g., landing your first permanent job, succeeding at your tenure review).

No matter how busy your advisor is you can ask him or her for a copy of the funding announcement and the submitted proposal. You can even ask for earlier drafts to see how your advisor and his/her collaborators honed the proposal. Be clear that your intent is to learn about both the drafting of the proposal and the process involved, and don’t be afraid to be persistent. After you’ve studied the documents even a couple of focused questions at the right time could pry useful insight from your advisor.

If your advisor is truly too busy or unwilling to help, there are other avenues. If your group has a postdoc who worked on a proposal, he or she might be willing to share the documents with you. Another approach is to ask present or former colleagues just ahead of you in the “career queue” about their first experiences with grant writing.

Making the transition from Industry to Academia


Q. I’ve been working in industry for 15 years and now I’d like to transition into academia. I don’t have many publications, but I’ve stayed on top of the technical research in my company. It would be a career setback if I came in at the assistant professor level because I’ve had so much experience in my field. What do I do? Will I be expected to publish in academia?

A. You will certainly be expected to publish in academia. It’s a core activity. You will also be expected to get grants to support your research for the publications. Your industrial experience, even without publications is very valuable. Your experience will help you publish and get grants; your experience will also help you get a position. You can apply for an assistant professor position and ask for early consideration for promotion and tenure. Without publication experience, there are very few universities that would hire someone into a tenured position. But, what you should do is apply, take an assistant professorship if that’s the only option, and flourish because of your skills and experience.

Prof. Gordon A. Thomas is Professor of Physics at New Jersey Institute of Technology. He began his career in at Bell Labs where he worked on optical communications and helped develop the purest optical fiber. He holds 16 patents, has published over 150 research articles, and is a Fellow of the American Physical Society.