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Career Advice

From your lab to your livelihood: Part I

How to find your first postdoctoral fellowship


Completing a PhD is a monumental accomplishment, but for many candidates, graduation inspires even more anxieties. This is particularly true among students from pure and applied research fields, where at least one, and often two postdoctoral fellowships are the norm prior to a faculty or research appointment. Many of the advanced graduate students I worked with as a career adviser expressed similar fears as they anticipated postdoctoral work: they describe the postdocs in their lab as “depressed and directionless”, feel that they would be “too old” once they finally complete their fellowships, or likening a postdoc to “doing a PhD all over again”. For some, their fellowship can become all of those things. But it need not be so. The key to making your own postdoc a positive experience is first getting a good grip on the process of selection.

Key variables and coarse-grained choices

The final months of a PhD program don’t always allow you to think much beyond your thesis. But selecting an appropriate postdoctoral fellowship should be much more than an afterthought. The range of options and calculations involved can be daunting. Try to start by setting yourself on some broad filtering preferences first, to cut through the clutter of postdoctoral options:

  • Academic vs. industrial vs. governmental: Postdoctoral options continue to proliferate outside of academia, and sorting out your preferred venue can cut the list down considerably. If your real goal is extra-academic research, an industrial or governmental postdoc might be worth looking at.
  • New project vs. continuation or consolidation of existing project: Is your step into postdoctoral research about developing new research areas, or is it about carrying your thesis work to a new level? The research trajectory that a particular lab or project might put you on is an important variable to consider.
  • High profile (but distant) Principal Investigator (PI) vs. lower profile (perhaps more accessible) PI: You’ve seen this problem before when you started thinking about a PhD: does a big name and a high-profile lab suit your objectives, or are you looking for more mentorship than a ‘star PI’ might be able to provide you (even if they wanted to)?
  • Junior vs. senior scholar: Junior faculty members are under tremendous pressures to produce, and that often has ramifications for their relationship with their lab affiliates. Senior scholars closer to retirement are sometimes not as engaged in producing cutting-edge research and the high impact-factor publications that go with it.
  • Their grant vs. your grant: Those who pay call the tune, and chances are you will have more leverage for your own research objectives if you are bringing grant money with you. It might also change the range of labs interested in having you.
  • Location, location, location: Geographic preferences don’t square easily with the academic market, but if you are interested in the world of non-academic research, the presence of a relevant local industry sector can help to make such networks easier to tap in to. Although you might not have much time or money to enjoy it, the quality of life in the community that exists beyond the lab is a legitimate variable.

Investigating opportunities

Even with some well-defined objectives in hand, finding an appropriate fellowship is no picnic. While some relatively centralized sites and programs exist through the granting councils, personal initiative and professional networking still play an important role in locating appropriate opportunities. Just as with any job search, waiting for the ideal fellowship to appear in your inbox or on the Internet is far too passive, and may leave you with a postdoc that is simply palatable rather than preferred. You are your own best agent, and some simple strategies for searching can really help fate along:

  • Your supervisor: An invaluable source of information on possible postdoc positions. Continuing in their lab might seem like a convenient solution, but moving onward and outward is usually best for your career development, and good supervisors actively encourage it.
  • Your colleagues: PhD candidates and postdocs around you in your current lab, or those who have recently emerged from it, can be an excellent resource for connecting with new labs and collaborators. Put the word out among those around you that you are looking.
  • At conferences: One of your best chances to connect with other, more senior researchers in your field who might have postdoctoral fellowships to offer. Faceless emails are easy to ignore, but your manifest enthusiasm for the work of this scholar and his/her lab are much more likely to make an impact when expressed in person. Go to these conferences carrying a “hit list” for such conversations and a plan to pitch for them.
  • On the Internet: Beyond the sites of your discipline association, don’t forget the power of listservs for multiplying your force on the market. Prepare a brief “postdoctoral personal ad” to post on the most relevant lists. Use the full power of lit searches to ferret out all possible scholars and projects of interest.
  • Cold calls and open solicitations: A more targeted approach is to shop yourself around directly to labs and projects and PIs that suit your interests and objectives. Be careful: the most sought-after postdoctoral placements will receive hundreds of such queries, so don’t make this the only tool in your arsenal.
  • Follow the money: A substantial proportion of postdoctoral positions will never be widely advertised. Sniffing out potential placements requires detective work on your part, including attention to who is getting what grants (and for how much) in your field. Granting councils make this information available, and many universities trumpet grants awarded to their faculty.

Applying and meeting your cell-mates

The metrics of postdoctoral competitions are in many ways similar to those for faculty positions, except teaching is typically not an issue. You should be able to provide a cogent plan or proposal for the lab/PI in question: why are you so key to one-another’s futures? What can you give, and what do you hope to gain by affiliation with their lab or project? Just as with faculty hiring, you need to give some indication that you are prepared to hit the ground running, and that you have plans for pursuing your research and publication objectives. Indicate any resources, from grant money to specialized knowledge or techniques, you will likely be bringing with you.

If you’re found to be a suitable candidate, you will likely be asked to visit and give a seminar. That, unfortunately, is the easy part. The interview and site visit is also your chance to learn how the lab actually functions, and whether it offers a good fit for your career development needs:

  • Questions to ask the PI: How many postdocs do you have currently? How many others have you trained? How would you describe your approach to postdoctoral supervision? What’s your policy on the portability/propriety of projects and data? Do you have set policies on manuscripts, grant-writing, and teaching?
  • Questions to ask around the lab: How would you describe the PI’s style in the lab? Does your lab have regular meetings or seminars? Where is the PI at in terms of tenure review? Does he/she seem under pressure or in balance? Would you describe the culture here as individualistic, or highly collaborative? Are there multiple projects in progress, or does everyone work on the same project? Do you or the other postdocs go to national meetings? Is the PI known for writing good reference letters? Would you postdoc here again?
  • Questions to ask yourself, post-visit: Did the lab culture seem supportive, or like a snake-pit? Are the compensation and benefits available adequate for my needs? Does their overall record of publication and placement bode well for my career? Does the lab and PI seem well-connected within their host institution, in local industry, in discipline circles?

And now the hard part…

Landing a postdoc is one thing, but leading your way through a fellowship to success on the post-postdoctoral job market is often another matter entirely. Next month, we’ll look at some ideas and best practices for keeping your postdoc on the rails toward success.

Click here to read part two of this article.

Jeff Osweiler is a former careers editor at University Affairs.

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