Applying for postdoc positions is an important process along your journey to academia. While there are many similarities to applying for jobs in general, there are a few very important differences. To provide you with a detailed guide on how to go about finding the best postdoc position for you, I will discuss the application process as well as the application itself. I will then give you a variety of tips on how to maximize your success and avoid common mistakes throughout the course of the postdoc application. Finding a postdoc position doesn’t have to be overwhelming; with this guide, you will be on your way to obtaining the job you want.
The Application Process
The application process for postdoctoral positions varies based on your field, interests and type of position you desire. There are also multiple directions you can take when looking for a positions that fits your interests. One option is to follow the formal process, which involves looking for an open position and submitting an application. However, there is also the option of identifying potential PIs that you wish to work with and contacting them directly about becoming a postdoctoral fellow in his or her lab. Oftentimes, Ph.D. students decide to take both approaches simultaneously. Having as many doors open to you as possible will increase your chances of finding a job that matches your interests and skills.
The Traditional Route
The traditional application route involves submitting a formal application for an open position. These positions can be found by searching through job postings on university websites or through job search databases. They can also be found through word-of-mouth, but this is easier accomplished by those who have done extensive networking.
The key to being successful with the traditional route is applying to positions which you are passionate about and qualified for. Applying to every position you come upon will not increase your chances of getting a job more quickly, but will instead lead to less time spent on each application. Identify positions in which you would be a great addition to the PI’s lab and where you think you can make a difference and be successful. A postdoc’s primary job is to assist in furthering the research of the PI, so having goals that align is imperative.
The Alternative Route
The alternative route to obtaining a position as a postdoctoral fellow involves contacting PIs directly—regardless of whether they have an advertised opening or not. This method will require a lot of research. First you will need to identify potential PIs with similar research interests as you. You can go about this in a few different ways such as networking during conferences, identifying authors of papers which align with your research, or even asking your advisor for potential leads. Once you have these contacts identified and you have read some of each PI’s publications, contact them via email (read below on sending a postdoc request letter)—your email will essentially be your cover letter, but be sure to attach your CV.
A Closer Look at the Application
Applying for a postdoctoral position through the traditional route is extremely competitive.
According to Times Higher Education, as many as 200 applications are received for each postdoc position at some universities. With statistics like these, your application must give
the best impression of you and your scientific experience. In this section, I’ll discuss the purpose of the application, what it tells the PI about you, and what should be included in a formal postdoc application.
The purpose of your application is to give the reader enough information about you so that he or she can determine whether or not to invite you to interview for a postdoctoral position. This is usually the first impression the reader will get of you, unless you have previously met this person at a conference or other networking event.
I like to picture the cover letter of your application as your personal abstract. It should give the reader all of the most important information in your application, and in many times, will help him or her decide whether to continue reading the rest of your submission or if you may not be the best fit for the position.
How you write your cover letter can vary, but the format below can help you keep it organized and efficient. Remember to address the PI by his or her appropriate title, likely Dr. (insert name) and to close your letter by thanking the PI for his or her consideration. It is a good idea to put your contact information with your signature at the end of the letter so it is easily accessible for the PI. Additionally, the recommended length of a cover letter is typically one page.
- Tell the PI why you are writing including what position you are applying for. The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology recommends using this format, “I am applying for the postdoctoral position available in your laboratory that was advertised (where).”
- Provide a basic introduction about yourself, including your field of study. Describe your current position. If you’re still in school, provide your anticipated graduation date. Include where you are working or attending school as well as the name of your mentor.
- End with a short explanation of why you are qualified and would thrive in this position.
Paragraph 2—Qualifications and Experience
- In this paragraph, you want to inform the PI why you are the best candidate for this particular position; this means your cover letter must not be generic, but rather tailored to each position you apply for.
- Include things such as past research experience and relevant skills and traits that make you a great candidate.
Paragraph 3—Stand Out
- This is the place for you to talk about why you’re different from other candidates. What publication are you most proud of? Have you won any awards for presenting your research? Have you gotten any grants or previous fellowships?
- Remember, this is not a place to outline your entire CV, but rather to highlight your key achievements.
Curriculum Vitae (CV)
The purpose of the CV in your application is to provide details of your credentials for the position and to outline your professional experience as a scientist. To start, you should make a list of all the potential experiences and qualifications you might want to include. I personally recommend starting your CV when you start your academic career, and adding to it as you accomplish something; this minimizes the chance of leaving something important off of your CV when using it to apply for postdoctoral positions or even academic jobs later on. However, if you are just creating your CV for the first time, here are some important things to include:
Name and Contact Information
- This should be the first thing a reader sees when looking at your CV. It is typically formatted as a header to your page and includes your name, address, phone number and email.
- List universities you have attended, starting with the most recent.
- Include the program you attended at each university, the dates you attended, and what degree or certification you received.
- If you received any significant academic awards such as honors at graduation, you can include that in this section as well.
- In this section, list out the research projects you have been involved in. For each project, include the associated university or other institution as well as a summary of the project and its results. If it has been accepted for publication, you can list that here as well.
- Here is where you will list any and all publications that you want the reader to be aware of. They should be formatted like a citation, including the authors in order as listed on the paper, the name of the publication, the name of the journal, and you may also wish to include dates, volumes, and page numbers.
Awards and Honors
- In this section, list any awards or honors you have received. Some examples of these include fellowships, grants, dean’s lists, and conference presentation or poster awards. Be sure to include the name of the institution giving the award and the year it was received.
- An important part of your CV is the references you list at the end. These should include the contact information of about three people who know you well and speak on behalf of your professional career in science. This may be your mentor or another professor who you have done research with previously. Include their affiliation (i.e. university) and title as well as their address, email, and phone number.
Some positions that you apply for will request that you provide a research statement with your postdoc application. This is a summary of your research with past, present and future components. You should discuss any accomplishments you have made in your research career this far as well as what your current project is, including the methods, results and conclusions of your project. You will also need to discuss where you see your research interests going in the future. Do you have any potential projects in mind? Do you see yourself continuing in the field you are currently in or branching out to another area of interest?
According to Cornell University, this statement should also address issues such as lab equipment that you may need, funding issues and possible collaborations on projects you foresee. They also suggest that “the strongest research statements present a readable, compelling, and realistic research agenda that fits well with the needs, facilities, and goals of the department”.
Letters of Recommendation
Some institutions will request that you submit letters of recommendation as part of your postdoctoral application. These letters should be from people who are comfortable writing you a strong recommendation, so ask them if they feel they can do so before choosing them to write your letters. Letters of recommendation can be a way for your potential PI to learn about how you contributed to research in the past and how you may add value to his or her research team, so choosing someone with whom you’ve done research before is a great idea. Provide your letter writer with adequate information about the position you are applying for as well as an updated CV and research statement. Each letter should be tailored to the position you’re applying for, if possible. It can often be time consuming for a letter writer to write a new letter for all of your applications, but at the very minimum, the writer may be able to tweak a few sentences here and there to make the letter more specialized to each position you are applying.
Making your application stand out is the one of the most important aspects of applying for postdoc positions. This can be very challenging, but there are a few simple steps you can take to boost your application.
General Tips and Resources
- Finding a postdoctoral fellowship to apply for can be difficult. Some ways to find positions include word-of-mouth, looking at university job postings and searching sites like PubMed for potential PIs. Remember that looking at prior publications only shows you what the researcher has worked on in the past, so you may need to reach out to find out what their current projects are.
- When you find positions to apply for, make sure you pick positions that meet all three of these categories: safety positions, target positons and stretch positions. Safety positions refer to those that you think you have a good chance obtaining. They may not be at a big name school, but they are something you can fall back on if you don’t get one of your more desired positions. Target positions are those that fit your skill level and experience. They are the ones you are likely to get an interview with and would be happy to have. Stretch positions are positions you don’t feel as confident about applying to. They may be with big name researchers or at top universities. Apply to some of each, because you never know what will happen over the next few months.
- Follow the instructions of the application. I cannot stress this enough. The PI will notice if you do not follow the instructions as they are stated on the posting, and this can be an easy way to get your application removed from the potential candidates. This is an easy step, so follow it without exception.
Networking is a great way to get your foot into the door of someone’s lab. This can be done with others at your own university as well as throughout the country and beyond. Networking should begin at least two years before you graduate, but starting earlier is even better. Attending conferences and talks is a great way to get to know others in your field. Approach presenters and mingle with other students and researchers at these events. Exchange contact information and talk about projects you’re involved in or hope to get started. These people may later be able to help connect you with others in the field or even be a starting place to look when searching for the postdoc position that is right for you.
ProTip: Have a business card made with your contact information and field of study. This can be passed out to anyone you meet and can be a way for them to remember you or contact you later on.
Postdoctoral Request Letter
The postdoctoral request letter is intended for applicants who are using the alternative route of finding a postdoc position. Since you will be looking into working with a PI who is not currently advertising an open position, you will need to send a letter requesting that a position be created for you. This type of letter is typically sent via email to a PI who you wish to work with. It is imperative not to send blind emails to a list of PIs in your field—they will not respond if it does not appear that you have a strong desire to work in their specific lab. In his editorial letter in Analytical Chemistry, Dr. Jonathan Sweedler advises students to send fewer emails in higher quality. He suggests that students should “read about a faculty member’s research and tailor your letter to the group.”
Ultimately, your postdoc request letter should include why you are contacting the potential PI and why you want to work in his or her lab specifically. It should then outline your research interests and plans as well as a possible funding plan. Additionally, you should include a copy of your CV and a research statement.
- The cover letter is your first impression to a potential PI. In addition to what I have already discussed, you can use the cover letter as an opportunity to explain any gaps in your CV or publication experience. This is not a place for providing excuses, but it is a place to address these gaps and to help the reader gain a better understanding of any potential weaknesses your application may have. Turn your weakness into a strength. In an article published by Nature, author Jack Leeming discusses following a two-step approach when addressing gaps or weaknesses. First, state the weakness and “keep it realistic and surmountable”. Next, explain how you plan to use this position to grow and further develop your CV. This information can be included in the paragraph three of your cover letter.
- With social media thriving in our culture, potential employers now have a way to get more information on you than your application provides. By simply typing your name into a search engine, they may be able to find pictures and social media accounts you have. Before you submit an application, do some research on yourself and figure out what kind of online presence you currently have. Ensure that what others will find is presenting you in a positive and professional manner. Perhaps, creating a LinkedIn profile will allow you to provide links to prior publications and provide more details about your work experience. The goal is for your online presence to help you get a postdoc position and not deter you.
Common Application Pitfalls
One of the great things about applying for postdoctoral positions is that so many people have done this before you—some people successfully and some not so successfully. However, you now have the opportunity to learn from their mistakes and avoid repeating them. Here are some common application pitfalls to avoid throughout the process.
Sending a Generic Application/Cover Letter
- Sending a generic application or cover letter is one of the most common mistakes applicants make. Of course, it takes less time and is easier to use a generic application, but this gives the impression that you are applying to any position that you find and are not truly interested in a particular job. Instead, put in the effort to research the institution, lab, and PI for each position you apply for. Include details that you find in the cover letter and tailor your application and CV to match what the PI is looking for. Getting a postdoctoral fellowship is a process of finding a PI and candidate that are compatible with one another, so it is essential that both you and the PI can evaluate how you will fit in his or her lab.
Randomly Emailing PIs
- Following up on the last point, applying to or emailing random PIs is not beneficial. If you won’t be a great fit in the lab that you are seeking employment, you’re essentially wasting your time and the PI’s time. Research the type of work the PI is doing and determine if it fits within your research desires. Only seek out positions where you will be a good fit.
Only Applying to ‘Big Names’
Apply only to big names is a common mistake students make. Although, you may have a strong desire to work for a top research lab in the country or elsewhere, you should also apply for more reasonable opportunities. No matter how strong your application may be, you will have a lot of competition. You don’t want to end up without a job after graduation, so keep an open mind when it comes to deciding where to submit your application.
Lack of Proofing
This goes without saying—but having mistakes in your application is unprofessional and will give the PI a bad first impression. Have someone else look over your application before you submit it because it can be easy to miss small mistakes after you have spent so much time working on your application.
Now that you have a good idea of what the postdoc application entails and have read our guide on how to submit a great application, print out our Printable Companion Checklist to help keep you on track throughout your application journey.
Kelsky, Karen. “The Postdoctoral Applicant”. (2016)
“How do I apply for a postdoc position?”. Emory University School of Medicine.
Powell, Kendall. “A foot in the door”. (2010)
Gould, Julie. “The postdoc search timeline”.(2014)
Sullivan, Bill. “How to write a killer cover letter for a postdoctoral application”.(2013)
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