Finding your first postdoc position
Attaining your doctorate is a huge achievement. The workload and stress levels regularly experienced while studying a PhD are a testament to a postgraduate student’s dedication to their speciality. But what’s next? There are many choices open to a successful PhD candidate, but for those looking to advance their careers within academia, a postdoctoral position is usually the next step.
Finding the right postdoc and then securing it is a challenging and time-consuming task. To help get you on your way we’ve collected a few guidelines below.
Start looking early
It's best to start looking for postdoc opportunities as you begin the last year of your PhD. Although it may be a struggle to make time to search for postdoctoral positions during your PhD, it will be worth it. Finding a place, talking to your new supervisor, being interviewed and discussing your research proposal and goals will take a few months. If you wait until you finish your PhD, you will need to find something else to do in the meantime. Potential mentors won’t be particularly impressed if you are technically unemployed when applying for your new role.
Your PhD is also an excellent opportunity to start talking to senior scientists. Firstly, look inside your institution for principal investigators who are working in areas related to your research. Ask them about their research, what their plans for the next few years are and the names of other senior scientists that they think are doing interesting things at the moment.
Contact the big names in your speciality subject around the world. Start a conversation with them about their work and how your research fits in. These connections may come in very useful in the future.
Finally, go to as many seminars, lectures and conferences as possible. A surprising number of postdocs will find their positions by talking to someone at an event. Meeting a potential supervisor in person is one of the best ways to impress them and get them to remember you.
It is a lot harder to get access to all of these individuals when you aren’t an active member of a university. Make the most of the opportunities available to you during your PhD.
Find a good fit
Applying for every postdoc position that you find is a waste of your time (and the supervisor's). Before you apply for any post, you should be honest with yourself about your aims and goals as well as your abilities and whether you meet the essential requirements of the job. Look for postdoc projects that are both related and/or complementary to your PhD research and that expand and develop your skills.
If you can’t find any postdoc positions that fit regarding your primary research goals, then look for something that will make the most of your current skills and abilities, as long as you still have some interest in the area.
Once you have decided that you are interested in a postdoctoral position it is also important to find out whether your potential supervisor, colleagues, institution and location are also a good fit. Each of these aspects will affect your happiness and well-being during your time in the role, so they are definitely worth considering properly.
Make sure you phone the project supervisor to discuss the post before you apply and get an idea of their personality and how they will be as a supervisor. Contact current and previous members of the research group to ask them about working with the principal investigator and any questions about the group, institution and location.
Another aspect of the postdoc to keep in mind is whether it is within an up-and-coming field. As a young researcher just beginning your career in academia it is worth thinking about the long-term future. Establishing yourself as an expert in a growing area will help to ensure you are able to remain in academia for a long time, if that’s your goal.
Finally, your postdoc doesn’t need to be related directly to your PhD. Something new isn’t necessarily the wrong choice, and finding a lab where you can establish yourself as a meaningful contributor will give you a much richer experience than staying in the same place. Just make sure you have the skills necessary to do the job.
Your publication record will be your greatest asset when applying for postdoctoral positions. It is the best proof of your ability to carry out experiments, communicate results to others and reach your research goals. Previous publications are a key way of assessing your ability to get additional funding, something the institution will be interested in.
Publish as much of your PhD work as possible and offer to help on other projects during your PhD, to get your name on the paper and gain valuable experience.
The chances that you will find your dream postdoctoral position straight away are relatively small. The likelihood that it will be in your home town or country is even lower. Prepare to be flexible about where you do your postdoc; a new institution and location might be exactly what you need to reach your potential.
When you come to apply for the job, know all there is to know about the lab. If you get offered an interview, then make sure you have:
Also, be ready to demonstrate your interest in the subject and desire to be a postdoc in that lab.
Is academia the right place for you?
Remember, there are always options outside of academia. It isn’t the best place for everyone and establishments outside of the academic arena can have many advantages. It is worth considering government labs, research institutions and private companies in your search for a job after your PhD.
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