How to get a postdoc position (guest post)

Note from Jeremy: This is a guest post by Margaret Kosmala, a postdoc in Organismal and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard. It’s the first in a planned series on life as a postdoc.


I did not start thinking about getting a postdoc position until it was almost too late. I was focused on my dissertation research and finishing up before I ran out of money. About six months from defending, I suddenly realized that I would be unemployed once I did defend. I knew that I had to start trying to find a postdoc position right away. And then I realized I had no idea how to go about doing so. This was at the beginning of last summer and so I spent the next months talking to as many people as possible. Here is what I learned.

There are essentially two ways of obtaining a postdoc. The first is to write your own. The second is to apply for job with someone who already has a project.

To write your own postdoc may be the best option if your objective is a future research career. However, you need to start early. Assuming you already know what sort of research you want to do, you have three potential methods of obtaining the funding to support yourself. You can co-write a proposal with your future postdoc mentor, you can look for fellowship opportunities, or you can look for a postdoc advisor with deep pockets.

If you know who you want to work with and what you want to do, co-writing a successful major grant proposal can be great experience and look stellar on your CV or in a letter of recommendation. If you want to try this route, you should start contacting prospective postdoc advisors a couple years before you expect to defend.

Yes, I said a couple years.

Why a couple years? Most organizations have just one or two funding cycles per year. For example, if you expect to defend May 2016, and you would like to be funded on an NSF DEB grant, you would need to have that grant funded by January 2016. In order to do that you would need to submit your pre-proposal in January 2015. And then order to submit in January, you will needed to start working on the proposal this fall (2014). Which means that should probably have established a rapport with your future postdoc advisor by now.

Defending before May 2016? Fellowships are your thing? You can look for postdoctoral fellowships offered by funding organizations such as NSF, by research centers like SESYNC and NIMBioS, and by private entities like the McDonnell Foundation. Generally speaking, you will need to have a postdoc advisor in mind.

A less well-known source of fellowship funding is universities themselves. Some universities offer institution-wide fellowships on a competitive basis. At other universities there are research centers focused on environmental issues that also offer fellowship opportunities. Finding out which universities provide these opportunities can be tedious however, so it’s often best to ask potential postdoc advisors what, if any, opportunities are offered at their institutions.

If you’re looking for postdoc fellowships offered through large agencies or foundations, they often have just one or two deadlines per year, which means that you may need to write a competitive proposal about a year in advance. When I started thinking about a postdoc position six months ahead of defending, I was too late for almost all postdoc fellowships.

Which brings me to the third method for writing your own postdoc. Some professors have, at times, a pot of money they can use to hire a postdoc. It may be in the form of an endowed professorship, start up funds, prize money, etc. If you’ve only got six months or so before defending, you might start asking around to see if anyone you know – or anyone those people know – expect to have money to fund a postdoc in the next year or so. Sometimes researchers get money they weren’t expecting and need to use it relatively quickly, so keep your ears open. You’ll want to be able to pitch an exciting idea to your prospective postdoc advisor and have a handful of references (friends of the prospective advisor are ideal) who are willing to attest to your awesomeness.

Finally, the remaining way of obtaining a postdoc: applying for advertised positions. I won’t say too much about this method, since it’s pretty straightforward and there are other websites which give guidance as to where to look for job ads and how to best position yourself. In a nutshell: you find a position that looks like it would fit you, send in an application, perhaps get an interview (often by phone or Skype), and sign a contract if you’re offered the position and accept it. In applying, you should do smart things like read the webpage(s) and some recent publications of the job offerer. If you’re offered the position, interview other postdocs and grad students in the lab before accepting; you should like your work environment as much as the research itself. And you might take a glimpse at the benefits package to make sure it’s sufficient.

Hurray! You’ve got a postdoc position. Now tell everyone you know, save up a couple thousand dollars or raise the limit on your credit card in preparation for your move, and say goodbye to your friends. Check out ESA’s new Early Career Ecologist Section. Oh, and definitely finish that dissertation.

12 thoughts on “How to get a postdoc position (guest post)

  1. The lead in time to get a post-doc is important. I misjudged that and was unemployed for months after finishing my PhD – that was not fun. The trick is balancing the completion of the PhD (which doesn’t leave much spare time!) and looking for a post-doc or other employment outside academia. How to do that best will vary from person to person, but is just about always a difficult trade-off to judge.

    • Agreed. I think it’s great to be able to secure a position early, so you can just focus on finishing at the end. But that’s easier said than done. I generally had a great time during my grad student years, but really hated the last several months for exactly this reason. Being unemployed was not an option for me, as I had (have!) a kid to support. So if I didn’t find a postdoc position, it was off to industry for me.

  2. Shameless self-promotion (which Margaret was kind enough to link to, but which I’ll highlight): the University of Calgary is one of those institutions that offers a postdoctoral fellowship. Info on the Killam postdoc is here: I’ll shortly be posting an ad looking for folks who want to apply to do a Killam postdoc with me; the deadline is in Jan.

    Other institutions (besides those Margaret linked to) that offer postdoctoral fellowships in ecology and evolution: the UC Davis Center for Population Biology (, the UBC Biodiversity Research Centre (, and the University of Toronto dept. of EEB (

  3. Another way to write yourself a postdoc is to take the lead on organizing a working group that will have a postdoc (that’s you!) attached. Many organizations that sponsor working groups follow the model of supporting one or more postdocs as part of their support for the group. I know NCEAS does this (or used to), I bet SESYNC, NESCent, and NIMBioS do, the Quebec Biodiversity Science Centre (based at McGill University) might…

  4. Regarding NIMBioS postdocs, you don’t actually pick (or even contact) an advisor ahead of time- you must write your proposal independently. You must show you can do the work on your own- after acceptance to NIMBioS you can pick your mentors. Just for clarification! 🙂

    • Thanks for the clarification, Sean. I know of just a couple fellowships that do it this way, but didn’t know NIMBioS was one.

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  8. Pingback: The First Year Experience of a Postdoctoral Fellow – Rapid Ecology

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