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.

Whittaker and Shreve Awards from ESA

The goal of this post is to highlight some ESA Grants and Fellowships that don’t get as much attention as some of the awards (such as the Mercer Award). Please nominate qualified folks you know for these awards! (Self-nominations are fine) The deadline is December 16, 2013.

First, there are two Whittaker awards that are given out annually. From the ESA website:
The Whittaker Distinguished Ecologist award recognizes an ecologist with an earned doctorate, and an outstanding record of contributions in ecology, who is not a U.S. citizen and is not currently residing in the U.S.  This award provides funds for travel to the U.S. for research or to attend a meeting and covers expenses up to $2000.

The Whittaker Award recognizes an outstanding ecologist in a developing country who is not a U.S. citizen and is not currently residing in the U.S. The award is open to ecologists at any career stage and would cover expenses up to $1200 for travel to the US for research or to attend a meeting.

Requirements: Nominations for both awards can be made directly by the nominee or by an ESA member on behalf of the nominated ecologist.  Nominations for these awards should include curriculum vitae, a letter of nomination, and no more than 2 additional letters of support.   For more information about the award, please contact Jessica Gurevitch, Chair (2013–2016), Robert H. Whittaker Awards Subcommittee. Her email address is jessica dot gurevitch at stonybrook dot edu.

Second, there is the Desert Ecology-Forest Shreve Award (which appears under the “Other Awards” tab on the ESA Awards website). From that website:
One to two awards annually of $1000-2000 are available to support research in the hot deserts of North America: Sonora, Mohave, Chihuahua, and Vizcaino. Projects should be clearly ecological and should increase our understanding of the patterns and processes of deserts and/or desert organisms. Proposals will be ranked based on the importance of the project to understanding desert ecology, feasibility, experimental design and innovation.

Nominations for the Shreve Award should also be sent to Jessica Gurevitch.