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.

Gender-blind faculty searches

In discussions of gender biases in evaluating candidates, an example that often comes up is the case of blind auditions for orchestras. The use of blinded initial rounds of auditions makes it 50% more likely that a woman will make it past the preliminary rounds, and the proportion of women in professional orchestras has increased dramatically since blinded auditions became common. However, it never seemed to me like it would be possible to use this approach for faculty searches. How would you blind the process?

Thus, I was quite interested when I recently came across this article by Jones and Urban in BioScience that describes an attempt by the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department at the University of Connecticut to have a gender-blind faculty search. (Based on their description, it sounds like they were also aiming for a race-blind search process.) Given the evidence for the implicit biases that we all have, this seems like a laudable goal.

However, as expected, carrying out a gender-blind search proved logistically difficult. They weren’t able to advertise it as gender blind for legal reasons and, therefore, couldn’t request that the application materials did not reveal gender. Instead, they had a department administrative assistant go through the materials to redact names, pronouns, and other identifying information (e.g., minority postdoctoral fellowships). The administrative assistant sat in on meetings to answer questions about how prestigious the redacted fellowships or awards were. The process of redacting the information in the files took 100 hours – that is a huge investment!

Sadly, they say that this ended up not being effective in many cases. It doesn’t take much to figure out a person’s gender. For example, “he” takes up less space than “she”, so it was sometimes clear what the gender was based on the size of the redacted area. However, only some committee members (one in particular) cued in on the length difference, and most of the committee members were unable to guess the gender of the applicants in cases where the materials were fully redacted. That italicized phrase is key, though – it sounds like at least one gender-revealing word or pronoun managed to slip through in many applications; all it takes is one slipping through to make all the other redacting for naught.

So, I would say that it seems like this was an interesting experiment to try, and that the UConn EEB department should be commended for being concerned enough about this issue to try this experiment. But, given the challenges, it seems unlikely that this will catch on.

If any readers know of other institutions that have tried something similar, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

Implicit Biases & Evaluating Job Candidates (updated)

(Updated 11/7/13 to add link to Trix and Penska paper below. Thanks to Joanne Kamens for providing the link in the comments!)

(Note: this is the second in an occasional series* relating to job searches and hiring, though this one applies more broadly as well. The first post dealt with “illegal” questions, and appeared here.)

As much as we like to think we are all completely fair and unbiased, there is abundant evidence that we all have biases that influence how we think and act. These are known as “schemas”, and provide us with a framework for interacting with others. Schemas can be good – they allow us to more efficiently and rapidly process information – but they also can cause problems, in that sometimes our schemas lead us to treat people differently based on age, gender, sexual orientation, race, etc., in a way that we would not wish to.

We all do this – no one is immune to these implicit biases that influence how we act. This point was driven home to me clearly when I was a postdoc. I was a postdoc working on theoretical ecology projects, and viewed myself as someone who was strongly supportive of women in science. Yet, one day, I was at a seminar given by a woman who was presenting a lot of theory. I found myself wondering who she collaborated with on the mathy stuff. As soon as that thought popped into my head, I was shocked. How could I think that she needed to collaborate with someone in order to do theory? I was a woman doing a theory postdoc, for goodness’ sake. I was kind of horrified. But it fits in with what lots of studies have shown: everyone has schemas that affect how they perceive and treat other people.

What is the evidence? I’ll go into some of it here, because I think it’s important to cover. Then, in a later post, I’ll cover some related topics, including stereotype threat, and what we can do to try to overcome our biases.

A large set of evidence of how our schemas influence our evaluations of others comes from CV/resume studies. To summarize a few of these:

  • Race: One study (by Bertrand and Mullainathan) sent out resumes in response to help-wanted ads in Boston and Chicago. The study found that, in order to get a call back for an interview, applicants with typically black names (e.g., Jamal, Lakisha) had to send out 50% more resumes than did applicants with typically white names (e.g., Emily, Greg).
  • Gender: A study by Moss-Racusin et al. sent out applications for a lab manager position that had either a male or a female name. They found that the applications with male names were viewed as more competent and hireable, and were offered higher starting salaries.
  • Gender: Steinpreis et al. (pdf link) found that psychology professors (male and female) were more likely to hire someone named “Brian” as compared to someone named “Karen” for an assistant professor position.
  • Sexual orientation: A study by Tilcsik involved sending out resumes that were identical except that one indicated the applicant had been a treasurer in a gay student organization, whereas the other indicated that the applicant had been a treasurer in an environmental a progressive**** student organization. The “gay” applicant received 40% fewer call backs for interviews.
  • Parental status: Correll et al. (pdf link) found bias against mothers, but not against fathers. They sent out a pair of resumes of applicants with the same qualifications, but where one indicated parenthood and the other did not. Non-mothers received call backs twice as often as mothers did. There was no difference for fathers vs. non-fathers.

There are also plenty of studies that do not use the paired CV/resume approach. One well-known example is from Wennarås and Wold, which looked at the success of applicants to the Swedish Medical Research Council. They found that women had to be 2.5 times as productive to be viewed as equally competent. Similarly, a study by Ginther et al. looked at success rates for applicants to the US NIH for R01 awards. They found that “compared with NIH R01 applications from white investigators, applications from black investigators were 13.2 percentage points less likely to be awarded (P < .001), and those from Asian investigators were 3.9 percentage points less likely to be awarded (P < .001).”

These schemas also influence letters of recommendation that are written for applicants. Trix and Penska (pdf link) looked at over 300 letters of recommendation that had been written for successful applicants for faculty positions at medical schools. Among other things, they found letters for women tended to be shorter and tended to use more “grindstone” adjectives (e.g., “hard-working”, “conscientious”, “diligent”, etc.). A short letter can indicate there isn’t much positive to say, and tends to be viewed as a negative for that candidate. And while being hard-working or diligent is a good thing, as Trix and Penska say, “There is an insidious gender schema that associates effort with women, and ability with men in professional areas. According to this schema, women are hard-working because they must compensate for lack of ability (Valian, 1998: 170).” They also found that letters for men tended to repeat “standout” adjectives (e.g., “superb”, “outstanding”, “exceptional”) more often than do letters written for women.

Back to bias in terms of how we evaluate people: A survey of managers by McKinsey & Company found that “women are often evaluated for promotions primarily on performance, while men are often promoted on potential.”

Finally, success of men and women tends to be attributed to different things. A “citation classic” by Deaux and Emswiller (pdf link) found that success of men tends to be attributed to skill, while success of women tends to be attributed to luck. This particular study is older (from 1974), so hopefully some of these attitudes have shifted by now!

What can be done about this? I’ll cover this more in a future post. But, for now, I will just say that, when evaluating applications, I find it important to keep in mind that we all have these biases.

*By “occasional series”, I mean “your guess is as good as mine as to when the next post will appear.”

***Note: I first got interested in this literature as a postdoc, and have followed it as much as I can since then. But I was reminded of some of these studies, and found new ones, thanks to a really informative workshop run by the Strategies and Tactics for Recruiting to Increase Diversity and Excellence (STRIDE) committee at the University of Michigan.

****Updated 11/18/13 to correct mistake about control group. Thanks to Lirael for pointing this out!

“Illegal” Questions at Job Interviews

(Note: I’m hoping this will be the first in a series of posts related to faculty searches. Hopefully I’ll be able to find time to write more posts soon!)

As most readers of this blog probably know, there is a set of questions that are often referred to as “illegal” questions in the context of a job interview (e.g., questions relating to age, marital status, children, sexual orientation, disabilities, etc.) My understanding is that asking the questions themselves isn’t illegal – it’s acting on that information that is. But, since it’s hard to know if someone acted on the information once it’s received, generally HR departments (and good search chairs, department chairs, etc) do their best to make sure these questions aren’t asked at job interviews.*

But, as many of us have experienced first hand, the “illegal” questions are still asked — pretty frequently, it seems. When I interviewed for faculty positions as a postdoc, I was asked at least one of the illegal questions at each interview. In several cases, the person asking the question was the chair of the search or department. I knew to expect these questions (though was surprised when they came from the chair), but it was still awkward to deal with.

My advice to people asking the questions is obvious: don’t do it. If you actually care about that info, you are unlikely to get accurate answers. And, regardless of whether or not you actually care, you stand a good chance of giving the impression that you do and scaring off people who might be good additions to your department. It also is likely to throw off the candidate, making that person less likely to present his/her strongest side. If a candidate brings up something, answer the specific question, but don’t probe for more info. Otherwise, avoid the topic altogether.

My advice to people who are asked the illegal questions is more complicated. I do agree with Hope Jahren** that it’s fine to lie when answering the questions. I didn’t use this approach when interviewing, but I have in other situations where I’ve been asked inappropriate questions. When I was asked an illegal question on an interview, I usually ended up answering them honestly, but only after fumbling for a bit, as I tried to decide exactly how to answer them. I remember sitting on the plane on the way to my first interview, with a list of questions that I might be asked, thinking through answers. I can no longer remember how I was planning on answering the illegal questions. I think I considered trying to figure out how to somewhat politely point out that it was an illegal question, but I don’t think there’s really a way to do that. So, in the end, I answered them honestly. I do remember that, even though I thought I had prepared to answer them, I still felt thrown off when they were asked. Which brings me back to what I covered in the previous paragraph: asking these questions puts people in awkward situations. There’s no ideal way to answer them. That’s part of why it’s so important that they not be asked in the first place.

Were you asked illegal questions at an interview? How did you handle them? How did you wish you handled them? And what do you do to ensure that job candidates at your university aren’t asked them?

*Several of the places I’ve been have sent lists of these questions to the department ahead of interviews, to make sure people know not to ask these questions. In one case, there was a typo on the list, making it say that it was illegal to ask “How are you?” which I found amusing. Presumably that was supposed to be “How old are you?” Which, yes, is one of the illegal questions I was asked when interviewing for faculty positions. I never took offense, however, when people asked how I was. 🙂

**Hope has revealed herself as the author of this post, and has now started her own blog. It’s definitely recommended reading!

Related post
From Jeremy: How faculty search committees really work