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.

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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.

Useful links related to tenure track job searches in ecology (last update Aug. 2017)

I’m posting my Friday links separately and early this week. They’re all related to faculty job searches, so a separate post for them seemed like a good idea. The links:

1. Spencer Hall maintains a really useful set of links on his grad resources page. Scroll down to the section entitled “Advice on getting a faculty job or other kinds of jobs”.

2. Marissa Baskett also maintains a great page with lots and lots of useful links. Check her page out, too.

3. Not ecology-specific, but Dr. Becca has a TT job search advice aggregator that is also very good (not just because it links to my post on illegal questions).

4. Hope Jahren’s post on “How to get a faculty job in 20 not-so-easy steps”. It’s very well-written and simultaneously funny and depressing. . . which might mean you might not actually want to read it if you’re on the job market. It was originally posted anonymously on Jacquelyn Gill’s blog, but is now available as a pdf in cartoon form. Her “wear a catheter” advice reminds me of the most useful advice I got related to job interviews: “Never pass a bathroom without going in”.

5. If you haven’t already seen Jeremy’s (thorough!) post on how North American faculty search committees work, that is definitely worth a read, too.

6. From Terry McGlynn, lots of great advice on seeking a job at a teaching institution. (Added 11/7/13)

7. From Jeremy: Bob Holt’s advice to faculty job applicants (along with advice on the value of a PhD as more than just as a gateway into academia) (pdf link) (Added 11/8/13)

8. Joan Strassmann has a series of posts related to TT job searches, including this and this and this and this and this and this. (Thanks to Jeremy for the reminder about these posts!) (Added 11/8/13)

9. Owen Petchey’s career advice (ht: Jeremy) (Added 11/8/13)

10. The job wiki, with information about the status of various searches (Added 2/7/14, thanks to a comment from lindae) (UPDATE August 2016: Here’s the 2016 version)

11. How to format your CV for a faculty job application (by me; Added 9/1/16)

12. Some American universities use score sheets to rank faculty job applicants (added Aug. 2017)

13. You can’t estimate your odds of getting a faculty position from common quantitative metrics (added Aug. 2017).

14. A pair of guest posts from Greg Crowther on what he learned from the teaching job that slipped through his fingers, and the happy ending to his tenure-track job search. (added Aug. 2017)

15. What makes for a good mock teaching demonstration. (added Aug. 2017)

16. Recent N. American asst. professor hires in ecology are gender-balanced. (added Aug. 2017)

Please suggest others in the comments!