Teatime tips on how to get a postdoc

This week I’ve been cosied up in the grand old Carrington Hotel in the Blue Mountains of NSW for the annual meeting of the Australasian Society for the Study of Animal Behaviour (ASSAB). On the last day of the conference we had a bunch of ‘taking your career to the next level’ discussions over breakfast, during which Luke Holman and I chatted about some strategies to getting a postdoc position. Obviously there are many ways to knit a sweater, but we strung together a few ideas that we think may have helped us get jobs after our PhDs (or for me, things I wished I had done better). I thought I’d post some of our discussion points here – so here, in no particular order, are some of our musings:

Papers, papers, papers. Are you sick of hearing how important papers are yet? You probably don’t need anyone telling you that publishing as early as possible during and straight after your PhD is important. But don’t despair! It’s normal to not have a very strong track record coming out of your PhD. I was lucky to jump straight into a 1 year faculty postdoc that was awarded to my PhD supervisor to help us get stronger pilot data towards a big grant we were applying for. This extra year with my PhD boss allowed me plenty of time to publish all my thesis chapters as well as starting a new project, which meant I was a much stronger candidate when I applied for my next postdoc. So, my suggestion is to talk to lots of academics that you know and see if they can help get together some short-term funding to hire you at this stage of your career and also look for your own short-term pots of money (e.g. Endeavour fund, Kate Edger postdoc award etc.). I also know of lots of people who have had luck getting postdocs straight out of their PhD with very few publications by applying for advertised projects (like on EvolDir etc.). You can use the cover letter to emphasise your future potential and point out how awesome you are, even though you’ve only just finished the PhD.

On that note, don’t be too disillusioned if you can’t find something straight after the PhD. I know some brilliant people who cleaned office buildings or did odd jobs around the university for a while after they finished before anything in their field cropped up. Luke even mentioned that he was on the dole for a while and look at him now (a Senior Lecturer at the University of Melbourne). If you do find yourself without an academic position try to keep writing during this period to prevent a lull in publications in your CV.

Build networks. Again you have probably heard this many times but both Luke and I talked about how this has been a huge benefit to our careers so far. The easiest way to do this is to go to conferences and chat to the people who you may like to work with. If you are a very introverted person it can help to make a little list of the most important couple of people that you would like to make connections with and then aim to approach them during tea breaks. You could even email them in advance to set up meeting times and give them a heads up if you feel particularly awkward about approaching them without prior contact.

In addition to conferences a visit to a research lab that you may like to start a collaboration with can be really beneficial. There are small grants available for this kind of thing like the Company of Biologists travel fellowships, Smithsonian Short-term fellowships or the Ernst Mayr Travel Grants. Even if these visits don’t result in a job, they still help build independence away from the PhD lab and you may be able to hone a new skill that you couldn’t have learned at your home university.

If you do contact people via email, make sure you show them that you know what they do and have read their work. A sure way to be ignored is to make it obvious you are cold calling a whole bunch of random people without putting any thought into your emails. If you can propose a project that would appeal to the interests of both parties you will look awesome and if you have already plotted some ideas for where to apply for funding that would be even better. Also, academics are a vain bunch and it is nice if you can call them by their correct name and title….I get kind of annoyed by regular Hey You emails.

If you are applying for an advertised position make sure to really carefully follow the instructions. If they ask you to combine everything into one pdf then do that! Failure to follow instructions shows a lack of attention to detail and can put you immediately into the ‘no pile’, regardless of your stellar CV. Make sure to also think really carefully about your cover letter as this is the hook that reels your potential future employer in and may result in them looking more closely at your CV. Tell them what specific skills you can bring to the job that fits nicely with what they require. Alex Bond has some other great tips for applying for field jobs that are equally relevant to answering postdoc ads.

Being visible online is becoming increasingly important. If you don’t already have a Google Scholar profile then set one up – it is super easy to do and allows people to quickly assess your publication record and impact. There are loads of other ways to have an online profile: ResearchGate, Linkedin, Twitter, etc. I don’t think there is a best social media platform to be on so just pick a couple and keep them up to date. I would highly recommend making a personal website too. Think of it like an online CV and a way to show off your creativity if you are so inclined. There are lots of platforms that will host your website for free or for pretty cheap like WordPress, Weebly, Squarespace and GoogleSites. For inspiration check out some of my favourite websites by fellow ecologists – Mike Kasumovic, Kate Umbers, and James O’Hanlon. And don’t worry, you don’t need to be able to code or do anything too tricky – just choose a free template and away you go.

Luke and I also discussed the pros and cons of going off on wee jaunts to new labs after our PhDs vs sticking around and continuing existing projects. Luke made a good point that if you have a good thing going with your experiments in the PhD lab it could be quite useful to run with this momentum and continue on these projects to get bigger and better publications. On the other hand it can be great to build independence by doing short-term collaborations that may end up in a publication without your PhD supervisor. The latter is a lot of fun but can be risky, especially because it takes time to learn a new study system and things inevitably go wrong with new experiments.

Finally, my last tip is to build an interesting and varied CV. Sure, papers are most important but it is also great to mix things up with a bit of teaching, outreach and service. You could offer to do a couple of guest lectures, give talks at schools or amateur societies, promote your research in the media, join societies and get yourself on boards and committees. I found being on boards a great way to meet new people and extend my academic network. Plus you get better at being able to talk to people from other departments/universities which helps hone your communication skills. If you are still early on in your career and not getting asked to do manuscript reviews yet you could sign up for a mentoring system like the one offered at the New Zealand Journal of Ecology where ECRs get papers to review with support from more senior academics. All this may not be super important for getting a research focussed postdoc, but will certainly help you later with getting faculty jobs and jobs outside of academia.

A couple of other little thoughts:

  • When big grants get announced (e.g. ARC, Marsden, NSF, etc.) you could check out the list of winners and then directly approach people who you might like to work with to see if they have any $ for postdocs.
  • I’ve been told many times to apply for anything and everything but this is not a strategy that I’ve taken on board myself. Applying for jobs takes a lot of time and I only apply for things I realistically would consider taking up. Opinions vary on this one though a lot and I have been told several times that you don’t want your first big interview to be for your dream job as it is good to get practice.
  • Some of the best skills that you gain during your PhD are those that are less tangible*, like being a friggen awesome project manager, handling large datasets, and being a creative problem solver. These skills can be especially useful to promote if applying for non-academic jobs or even those outside of the science sector where they may not care about your sweet list of publications in Nature & Science.
  • Ask your colleagues for copies of their winning grant applications to help you prepare for your own applications (thanks Fonti for reminding me of this one!)

With all of this in mind I think it is still important to acknowledge that this is all really hard and even if you tick all the boxes the right job may not come along at the right time. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have things fall into place fairly seamlessly over the last few years and a lot of this has come down to chance – seriously! However, even a lot of the lucky breaks wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t already have good relationships with a bunch of really great people, and if I didn’t show that I could put all this stuff onto paper in reputable journals.

For a list of postdoc funds and other tips, check out my earlier blog post here.

Thanks very much to Luke Holman for the chat, to Kate Umbers for asking me to contribute to the ASSAB brekkie discussions, and to the students for their interest & great questions.

*Thanks to Kate Lomas for discussion about some of these ideas


Taking a misty trot along the clifftops after the ASSAB conference in Katoomba, NSW