So You Want to Be a Postdoc?

This is a guest blog by Louise Stephen, a postdoc at the Cancer Research UK Beatson Institute in Glasgow, where she studies ciliopathies and protein trafficking in immune cells. She did her PhD at the University of Manchester and a previous postdoc at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh. Louise is co-chair of the UK Research Staff Association (@UKRSAvitae) and is involved in number of committees aimed at furthering researcher development and giving postdocs a greater voice. She is particularly interested in improving the researcher experience to make academia a more inclusive and realistic career option.

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Image credit: “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham, http://www.phdcomics.com

So you’ve been working hard on the PhD for a couple of years now, studiously ignoring all those people with proper jobs who keep asking what you’re going to do next, I expect. Well, I’m sorry, but now really is the time to start thinking about your next move! There are endless options and opportunities for a PhD graduate, whether you want to stay in academia, move to industry, or get the hell out of science altogether. In this post I will be looking at staying in academia and getting that first postdoc, because that’s what I know about!

A postdoc is your first real foray into the world of independence – this should be reflected in the way you present yourself during your job hunt. I encourage you to think for yourself and consider any long-term plans you have during every step along the way. A wish to be the director of an international institute is no more or less valid than a desire to spend three years living in California, but it really helps if you’re honest with yourself about what you want to get out of your postdoc. Papers? Experience? An extra year before you have to make a proper decision about your future career?

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Image credit: “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham, http://www.phdcomics.com

If you want to do a postdoc, you really have to think at least a year in advance about what you want to study and where. Unfortunately, it’s highly unlikely that your favourite professor from your dream institute will just happen to have a position open at the exact moment you walk out of your PhD viva. You have got to get in touch with them! NOW! I know it feels awkward to write to your hero and ask them for a job, but seriously, think about it, who wouldn’t want to receive fan mail?! That’s step one sorted: contact the PI, introduce yourself, tell them what you want to study and ask if they are likely to have any positions in the next year or so. They probably don’t have anything right now, but they are almost certainly going to be writing a grant in that time and it is always good to have someone named on that grant to do the work! Score! You’re in! The other option is having a research proposal ready to go. Write to your dream prof and ask if they’d support you in writing a fellowship. There is nothing a PI likes better than someone who wants to bring money to them! Both of these options rely on getting money, however, and less than 25% of grants are likely to be funded, so don’t feel bad if you have to apply for a couple of them. It does take time to write a grant or fellowship, so you should allow at least a couple of months. It can sometimes take over 6 months to hear whether or not that grant has been funded, so please please please make sure you are contacting Dream Prof a year before you NEED to start working!

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Image credit: “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham, http://www.phdcomics.com

You do not need to know what you want to do. It’s OK to wait and see what is around. Full disclosure, this is what I did. The grants and the planning didn’t work out (welcome to academia!) but I have twice ended up in the field I wanted, working on fantastic projects. But, I didn’t just send in a CV. I contacted the PIs and asked them questions about the role. This really is vital to getting the job you want in academia. PIs want to hire people who are interested in their work. They are not looking for someone who sends a CV to HR. Write your cover letter specifically for that job, ask where the project is going. Make sure that the PI knows that you want to work for them. I guarantee that if you contact the PI before submitting an application you will have a much better chance of interviewing than someone who fills out the online form and crosses their fingers.

There are a few websites that can be useful if you’re looking for an ‘off-the-shelf’ postdoc, www.findapostdoc.com does pretty much the same as the ever-popular www.findaphd.com, albeit with a much lower density of jobs, most of which are non-UK (which may be a positive or a negative for you). I’d say www.Naturejobs.com fits in the same niche occupied by findapostdoc.com and contains lots of international jobs of varying relevance, and some of the top institutes will only advertise through Nature. www.jobs.ac.uk is not bad, but you really do have to be specific about what you’re looking for, and a misplaced key word may cut out your dream job. Finally, www.indeed.com can be useful, it has jobs across all sectors so again you have to specify what it is you want and will have to trawl through a lot of strange things, but it is possible to find jobs this way. However, I cannot stress enough; none of these websites are nearly as good as personally getting in touch with a lab you like and asking to join them!

Do you have your career plan figured out already? Planning to get in touch with that PI you admired from afar for years? Or have you always dreamed of moving to Australia and think a postdoc may be the golden ticket? Let us know! If you have any more questions for Louise (@drbega85) about postdoc job hunting, get in touch via the comments or over on Twitter (@UofG_PGRBlog)!

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