Applying for a Postdoc: Things I Wish I Had Known
Now that I am several months into my career as an academic postdoc, I feel that I can look back and reflect on the things that I wish I’d known while I was applying for this position. The job application process can be stressful, particularly as it tends to overlap with your thesis write-up and defence, but looking back I can see that there are a few simple things that anyone can implement to make the process easier.
Start early… really early
It is never too soon to start planning the next phase of your career. One good habit to get into is keeping notes on labs whose research you find interesting. As a grad student, you’re already in the habit of keeping up with the scientific literature within your field, but try to keep track of the research going on in related fields. If you have already been keeping tabs on research that you’re interested in, then you won’t feel lost when it comes time to start contacting labs about a prospective postdoc role. I started doing this on Mendeley because it allows me to keep any related notes or thoughts in the same place. However, I only started doing this from the end of my second year and I wish I’d done it sooner given that my Ph.D. program only lasted three years.
Outside of academia, starting applications early is doubly important. Academic labs often operate on shorter time scales due to time constraints imposed by funding situations, whereas biotech companies and Pharma often operate on a much longer timescale. Don’t be surprised if you don’t hear anything for weeks or even months after submitting your application. Every once in a while I still receive a nice little rejection letter from companies that I applied to several months ago, like some kind of scientific memento mori. Keeps me humble… The point being, if you want to find an industry position, apply early! If you’re stuck on how to decide between these two options, this article published in PLOS Computational Biology is a good place to start.
A practical guide to networking
You’ve heard it 1,000 times, networking is important. Depending on the source, somewhere between 70%–85% of job positions are not listed, so it pays to build your network. Instead of lecturing you on the importance of networking, I’m going to give you a few practical considerations for actually doing it. First, everyone else is just as nervous as you when it comes to talking to strangers. Find a small group (3-4 people), grab a drink (it doesn’t need to be alcoholic), take a deep breath, and repeat after me: “Hi, do you mind if I join your conversation?” Nobody is going to tell you ‘no,’ but on the off chance that they do, you’ve already got a drink in your hand, so you won’t have to return to the bar queue with your shattered pride. Now that the hard part is over, comment on the seminar/workshop/conference and let the conversation flow from there.
The next consideration for practical networking: you don’t need to go in with an agenda. As Harvey Mackay puts it in his networking book, “Dig Your Well Before You’re Thirsty.” That is, build your network before you need it and don’t forget to maintain it! If you go into a networking session with the mindset of helping others first, then people are usually more than happy to reciprocate later. Building a network need not be restricted to networking sessions either, although these can be a good place to start because everyone there is on the same page. That said, current and former colleagues, course mates, friends, and family all form a part of your network. Just remember the following things when it comes to networking: nobody owes you anything, be humble, be generous. If you remember these simple guidelines, things will work out.
Find a mentor or a role model
There are three people that you should be following in your career at any given point: Someone senior that you wish to emulate, someone subordinate that you think is doing your old job better than you were, and a peer in your line of work that you respect. I came across this advice in an interview with Stanley McChrystal and Chris Fussell and it is something that I have really taken to heart. You don’t necessarily need to tell these people who they are, but you should keep track of their successes and failures and learn from them what you can. In an ideal world, you could also consult these people for mentorship, particularly your peers and your senior role models.
In this regard I was lucky; my departmental journal club allowed me to meet a cohort of exceptional early career scientists, many of whom have been extremely generous with their time and their advice over the past few years. Learning from their successes and struggles as they have started labs of their own and moved into new areas of research has been enlightening. Through my time in science outreach, I also came across one of the most indefatigable and driven Ph.D. students that I’ve ever met. Catching up with her over a cup of coffee during long weekends in the lab was always helpful and I have immense respect for everything that she has accomplished in her career to date. You never know where you’re going to meet your role models but keep an open mind to new ideas, advice, and criticisms; if you choose your mentors wisely, they are usually well-founded.
Don’t ask, don’t get
When the time comes to actually start applying don’t be afraid to reach out to the labs from your list. Even if they don’t have a position posted, that does not mean that one is not available. Labs are often willing to find funding or help you apply for funding directly so that they can take you on as a new hire. The caveat being that the position may be dependent on funding, hedge your bets and get in touch with multiple labs. Don’t be disheartened if you don’t immediately get a response to your inquiry. It can be beneficial to send a follow-up email as people are busy and these things can get overlooked. If you’re lucky enough to get multiple positive responses, learn how to turn down an offer gracefully; especially if you are the one that initiated contact!
Don’t let rejection get you down
The final thing that I wish to impart to you, dear readers, is that you should not become despondent when things aren’t working out. There are going to be days on the job hunt where you get nothing but rejections. Take a minute, feel sorry for yourself, then grit your teeth and keep on grinding through. Remember how far you’ve come to get where you are now and draw strength from everything that you’ve accomplished.