In most cases a postdoctoral researcher position is a short-term mentored position with a strong research focus, although the specifics can vary widely. While postdocs are common in the sciences and engineering, postdoctoral opportunities also exist in the humanities and social sciences. Because a postdoc is a training step, keeping your entire career plan in focus is crucial as you make this decision.
Types of Postdocs
Postdoc opportunities can be found at a variety of institutions, including major research universities, primarily undergraduate colleges, national labs, industry, nonprofits, and government.
Why do you want a postdoc?
The first step to finding the right postdoc is to understand your long-term career goals. Thinking about the following questions can help you focus on finding a postdoc that is well suited for your needs:
- Do you want to work at a teaching-intensive institution or a major research center?
- Are you planning to look for a job in industry or with the government?
- What research questions are you interested in pursuing?
- Are there additional skills you would like to develop during your postdoc?
While the postdoc can be an opportunity to transition to a related field, be realistic about the amount of time it will take to be productive in the new field.
Finding Postdoctoral Opportunities
After you have assessed your needs and desires, start formulating a list of potential mentors.
- Think about authors of interesting papers or people you have met at conferences.
- Seek advice from your adviser, other faculty, students, and postdocs.
- Investigate programs for specialized postdocs (such as teaching intensive).
Most postdoc positions are not advertised widely, so talk to your personal contacts, such as advisers and colleagues. Postdoc positions may be posted in discipline-specific publications or websites, on a centralized page at a university, or on the website of an individual researcher.
Learn where job postings can be found in your field. Keep in mind that there are many different titles for these positions, so don’t search only for “postdoc.”
Narrow down the list by doing more research:
- Is there evidence that this principle investigator (PI) provides good mentoring opportunities?
- Consider the career stage the PI is in or is entering and what that means in terms of your training (e.g., the PI’s availability and responsiveness). This may differ by discipline.
- Where are the former postdocs after ten years?
- What are the active research areas?
It is also a good idea to identify more than one PI you could potentially work with in case unforeseen circumstances lead to a necessary change in mentorship.
Also take into consideration how postdocs in your field are compensated. Will your salary come from the department or from a grant? This may also help you narrow down your list of possibilities. Federal agencies and private foundations are very transparent about projects they have funded. Here are a couple tools that can help explore opportunities that are already funded:
There are also specific postdoctoral grants (e.g. NIH F Kiosk) that could help you be a more competitive candidate. Being familiar with the grant process and funding landscape can also be helpful in your future career. Here are a few tools to help you find individual funding:
- UIUC External Fellowships Database
- Harvard’s Graduate guide to Grants and Postdoctoral Fellowships
The Application Process
The postdoc application process is not standardized. In some cases, especially in industry and national labs, the application process is formalized with an official job posting and list of required application materials. In other cases the candidate might send an unsolicited application to a principal investigator. Discuss these options with your adviser and other faculty to determine what approaches and application materials are appropriate for your field.
A tip for unsolicited emails is to be direct in the subject line and state exactly what you want (e.g. “Seeking postdoc position from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign”).
In all cases, it is important to know how you are a good fit and be able to clearly articulate how you will contribute. The most common application materials are an updated CV, which has been tailored for postdoc positions, a statement of research interests, and a strong cover letter that explains your interest in and fit for the position. You will also need to ask people to serve as references.
Interviewing processes vary widely and often include a visit to the research group where the postdoctoral candidate will most likely:
- Meet with the principal investigator
- Present a research seminar
- Meet with current members of the research group
Be sure to prepare for the interview by becoming familiar with the research in the group. This interviewing process is an important opportunity to ask questions and learn about the dynamics of the research group, department, and community. Former postdocs can also provide helpful insights.
This is also an opportunity for you to assess whether or not this opportunity is a good fit for you. It is a good idea to be up front about any specific goals you may have (such as teaching) and you can have an open and honest discussion about the expectations of this role.
Here are some questions to consider:
- How much freedom do postdocs have in pursuing research projects? How will the direction of research be decided?
- What types of funding are available and will you participate in grant writing?
- What is the potential for publishing and attending conferences?
- If financial support is coming from the PI, how long is this support guaranteed? Is this subject to a grant renewal? Will there be sufficient funds to support the research?
- What career development opportunities are available, such as teaching?
- How does the PI mentor the postdocs? How much time does the PI spend with postdocs? Where do the postdocs go after leaving the group?
Optimizing Your Postdoctoral Experience
The principle investigator is aware that this is a temporary position, and you should clearly articulate what you hope to accomplish during this position and what your future career plans are.
- Be focused on your research and professional development goals.
- Regular, clear communication with your PI is very important.
- Maintain and develop your personal contacts by keeping in touch with colleagues.