Applying for a Postdoctoral Fellowship

December 12, 2007

Question: I'm planning to apply for a postdoc. Where do I start?

Jenny: For many Ph.D.'s, the first step into an academic career is a postdoctoral fellowship. It's an unavoidable step in many science and engineering fields. In other disciplines, a postdoc can be an effective way to enhance your research, and sometimes, your teaching portfolio. Whatever your field, a postdoctoral experience is intended to widen your skill set and to make you not only a more viable job candidate but also a more successful tenure-track faculty member.

Julie: How do you find a postdoc? In the humanities and social sciences, you'll probably find that most postdoctoral opportunities are published as part of your professional association's job list, or in resources such as The Chronicle's job ads, or other Internet resources such as H-Net Online. You will see those opportunities appear throughout the academic year.

Jenny: For Ph.D.'s in science or engineering fields, postdocs fall into two categories -- those advertised nationally, and posted online in many places, and those found through networking. To find the former, you should also check your professional society's job list and online sources such as ScienceCareers and for announcements about postdoc openings.

To find a position through networking, we suggest several strategies. Ask the members of your dissertation committee for the names of professors whose work might be a good fit for your research interests and goals. Your committee members may even contact those professors on your behalf. If any researchers in your field will be speaking at your department or on your campus in the next few months, plan to go to the talk. If someone in the department is taking the speaker out to lunch or dinner, ask if you can go, too.

We know a number of postdocs who found their positions through that kind of networking. Similarly, conferences provide an excellent opportunity to meet potential postdoc advisers. If you're shy about reaching out to people, see if your current adviser, or another professor from your department, can introduce you.

Julie: You should also do some legwork on your own. Whose papers do you find most interesting? Which laboratories seem to be doing the most exciting work? Reach out to those potential advisers even if you don't have a direct connection to them. That can be as simple as e-mailing a well-crafted message explaining why you would be a good fit in the professor's lab and attaching your CV. If that type of networking intimidates you, it sometimes helps to think of it as introducing your research interests to someone else's, as opposed to contacting a person you don't know.

Jenny: A postdoc, no matter the discipline, is a temporary position. It is a stepping stone that you hope will lead you in the right direction. So before accepting a postdoc, think carefully about whether the position will help you achieve your professional goals.

If you're in the humanities and social sciences, evaluate whether the fellowship would be a good way to build your research portfolio, if that is your goal. Social scientists would make sure that the research they would be doing would involve an independent project that would strengthen their CV. Humanists would want to make sure that if there were any teaching responsibilities associated with the position, they would not be so onerous as to interfere with their research.

Julie: Scientists and engineers have an additional set of questions they should ask. Given the collaborative nature of scientific work, it's important to get a sense of the culture of a lab, and the way that a potential mentor works with his or her current postdocs.

You should have a sense of your own needs as well. Do you need a mentor who will be hands on, or do you prefer to work independently? Are you most comfortable in a large lab environment, or in a smaller one? Before you join a lab, you should understand how well you and the potential lab would fit together -- not only in terms of research interests but also in terms of personality, which may be less quantifiable but is just as important.

To figure that out, learn how your potential mentors manage their labs. Do they allow the postdocs independence in creating research agendas? How often do they meet with postdocs? A mentor should be willing to assist you in achieving your career objectives, so be sure that this person has contacts in your area of interest. Ask how many collaborations the lab is involved in, and what your role would be in those projects. If you are interested in teaching, ask a potential mentor whether you would have an opportunity, and the time, to do so.

Jenny: Before accepting a postdoc, it's crucial to learn about the fiscal situation (the number of grants, their source, subject, etc.) of a lab, as that can have direct and immediate consequences on your career plans. Ask whether postdocs are expected to write grant proposals for themselves. If so, how early are they expected to write their first proposal? Be sure that the lab has enough grant money to cover you for a certain number of years. Even if you'll be covered, you might ask if you will be able to help with grant writing, to gain experience in that area.

Julie: Another set of questions to ask involves access to your mentor. Is your potential mentor planning to take a sabbatical in the near future? Is he or she coming up for tenure soon? Your postdoctoral appointment will probably last two to five years and you want to make sure that your future mentor will be around at least most of the time. Take a look at the National Postdoctoral Association's Web site for articles on what to consider when applying for a postdoc.

Jenny: Conversations with current and former lab members will help you get a sense of whether the place is right for you. Ask careful questions about a potential mentor's management style. Ask whether lab members feel supported in their work. Where are they planning to go after their postdoc, and is it possible to take some of their current work with them? Ask whether lab members are happy and if they would choose to join the lab again if they could.

When talking to former lab members, think about where they've ended up. Would you be interested in doing similar work after you complete your postdoc? If you offer to keep everyone's comments confidential, they will probably be willing to be frank with you in the evaluation of their workplace.

Julie: In recent years, many universities have opened special offices to work with postdocs. In addition to making sure that they receive appropriate salaries and benefits, those offices also provide opportunities to improve writing and presentation skills, career advising and other career services, and workshops on research skills and grant writing. See if such services will be available to you. Taking advantage of them helps you become a stronger candidate when you go on the job market.

Jenny: Being a postdoctoral fellow is not like being a graduate student. As a postdoc, you will be taking on a new professional identity, and it is important that you present yourself as such. You will have more responsibility that will increase over time, and there will be expectations for you to attain certain goals. You will have the chance to connect with other academics, and to develop your professional network.

You will be responsible for the development of your own career so that, near the completion of the appointment, you will be ready to apply for academic jobs, industrial research positions, or other kinds of jobs that need your highly specialized skills.


Julie Miller Vick is senior associate director of career services at the University of Pennsylvania, and Jennifer S. Furlong is associate director. Vick is co-author of The Academic Job Search Handbook (University of Pennsylvania Press), along with the late Mary Morris Heiberger, who was associate director of career services at Penn.