How to get that postdoc

Image from phdcomics.com

Following a quick twitter exchange with @Nic_Derbyshire, I sent her an email about how I went about my postdoc application.  I thought it would be useful to share my experience, and I have thrown in advice I have received from a plethora of sources as well.   It seems quite a fitting time to post this considering the current discussions about the future of synthetic chemists at In the Pipeline and ChemJobber.  I think the advice here is applicable to applications for postdocs in all scientific disciplines, but take care with respect to industrial job applications – these could have very different requirements and the application process can vary widely.

This is based on my limited experience, that of friends and colleagues, watching my boss go through the process, and advice from academics, postdocs, ex-postdocs and the like.  Please fell free to add any of your own experiences in the comments.

I will break this down into a few major points and then discuss each one a little.

 Research the group as extensively as you can

  • Tailor your application to the group/academic you are applying to – nobody wants to receive a blanket email.
  • Double check on the group website about the application protocol. Some academics (e.g. Scott Denmark) only accept applications by post (mail), some require application through a central system, and for others, a direct email is acceptable.
  • Get the sex of the professor correct! Several female academics have told me about receiving emails beginning Dear Sir,.  This is a sure fire way to ensure your email is deleted instantly.
  • Network as much as you can and use your friends and contacts to find out about the group/academic you are applying to.  I had heard on the grapevine that the group I was applying to was full to bursting, so I put in my application earlier than is usual (18 months in advance of my start).  If I hadn’t, I may well have missed out.
  • Have a look to see if your prospective employers have recently been awarded any major grants/awards.  This will give you an idea as to wether they potentially have funding available even if they are not advertising for PDRA positions – it also allows you to give appropriate compliments/demonstrate the effort you have put into researching the position (a compliment in its own right) in your covering letter/email. A bit of flattery never hurts!

The application – I applied to a group that had no specific positions available and hence I sent a ‘cold’ email. My experience is based mainly on this, however, I have seen the central application process from the ‘other side’ via my boss.

  • For a cold application I sent a covering letter (the email, 1 page in Word), my CV (2 pages) and a research summary (2 pages).
  • Do not send your application without somebody checking all three components.  Your supervisor/another academic is ideal, otherwise try and find people who have successfully been through the process.  Heed their advice, but remember everybody has a different take on things – this is were insider knowledge can help….do you know a post-doc in the group you want to go to?
  • Manners are critical in an application.  Remember, this is a formal process you are engaged in – an over friendly email, lazy language, or incorrect titles for individuals are all a big no.  Germany is renowned for being particularly fastidious on such matters, but I propose this is critical for wherever you apply. I know my supervisor would not take to kindly to an application beginning Hi David,.
  • If you are applying through a central service your CV may be the first thing that is read by the academic you are applying to, not the covering letter.  Make sure your CV is written in a manner that it provides ALL of the required information/what you want to get across about yourself, without requiring any clarification from the covering letter – if the CV is poor they might not even get that far.
  • Make sure you demonstrate that you fulfill all the of required skills for an advertised position.  If the call is for a postdoc that can run the lab, or has a business minded approach to research (more common in the US), provide evidence that you have these skills.

The covering letter – In many instances this is the first point of contact with your prospective employer so treat this with an equal amount of care as you would give to your CV.  The importance of a cover letter is often overlooked – if it is not up to scratch your CV will not even get a cursory glance.

For my application (with no formal call for applicants) I structured my email/cover letter as follows:

  • My current position, supervisor and what I wanted, i.e. a PDRA position.   For example: “On completion of my PhD I intend to undertake a post-doctoral research placement, and I would be highly delighted if you would consider me as a suitable candidate”.
  • Why I was applying to this group/professor.  It is important to be honest, and not to pay hollow platitudes – this will be obvious (though congratulations on that massive grant they just won wouldn’t hurt).  You could discuss an area of their work you are particularly interested in, comment on the structure/dynamic (e.g. multidisciplinary, or,  focused on exactly what you want to study) of the group , or the great things you have heard about them as a supervisor/the group in general. If this ‘section’ is missing it could seem like this is a blanket application which is a big no. Also remember, just to have a big name on your CV is not an acceptable reason – even if it is true!
  • My achievements to date including papers published, the type of work I have done, and major prizes awarded. I also included what I intended to achieve before I left my current position, and what I thought I could bring to the group I was applying to. For example: “……..and expect to publish at least one more article before the completion of my PhD. The skills I have developed will be amenable to many areas of research, and I believe these would give me the tools to be a positive addition to your group.”
  • I also offered to apply for my own funding (e.g. Von Humboldt or Marie Curie fellowships).

And the little things (that can make a massive difference):

  • Keep it short – less than one side of A4 typed.
  • Remember your manners – keep it formal.  You can be never be too polite.
  • Check your grammar and spelling (and get others to check it for you).  There are no excuses if you are applying in your first language. If it is not your first language try and get it checked by a native speaker, or, try something like google translate to check your spelling!

The CV - I won’t go through the writing of a CV, however, you can find mine here (at the bottom of the page) as an example.  This is a slightly updated version of the CV I sent with my postdoc application (I have removed my contact and referee details in this version).  The structure of this CV was determined through discussions with my supervisor and a senior team leader at a major pharmaceutical company. Remember, a CV is quite a personal thing and opinions on structure vary widely, but three points are crucial in all instances:

  • Keep it short (2 pages max), clean (no colour, pictures, or decorative lines), and concise. It is better to send a shorter (<2 pages) CV that is full of relevant achievements and information, rather than bulking it up with irrelevant content.
  • Make your most significant achievements as obvious as possible.
  • Ensure that you substantiate any claims about your skills and experience.  For example, the statement “I am an excellent communicator” is without validation and could be claimed by anybody. In contrast, the following two statements demonstrate your communication skills and provide context:  ” Presented my research on invitation to an international audience at the…..” and ” Presented my research to a lay audience at the…..”. This is a much better approach to highlighting your skills.

The research summary - My summary was two pages – one for each of my projects.  Again the style of summaries varies significantly and you will have to use your own judgement (or that of your supervisor).  Historically my summaries are quite dense, though I attempt to write them so that all the key information is provided in the figures and can be fully understood without refering to the text.  I use the pictures to tell the story and the text to provide any additional detail should people want the nitty gritty!  You can find page one of my summary here (at the bottom of the page).

What gets you the interview/job? So you have a ‘perfect’ application, you have ticked all the right boxes and your CV gets a full five minutes attention, but how do you make sure it doesn’t end up in the bin?

  • Papers are critical, both with respect to number and quality.  There are arguments against this being the most important aspect of your CV (I know all of the arguments and I am aware that some academics do want other skills, please don’t lampoon me), but when it comes to the crunch, high quality papers trump everything else.
  • Academic prizes, scholarships and bursaries make you stand out from the crowd. My advice is to apply for everything you can, from travel awards to poster competitions – they all make a difference.  I have also found that once you have a couple under your belt, the next one comes a little more easily.
…..but I don’t have 3 JACS or a Nature paper, should I give up? Definitely not. I stand by the statement that great papers trump all, but all is not lost if you don’t have them. Academics (most of them anyway) accept that working on a total synthesis of Bryostatin isn’t going to yield a high return in terms of numbers of papers. We also all know of that tough project in which nothing worked, but if you worked hard and put in the hours (and were nice to your boss), your reference will reflect your skills and dedication.  You just have to get your potential employer to get that far……
  • If you don’t have the papers everything else becomes more critical – your application must be immaculate.
  • Don’t try and make excuses for your lack of papers – concentrate on the skills and experience you do have.
  • It is crucial to demonstrate that you are more than just another excellently trained and brilliant chemist – there are plenty of these, and some of them have that Nature paper.  What else can you bring to the group? Extensive experience supervising students; expertise in an area that your potential group does not have; experience in running/organising the laboratory; programming skills; a significant online presence (maybe more suited to younger academics); a technological background i.e. building lab equipment, fixing HPLCs. Make yourself attractive – academics always want to develop the skill set of their group. Sell yourself!
  • Make it clear how much you want that specific position. True enthusiasm for the work you would be doing, and demonstrating how much you have researched the group/the work go a long way. Who wouldn’t want to find out more about somebody who appears very passionate about working for them, and totally committed to the research?
  • This is something I have no experience with, but is often mentioned.  If there is a group you want to work in, make contact in advance of your application.  Attend a conference your target professor is speaking at and get introduced, or failing that, find an excuse to make contact via email.  A previous relationship, however small, will always help! It is not always about what you know…..but who you know.

A few final things

  • Do not apply to several academics at a single institute at the same time unless constrained by deadlines.  Academics will talk to each other, and there is nothing that undermines a claim that “your group is the number one group for me” more than an application to the academic down the corridor. If you do apply to several academics in a single institution simultaneously, be honest about it (I have seen this at Manchester, and the person that applied ended up working in both groups consecutively) – academics understand how difficult the market currently is.
  • Don’t send an angry email if you don’t receive a response – especially to an advertised position. With the current state of the market the number of applications for each position is huge and academics will not respond to everybody.  Don’t burn any bridges.
  • In the same vein, don’t be disheartened if you don’t get the first job you apply for.  The market is very tough – especially in synthetic chemistry.  You can try asking for feedback on your application, though wether you receive this will of course depend on the academic.
  • Don’t become stagnant if you are temporarily unemployed.  Keep on top of the literature, network like crazy (it is free and easy online), or find alternative ways to build your skill set e.g. teaching, writing, public engagement.

In my mind a job application does not begin with the covering letter or your CV, but the day you start you PhD.  You may be sure you don’t want to do a postdoc in the beginning (I was), but you never know what the future might hold.  Be conscious that you will be applying for a job in the future, and make building your skill set (and thus your CV) a continuous process.  This is far easier than trying to ‘cram’ for the application, especially if you are writing your thesis, preparing for your defence/viva and applying for jobs at the same time.

Good luck!

14 thoughts on “How to get that postdoc

  1. In this tough job market volunteering in a lab can yield dividends. I’m a synthetic organic chemist and I volunteered to work in a synthetic biology lab. Now I’m a PDRA using chemistry in a synthetic biology group solving a physics problem. In short, volunteering puts you at the head of the line when PDRA’s become available.

  2. Great advises! It was such a good coincidence that your post comes just the day when I was struggling to update and reformat my CV…your suggestions helped a lot and now I will try to apply them to the next stage of application process :)

  3. Thanks so much for sharing your experience! Very helpful!

    Just one simple question … If I get no response from the PI, how long should I wait before sending out the second mail? What will be polite and reasonable for me to say in the second email?

    Thanks again!

    • Hi Stephen,

      I am afraid that is a tough question and the answer is somewhere in the realm of ‘how long is a piece of string’! If I had to commit, my advice would be to leave to 2-3 weeks as they may well just be on holiday, but after that I would send something along the lines of:

      ……I understand you are obviously very busy and may not have had time to reply, or that you may not have found my application suitable….. I would love to work in your group and find your work fascinating and as such, would it be possible for you to confirm that you received my application even if it was unsuccessful. I obviously need to continue my job search, but I would like to make sure there are definitely no opportunities available within your group before I look elsewhere…..

      Hope this helps

      • Hi Karl,

        Your suggestions are extremely valuable! Thank you so much for drafting those beautiful lines for me … this is a big favor : )

        Look forward to your new post and wish you a wonderful day!

  4. Reblogged this on Manchester Postgraduate Careers Blog and commented:
    It can be done! Great post from Karl Collins, one of our chemistry PhDs (congrats on getting through the viva) who is off to Germany for the postdoc he really wanted – here’s how he did it and some tips he picked up along the way.

  5. Dear Karl,
    Thank you so much for the inputs. I really appreciate it.
    I have a question though. I had applied for postdoc to one of the best labs in US. This is a lab which I always wanted to my Postdoc as it completely matches with my research interests. The PI told me he would call. I immediately replied back giving him my contact details. It has been 10 days I am yet to hear from him.
    Do you think I should mail him back asking for the status or is it that I should start looking elsewhere.

  6. I would email him again polity, reiterating how much you want to go his group and that you would like to know i he is interested because you should start looking elsewhere if he isn’t. Don’t be angry or annoyed that he hasn’t got back to you. Remember, 10 days when you are looking for a job is ages, but for a PI it is no time at all. He might be sick, travelling etc. Just be polite and honest.

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