How to get that postdoc

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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!


33 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.

  7. You put to much emphasis on all the formal stuff. Your conclusion about the wrong sex will result in instant deletion of your email, is over exaggerated. Sometimes the sex is difficult to tell from name and their page (if they have any) and most ppl are use to it (like jamie cate or Leemor joshua-tor). Is it a silly thing to do? yes, but it is by no means an instant rejection. Starting an email with the informal “hi XXX” etc. is not a big issue. I am not saying that you should deliberately be a prick or anything, but be yourself and dont pretend to be super formal type of person if you are not. The part about congratulating someone on their latest large grant or whatever, I would just categorize as plain suck-up and is a very undesirable trait in any person I think. You have a lot of very good points, but you over-interpret your own experiences and actions, because I doubt that you have tried many of things you actively advocate against in your post. So why do I write this? basically I have read a bunch of these “here is how to land a postdoc position” type of posts, but they are all written with same extreme prejudice against the informal approach and with an idea that every lab is looking for a postdoc with the manners of an english old school butler, which is just not true.

    that was just my grumpy 5 cents, and again you do have a lot of excellent points in the post, so do not read to much into my comment.

    Take care!

  8. Hi Ruki, thanks for compliments, they were not too hard to find! As I said in the post, all of these suggestions are based on my limited experience, and that of colleagues, supervisors etc., hence alternative experiences/suggestions such as your own are most welcome. I would like to make a couple of important points though: I think it is highly unlikely anybody was rejected for being too formal, or getting the gender of potential employers correct – this could not be said for the contrary. With regard to grants – the compliment part was a throw away comment if you like (apologies this was not as clear as it should be), the main benefit of researching grants is to know if and when somebody has money, and to show your active interest in the group. As with getting the gender correct (easy with a google search), knowing that somebody has a big grant (harder, but still possible with google) really shows an interest in the group, and demonstrates you are not sending out blanket applications. You are right this may not be a problem in many instances, but I think it is fair to say that if you show your lack of effort when applying to a group that gets hundreds of applicants a year, your application probably will not be considered.

    If you have some personal experience it would be great if you could add it here.


    • Hi Karl,

      No worries.

      About not being rejected solely for being too formal, you may be right, but I believe many super formal ppl are being rejected because they come of as super plain as well, hence they do not stand out in the crowd of applications so they are being indirectly rejected.

      You last(ish) part:
      “You are right this may not be a problem in many instances, but I think it is fair to say that if you show your lack of effort when applying to a group that gets hundreds of applicants a year, your application probably will not be considered.”

      I absolutely agree that a lack of interest and effort is a bad selling point, but if you indeed are applying at large famous labs, you still need to stand out, and the classical formal approach is the one the majority of applicants uses (minus the bulk application emails sent from primarily china/india). Again I’m not saying you should deliberately swap the sex of the PI or start with “waaazzzzz up daawg!” or something like that, but you should show who you are, and unless you are an english butler stereotype, you should not portray yourself like one.
      As many other in the academic field, I have been to my share of dinners with various PI’s, some important some not important, and I always ask what they look for in a postdoc application. Most of them basically look for which lab you are from (do they know it or not) and then your publication track record of course, so nothing new there. But they, primarily the american PI’s however, also said (when asked) that they hate to read the super formal cover letters. It is actually form such an conversation I got the old school english butler stereotype expression, because she often received these ridicules formal cover letters, which leaves you with no clue of what kind of person wrote it. So unless their CV shines they are not hired by the ability to google the PI’s name and research history.

      I should mention that I have also talked to a french PI which would not let his student call him by his name until they got their phd degree (it was professor only until then), because then they had earned his respect. I find stuff like that to be incredible stupid and derogatory and no one should put them selves on such a pedestal. But I must acknowledge that such archetypes exists, but I will never apply for a position at their lab.

      Anyway my rant was not directed at you, but the general conception of the super formal cover letter.



  9. I agree, but being formal does not mean you have to forgo getting your personality across. Nor does it mean you can not stand out from the crowd. If the only way you can make yourself stand out is by using Hi Phil instead of Dear Prof. Dr. Geronimo, then you will not get the job anyway.

    I applied in Germany which is still very formal in academia, and this definitely influenced by writing style, but I think I noted this.

    Anyway, thanks for your input.


  10. Hi Karl,
    I have applied to so many PI’s of USA and Uk and mostly got the respnse like no funding or is very disappointing what should I do in this case?

    • Hi Prashat, are applying from outside the EU? I think in this case it can be very hard. I don’t know for sure, but I think the culture of the US is that you take your own money with you. Have you looked for fellowships you can apply for in the country you are living/studying, or fellowships in the country you want to go to? Examples would be full bright scholarships, newton fellowships, marie curie fellowships, humboldt fellowships. All of these are dependant on where you are living/studying so as i do not know where you are I am not sure if you are eligible or not. In the UK, I know a lot of the funding is for people living within the EU only but not always. If vacancies are the problem, then you just have to accept this: sometimes groups are just full. If you think this may be an ‘excuse’, maybe you could get someone to have a look over your application/cover letter – sometimes a second opinion might be able to improve an application.


      • Thanks karl for your reply and I am basically from India but now working as a Marie-Curie fellow in an Uk univ till 2015 and before the end of my tenure I wish to secure second postdoc or research job for myself which seems to be very tough in today’s scenario thats why I am trying hard to apply everywhere but almost getting negative response from every corner.don’t know suddenly what’s wrong with my cv!

  11. you know in response to my application one prof asked me “Hi-what would you like to work here?” and when I mailed him again about the work I did and wish to do in future he didn’t answer me though my work is related to his project on which he is currently working.

  12. If you have a Marie Curie already, then I imagine your CV is good enough to get the attention of most people. Maybe you have just been unlucky? Maybe groups really are full. I know for my group now, you need to apply generally a year in advance! All I can suggest is keep on trying, and attempt to get some feedback on your cover letters etc from somebody who is independent. Good luck!

    • Thanks Karl for everything and Yeah I feel that may be I am not able to draft my cover letter in a way its required for market and working hard to improve my letter writing as well as grammar and looking also online for some samples.

  13. Hi Everyone,
    I have applied to so many PI’s of USA and i am not getting any response or mostly responded like no is very disappointing what should I do in this case?

  14. Some of the advice is quite useful. In my country, writing a “Research Summary” next to the CV is not common, but it might be a good idea. Still, I wonder how many requests you have sent to groups before you got the job? Only one? You must have been extremely lucky! I got no response to my unsolicited applications, although I like my CV layout much better than yours. My publications are at least equal to yours, or even better, and of course I am not so stupid to call a professor by his first name in my applications! Maybe I just need to write more applications. You make it seem as if it worked out with your first application, what is hard to believe after seeing your average CV. You don’t even seem to know that you are expected to put a photo in your CV when applying in Germany. I know that because I also once worked in Germany during an internship. Of course it is possible that you’ve previously applied unsuccessfully to 20 industry companies and then decided to do a post-doc, and maybe you were lucky and it worked after only 5 applications. But you should also write this honestly in your text and not make it seem as if you only wrote one application in total.

  15. Another thought: You seem not to understand what your “unique selling point” in a country like Germany was: You’re a native English speaker. In all countries where the official language is not English, English-speaking scientists are very welcome. You can submit publications faster and in a better style than the locals and you can proofread the publications of the entire group. This point was probably more important than your academic performance.
    I hope you do not feel attacked personally now. That is not my intention and I really appreciate your advice here. I’m just disappointed with my recent unsuccessful applications. You get the feeling that successful candidates just think others are too stupid to write a decent application and that it’s very easy to get a job, because THEY were successful. That annoys me, and it’s really a bit more complicated than that.

  16. Elodie, I completely agree with you and with you Ruki! An ideal way to get a postdoc is when your PI knows the PI you want to go to. Absolute majority of cold mails will end up in trash bin. Or you should have a recommendation from NAS member, especially if you apply to US top lab. I have applied to two top labs after analyzing tons of their papers and coming up with the project. I got a refusal from one lab (due to being overfilled) and no response from another. I think that a typical dog phd cannot even dream about getting into a top lab, even if he has PNAS-level papers. And there are little top labs in Europe for sure.

  17. What do you think of changing research direction for postdoctoral training? Do you think the PI will more likely to choose a candidate which has direct experience on the topic? I am planning to write short research proposal to demonstrate that I am enthusiastic to join the group and am familiar with the research question the group trying to answer.

    • Hi Josh,
      The answer for your question is ” It depends on the PI”. I just had an informal interview with a Prof in Germany. My area of research is in Infection biology and I wished to change from Organism A which I worked towards my PhD to Organism B which he works with. He didn’t show much interest and he believed that he would prefer a candidate who has worked with Organism B. But I also have seen some of seniors who have shifted their fields from infection biology to cancer biology and are doing exceptionally well.
      So, fingers crossed and All the best.

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