Sunday, February 12, 2012

Applying for postdocs

Repost from:

I've received a few emails asking me for advice on applying to a postdoctoral research position, so I thought I'd blog about it. I suppose that there are several aspects of applying to any job that are relevant to all applications (e.g., being prompt, thoughtful, researching the employer), but there are some differences that I think warrant a post on applying for postdocs.

Finding a postdoc position usually begins one of three ways.

You (the potential postdoc) may:
1. Send an email to someone you would like to work with, without knowing about availability in the lab.
2. Respond to an advertisement for a postdoc position.
3. Work out an arrangement with your current advisor, or someone you know well at your current institution.

Case 3 is very specific, so I won't address it here. Cases 1 and 2 are actually very similar, and include the same elements. The main difference is that in the first case you will need to be more direct in describing a research plan you have in mind, whereas for the second case, you will need to focus more space on describing which skills you have to bring to the advertised project. That said, both types of emails should include both elements. Below is a set of guidelines for how to format an inquiry email (think Cover Letter) to your potential postdoc employer.

1. Be clear and concise in your initial email.
Your potential employer is busy. It probably wouldn't be exaggerating to say she receives 50-100 emails a day. If your email is poorly constructed, difficult to read, or excessively long, it may not receive the thoughtful once-over reading you are hoping for. Not a good start. So keep it clean (use one, easy to read, font), organized (separate into meaningful paragraphs/sections), and concise (don't repeat yourself or go into descriptive detail).

2. Begin by introducing yourself, briefly describing your research training and lab pedigree. 
Make sure to list your current and previous advisors (if these people are willing to serve as references for you), and briefly list the research areas you have focused on, including your undergraduate and graduate degrees. Specifically highlight the skills you have that align with, but also those that would complement the current goals of the lab you are applying to. You want to show that you will be an asset to your PI and your new lab mates.

3. Propose a feasible research project that fits within the scope of the lab.
Whether working within case 1 or case 2, you will want to describe what you will bring to the project, and also what you hope to learn from the lab environment. Remember, this is training. You should show initiative in bettering yourself. If you are sending a cold email (not responding to an advertisement), make sure the project(s) you propose are feasible within the timescale you plan to be in the lab. If you are responding to an advertisement, it is not unreasonable to suggest another avenue that you could take the research, if time/budget allows. This shows initiative, and forward-thinking.

4. Describe your intentions for applying for independent postdoctoral funding (or state that you already have independent funding secured).
If you weren't already thinking of applying for your own funding, you should be. Receiving postdoctoral funding can only help your future career, and make you more marketable to potential postdoc advisors. Such initiative may help you secure a position in a lab where funding is currently lacking, and give you experience for future funding applications. Further, writing the application will help you formulate your ideas and research goals for your postdoctoral experience, and if it doesn't get funded, can serve as a basis for your future research plans. I know, it takes time, there's so much paperwork, the chances of getting funded are low. Just do it. You'll be better for it.

5. Attach a copy of your (triple-proof-read) CV.
Not only is it important to have an easily readable CV, but it is also important to list the sections in order of importance (which is relative to the position you are applying to). For post postdoctoral positions, this likely means publications and research experience first. Additionally, for postdoctoral applications, do include manuscripts that are in preparation. Your potential advisor will understand that you are finishing up previous work, and it will only be to your advantage to showcase what you have done and that you plan to publish them. Other sections of your CV, including presentations, peer-review service, and outreach may have different orders depending on the priorities of the lab. It is also important to have someone else proof-read your CV. Sure, you'll be forgiven if you left off a period, or forgot an extra tab, but these small mistakes can add up, especially if your CV still has room to grow. So take the extra few days to proof-read it, set it aside, ask a friend for help, and proof-read it again.

6. Some people choose to attach a recent paper that exemplifies the overlap or complement of the applicants research with the lab's goals.
I hesitate to bold this suggestion, because it is more of a personal choice. If you do attach a paper, make sure it is just one paper (maybe, MAYBE two). You don't want to overwhelm your potential employer with too many attachments. They won't be read. This option should probably only be used if you have a very relevant manuscript that is in near-final form, but not yet published. Perhaps, as an alternative, you can offer to share any of your manuscripts (in preparation, published or in review).

Of course, every lab is different, so these rules may go out the window in your particular case. These are just some guidelines I think would help when preparing materials to apply for your postdoc position. I'd be very happy to hear additional thoughts and suggestions!

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