How to get a post-doc

Why do I need a post-doctoral position?

In an era when PhD students are rising in number and the amount of highly qualified early career scientists is huge, competition for post-docs are intense. These fixed-term research positions, which can be thought of as apprenticeships, are essential for scientists wishing to move to permanent positions in research leading universities. Lectureships at good universities seem to require at least 5 years of post-doc experience, at least 10 first-author publications in strong journals, a significant amount of grant income, and ideally a prestigious independent research fellowship.

However, in the Geosciences, the number of post-docs is limited. There are far more PhD graduates than there are post-doctoral positions. Clearly, for early career scientists wishing to pursue these positions, getting that first foot on the ladder is the pinch-point; it is at this stage that most people will leave. So what can you do to increase your chances of landing that all-important first post-doc position?

This blog post builds on my personal experiences on working towards getting a post-doc in Physical Geography, but hopefully it will be of interest to a wider audience.

A solid foundation

You can start preparing for your future career from the moment you start your PhD. Keep an eye on jobs.ac.uk and look at interesting positions, and especially at the person specification and essential and desirable criteria. You will notice that the same things crop up time and time again. In addition to job-specific skills and expertise, they all include:

  • A good publication track record
  • Dissemination of science at major international conferences
  • Evidence of external grant income
  • Collegiate, collaborative and team working skills (here I define collegiate as being a nice person to have around, collaborative as working with people outside your institution and team working as working with your immediate colleagues and line managers)
  • Self-motivated and conscientious
  • Able to plan, organise and prioritise work

It goes without saying that to gain an interview you must tick off in your CV and cover letter every single one of the essential and desirable person specifications. So early on in your PhD, start working towards achieving these things.

Publish, publish, publish

The most important thing on your CV, the currency by which positions are lost or gained, is your  publication record. So start thinking about this early. Can you write up your thesis by papers? Is that chapter publishable? If you did a Masters’, can you publish your dissertation? Starting by publishing in smaller, more local or national journals is a good way to gain experience before building up to more prestigious journals.

A good PhD thesis will usually result in 3-5 publications, although this varies widely and the journal ranking is also important (one Nature paper being equivalent to two or more papers in lower-ranking journals). If you can have a couple of a publications by the time you submit your thesis, this will convince your examiners that your thesis is of suffficient quality, and you’ll be well on your way to gaining that first post-doc. So start planning to write early, and aim to have a couple of papers published before your viva (remembering it can take a couple of years to go through the process from start to end).

Conferences

I would expect most PhD students to attend at least one major international conference during their PhD. Many professional organisations have funds available specifically to help PhD students attend these conferences, thus killing two birds (grant income and conference presentations) with one stone. Post-grad only conferences may be a good way to build a network and gain confidence, but really by your third year you should be presenting at significant conferences.

Network

Networking is an essential skill and it shows that you are collaborative. Networking simply means going to conferences and meetings and talking to people about your work. Not your friends – people you don’t know. You need to be brave! But buy that famous professor a beer (conferences are focused around beer), and tell him about your research. Without hope of reward or profit. And listen as he tells you about his research. Then have an interesting discussion about said research.

This is networking – it doesn’t mean going around handing out your CV and asking for a job. But networks are essential, and if said professor does land a grant that comes with a post-doc, or his colleague does, then maybe he’ll remember that interesting discussion and drop you an email.

It’s also important to build and maintain your network. Regularly go to conferences and field meetings and talk to people at each one. Get to know your colleagues and the eminent professors in your field. Become known as a confident, knowledgeable expert in field ‘X’. Every little helps.

A science blog may help you become established and recognised as an expert, promote your professional brand and be a useful networking tool. But it must not take the place of traditional scholarly outputs. It is an optional, additional extra, and nothing more.

Soft skills

The ‘soft’ skills will probably be developed as you progress along your PhD, but don’t forget to write down good examples for each as you go along. Balancing demonstrating, multiple research and grant deadlines and delivering a full thesis on time is a good example of being able to prioritise and organise work, for example.

Skills and expertise

A sound PhD should leave you with a broad skills toolkit. You do not want to be so highly specialised that you severely limit your later career options. What skills do job adverts frequently want? Try and broaden yourself during your PhD; take advantage of free training workshops and experiment with new techniques. A diverse skill set means that you can apply to more jobs, and thus increase your chances of success.

There is a danger of spreading yourself too thinly, and this comes down ultimately to a discussion between you and your supervisor.

Work with your supervisor

Your supervisor or line manager should be your mentor and should encourage you to do these things. It’s imperative to discuss your future career with them from an early stage, and to think together about what you can do to increase your chances of success.

Also remember that while it’s their job to help you write papers, it’s your job to actually write those papers. Successful academics are self-actualised, driven and self-motivated. If you want to finish your PhD with lots of papers, it’s you that has to write them.

A mentor who is outside your university or institution can be invaluable as they’ll be able to provide impartial, dispassionate advice. Gaining a mentor is often a consequence of networking, and they may be someone you worked with early in your career and who has taken an interest in you.

Alternative routes

The fixed-term lectureship

The post-doc position is not the only way to a satisfying, rewarding career. Many people go straight into fixed-term lectureships, often covering buy-outs or maternity leave. These positions may turn into permanent lectureships, thus by-passing the post-doc route on the way. A temporary lectureship can be a very satisfying career choice, and if you can push out a few papers and grants whilst you do it, then you’re in an incredibly strong position to bid for those permanent jobs. Don’t discount these jobs, and blindly sticking to the post-doc route without checking out your other options is very limiting.

If you fancy a more teaching-focused career and lecturing appeals, then there are plenty of universities that pride themselves on excellence in teaching. While papers, grants and conferences will still be essential to getting you an interview, a passion for teaching and learning is key to landing these jobs. Take every chance offered to teach during your PhD, and delve deep into the pedagogical literature. Write a teaching philosophy that outlines your idea of the perfect lecturer, and learn what buzz words like ‘active learning’ mean. Work them into your covering letter and be prepared to answer questions about how you’d address a room full of first year undergraduates.

The non post-doc post-doc

Another thing to remember is to not be too proud. You may have been the department’s rising star, you may have many papers, and you may not have a job. Don’t turn your nose up at jobs that you think are beneath you. There are often positions advertised at universities that do not require a PhD. This can include research assistants, editorial assistants, or any other jobs. Think of these positions as a way in, as a step on the ladder, as a foot in the door. You’ll gain valuable experience, contacts and networks that may just help you land your ideal position. Plus, you’d be getting paid, which is always a bonus!

Career planning

None of the above will just happen. You need a plan. Career planning means thinking about where you want to be in 5, 10 and 15 years time and thinking strategically about what steps you need to do to get there. You can’t just bury your head in the sand and hope for the best. Plan to achieve certain milestones and goals, and work towards achieving them. Revise the plan as you go along, updating it as your experience and plans evolve.

This is a classic interview question, so having a quick, ready answer is essential!

Applying for jobs

Apply early

Start applying for jobs in your third year, as you get within 6 months of completion. Keep an eye on the market long before that. Truth be told, you’re unlikely to be short-listed until after you’ve passed your viva. Some of these positions receive a hundred applications, and what easier way to reduce the size of the pile than to remove all those who haven’t passed their viva on the first sift? But applying to jobs gets you known, and if you get an interview then that’s invaluable practise. And you never know, you might just get it (and people do).

If you’ve been a diligent, well-organised PhD student, then hopefully you’re already clutching a handful of papers, grants and conference presentations by the time you submit. This is helpful for passing your viva (it shows that your work is internationally important, which is one of the criteria for passing your viva), but also increases your employability.

Be tenacious

To succeed in Academia, you need to have the hunger. You need to have the passion. You have to really, really want to do it. And if you really want it, you’ll have to work hard to get it. So once you hand in your thesis, even if it’s the last thing you want to see ever again, start working on writing up that next publication. These days, a good thesis will deliver 3 to 5 strong papers. So if you want to be competitive, that’s your target. Keep networking and applying and getting grants and going to conferences.

It can take time to get a post-doc. They do not come up very often and you may need to wait a while for a suitable position to become available. Patience is vital, but while waiting for the ideal position you can use your time wisely, writing papers and grants and doing more research.

Related to the above point, tenacity and resilience are key skills for the successful academic. Repeated attempts in the face of rejection are essential. So this means apply to lots of jobs, get lots of experience in filling in application forms and interviews, try again after each rejection, and eventually you will be successful. I wish I could say it was easier, and for some lucky people (right place, right time), it is. For the rest of us (and for me), the post-submission job-hunting time is difficult. But it can be very productive, in terms of writing papers and gaining experience.

Surviving unemployment

If you do suffer a period of post-submission unemployment, it’s important to remember three things.

  1. Don’t take rejection personally. They’re not rejecting you, it’s just that you weren’t an ideal fit to the department.
  2. Do something productive. During my period of post-submission unemployment, I volunteered with the local council, building fences and making paths. It was great to see the finished project at the end of the day – something I could touch. I had achieved something each day I built a fence (plus, when I buy a house it’s going to have a great fence all around it).
  3. Keep trying. Stubbornness, resilience, tenacity. Learn from your mistakes and ask for feedback, keep improving your interview technique, and keep adding to your CV (papers, papers, papers).

The fixed-term years

It is pretty unusual these days for people to secure a permanent lectureship at a research-intensive university before their early to mid-thirties. This means that most people (apart from a few lucky shining stars) will need a long apprenticeship with several post-doctoral or fixed-term positions before landing that dream job. This obviously requires flexibility and a willingness to relocate every few years. This can inhibit house-buying, child-rearing and make relationships difficult. There’s no easy answer to this and people must just do the best they can, and do whatever seems right at the time.

Some people may decide that the long period on soft money isn’t for them, and they want to leave and pursue other careers that come with more job security. Good for them. The only advice I can ever give to anybody is to do what you think makes you happy. For myself, I love what I do, I’m passionate about the science and I find my work incredibly rewarding.

From PhD Comics

From “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham. From PhD Comics

Please do share your personal experiences, thoughts and suggestions for early career scientists in the comments box below.

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3 thoughts on “How to get a post-doc

  1. I think there is some wonderful advice in this blog. I saw it via twitter on Thursday and I noticed a couple of places where I disagreed. I should point out that I don’t disagree with the advice but some of it won’t make sense to folks unfamiliar with the UK system and possibly folks who aren’t grounded in the academic idiosyncrasies of the Physical Geographer.
    My experience in the US is that very few Research 1) Ecology or ecology related departments will offer a tenure track position to someone without a postdoc. But because of the different cultures within Geography Departments hiring someone directly out of a PhD program does still happen.
    Is it better to do a postdoc? From my perspective – Yes for many of the reasons outlined in the blog post – you build a solid foundation and develop soft skills. You also broaden your options beyond Geography Departments. My training is in Botany and I’ve studied in groups that have categorized themselves as primarily “Plant Biology”, “Ecology & Evolutionary Biology”, “Atmospheric Sciences”, “Physical Geography” and “Natural Resources”. Each of these groups is a little different and each community has its own perspective and identity but in each place I researched much the same thing – plant eco-physiology and carbon cycling in ecosystems.
    Waiting for 3 years!!!
    For a US PhD student waiting for 3 years after starting a Postdoc is definitely NOT applying early. My postdoc advisor started sending me advertisements for permanent jobs 6 months after I started in his lab… and I am grateful for it. UK PhD graduates are usually MUCH younger than graduates in the USA. So spending 3 years as a Postdoc in the UK is not a bad idea.
    Some might find the advice “Work with your supervisor” a pretty odd phrase. In the UK students have a supervisor the PhD project is sometimes within a predefined funded project. The US system does not have ‘Supervisors’ (at least for ecology related fields). Instead US students are expected to spend the first year or so developing a project with the help of an ‘Advisor’.
    I guess I think that doing a PhD where you are ‘supervised’ and jumping directly into a faculty position where you are expected to be head of research group, mentor students and bring in external funding is like jumping into the Arctic Ocean with lead boots on – it is sink or swim and you’ll be lucky if you keep your head above water at the beginning.
    In doing a postdoc you age, you become a better scientist, you get exposure to some new aspect of science, learn how to mentor other and how to develop projects. It’s your opportunity to be more independent without the pressure to do it all right away.

    • Dave,

      Thanks, some great thoughts pointing out the differences between doing a post-doc in the UK and US, and in different fields. It’s clearly very field-specific, but it seems that whatever your discipline, a post-doc offers opportunities for professional and personal development.

      I should also point out that, certainly in Physical Geography, there are far more PhD students graduating than there are post-docs available. So people shouldn’t despair if a post-doc does not materialise immediately. They should explore other options (such as teaching fellowships or fixed-term lectureships; I know people who have great careers in good universities after going down this route), and remember that it may just be a case of being patient and waiting for the right opportunity to come along.

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