Securing Your Dream Postdoc: Insider Tips and Strategies

As you approach the culmination of your PhD journey, the prospect of what lies ahead becomes increasingly pertinent. The question of whether to pursue a postdoctoral position invariably arises. If you decide to embark on this path, the next queries naturally follow: How does one secure a postdoc? When is the optimal time to apply? What prerequisites are necessary for the application? These inquiries commonly occupy the minds of graduate students nearing the conclusion of their doctoral studies. As a Principal Investigator, I’ve observed that many students grapple with these uncertainties, unsure of where to start. In this column, I will shed light on these questions, providing graduate students with valuable insights to start their journey towards securing an academic postdoctoral position.

The first step in this process is to fully recognize why you want to start a postdoctoral position. While there can be several reasons to start a postdoc some important points to consider are as follows. 

  1. Advanced Research Training: A postdoctoral position offers you the opportunity to further develop your research skills and expertise under the guidance of experienced mentors. You’ll have the chance to work on cutting-edge projects and gain hands-on experience in your field of study. Postdoctoral positions allow you to specialize in a particular area of research, refining your expertise and making significant contributions to your field. This focused training can enhance your professional profile especially if you want to start your own independent academic career.
  2. Networking and Collaboration: Joining a new research group or lab exposes you to a diverse network of peers, collaborators, and experts in your field. Networking during your postdoctoral tenure can lead to valuable collaborations, future job prospects, and lasting professional relationships.
  3. Career Advancement: For many academic positions, especially tenure-track faculty roles, a postdoctoral experience is increasingly becoming a prerequisite. A successful postdoctoral tenure is necessary for obtaining faculty positions and other senior research roles. Alternately if you want to pursue a career in industry, postdoctoral experience can allow you to expand your research skills and expertise that is better suited for industrial positions.
  4. Exploration of New Research Directions: Postdoctoral positions offer the flexibility to explore new research avenues and interdisciplinary collaborations that may not have been feasible during your doctoral studies. This exposure can broaden your research horizons and foster creativity.

Once you have made the decision to embark on this journey, your next step will be to search for postdoctoral job openings. Finding such positions demands a proactive approach. Here’s a refined guide on how to effectively hunt for postdoc opportunities:

  1. Online Resources: Begin by exploring reputable online platforms dedicated to academic job postings, such as the ASCB Job Board, Science Careers, Nature Careers, university job boards, scientific society job boards, and specialized postdoc databases. Websites like Indeed, LinkedIn, ResearchGate, and specialized platforms like often feature postdoctoral openings across various disciplines. While these websites offer numerous job listings, it’s advisable not to restrict yourself solely to these online sites. Additional approaches are described below.
  2. Academic Institutions’ Websites: Once you have determined the type of research you wish to conduct as a postdoc, begin compiling a list of labs you would like to join. You can create such a list by reading papers in your field of interest and selecting the labs that resonate with you the most. After creating this list, visit the websites of the universities, research institutes, and laboratories directly to search for advertisements for postdoctoral positions.
  3. Networking: Leverage your professional network within academia. Attend conferences, seminars, and workshops relevant to your field to connect with potential advisors and collaborators. Engage with professors, researchers, and peers to express your interest in pursuing a postdoc and inquire about available positions or upcoming opportunities. ASCB’s annual meeting, Cell Bio, hosts a career center where postdoc opportunities are posted on the notice board. You can approach the labs that post these advertisements during the meeting itself.
  4. Contacting Potential Advisors: Perhaps the most common and, if executed correctly, the most successful approach is to cold email the professors you are interested in working with. Identify researchers whose work aligns with your interests and expertise. Reach out to them directly via email expressing your enthusiasm for their research and your intention to pursue a postdoc under their supervision. Tailor your communication to highlight your qualifications, research interests, and most importantly how your expertise can contribute to their research program. More details are provided below.

Next you will need to determine the right time to start your search for postdoctoral positions. This will depend on various factors, including your career goals, research progress, and personal circumstances. However, there are some general guidelines to consider:

  1. Near Completion of PhD: Typically, graduate students begin exploring postdoc opportunities during the final year or towards the end of their doctoral studies. By this point, you should have made significant progress in your research and have a clear understanding of your career trajectory. I always advise my students to initiate the search when they start the final year of their PhD work. It is important to note that identifying suitable labs and crafting targeted applications requires time, so an early start is essential. Some principal investigators may express interest in hiring you upon application but may need time to secure funding for the position. Initiating your application process early allows both you and the PI ample time to secure funding for your role.
  2. Availability of Funding: Keep an eye on funding cycles for postdoctoral positions. Some fellowship programs or grants have specific application deadlines, so plan your job search accordingly to align with these timelines.
  3. Academic Calendar: Consider the academic calendar of the institutions or labs you’re interested in. Some research groups may have specific times of the year when they are more likely to recruit postdocs, such as after securing new funding or at the beginning of an academic semester. You can identify recently funded projects on platforms like NIH RePORTER or the NSF website and target labs associated with these projects.
  4. Personal Readiness: Reflect on your personal circumstances and readiness to undertake a postdoc. Consider factors such as family commitments, relocation preferences, and financial stability before committing to a new position. If you feel mentally and physically drained after your PhD work, it is fine to take a break for a few weeks to months before you start your postdoctoral work. You cannot start something this hard and labor intensive while running on empty.

To distinguish yourself from other applicants, it’s crucial to craft a compelling application. Here are some key considerations:

  1. Curriculum Vitae (CV): Revise your CV to showcase your academic background, research experience, publications, presentations, grants, awards, and pertinent skills. Emphasize your scientific accomplishments over technical skills, portraying yourself as an independent thinker capable of managing all facets of a project. As a graduate student, your publication record is a significant achievement. Not all your papers will be published by the end of your PhD; if so, mention papers under preparation without specifying potential journal names, as they hold little significance at this stage.
  2. Cover Letter: Draft a tailored cover letter addressing the specific postdoctoral position. Introduce yourself, outline your research background and interests, articulate your enthusiasm for the position, and demonstrate how your skills align with the research group’s objectives.
  3. Research Statement: Some positions may necessitate a research statement detailing your past research, current interests, and future aspirations. Use either the cover letter or the research statement to underscore your potential fit with the lab and your alignment with its research agenda.
  4. Contact Potential Supervisors: Reach out directly to professors via email, attaching your CV, cover letter, and research statement. Briefly introduce yourself, express interest in their research, and inquire about potential openings in their group.
  5. Gather References: Secure letters of recommendation from professors or researchers who can speak to your qualifications and potential for postdoctoral research. Ensure to request well in advance to allow letter writers sufficient time to craft thoughtful recommendations. Never list someone as a potential letter writer without explicit consent. A considerate approach is to request letters and providing your CV and research statement, enabling writers to produce detailed endorsements highlighting your abilities and suitability for the position.
  6. Complete the Application: If applying in response to a specific advertisement, meticulously address all requirements outlined. Submit all necessary documents in an organized, error-free manner, tailored to the specific position.

Lastly, prepare thoroughly for the interview. Most interviews will consist of a research presentation, one-on-one meetings with the professor and lab members, and with other department members as well. Remember, you are evaluating them just as much as they are evaluating you. Here are some tips to keep in mind:

  1. Prepare for Interviews: If you are shortlisted, make sure to prepare for the interviews. Familiarize yourself with the lab’s work and be ready to delve into discussions about your own research. Articulate your future research objectives and how they align with the group’s focus. Typically, you will receive a list of individuals you will be meeting with well in advance. Take the time to research their work extensively and highlight how you could contribute positively to their projects.
  2. Be Honest and Direct: Share your long-term career aspirations during the interview so the lab can assess if they are equipped to support your goals. These conversations will also help you gauge if the lab is the right fit for you. Interactions with other lab members will provide insights into the lab’s culture and your potential fit within it. Ask a variety of questions to make informed decisions about joining the lab. By asking questions, you are also demonstrating your seriousness and commitment to finding the right fit.
  3. Follow Up: If you haven’t received a response within a reasonable timeframe after submitting your application, consider following up with the contact person. Maintain professionalism and courtesy in all communications. After the interview, send a thoughtful thank-you note to everyone you met, expressing your interest in their work and the position.
  4. Be Persistent and Flexible: The postdoctoral application process can be competitive, so be prepared to apply to multiple positions. Remain open to opportunities in different locations or research fields that align with your expertise and career aspirations.
  5. Stay Organized: Keep track of deadlines, application requirements, and communication with potential supervisors or institutions.

With these suggestions, I trust you will find the postdoctoral search to be more manageable and rewarding. Do not be disheartened by setbacks; instead, view them as opportunities for growth and refinement. Each unsuccessful attempt serves as valuable feedback to enhance your approach for the next opportunity. Wishing you all the success on this exciting journey ahead. Best of luck!

About the Author:

Maitreyi Das is an Associate Professor at Boston College.