Sometimes the Book is Judged by its Cover (Letter)—Tips for Preparing Your Postdoc Package

Sometimes the book is judged by its cover (letter). Photo by Brittany Stevens.

Sometimes the book is judged by its cover (letter). Photo by Brittany Stevens

*This is part two of a four-part series on the transition from PhD student to postdoctoral fellow. You can find part one here and three here.*

A couple of weeks ago, I provided some tips on figuring out how to choose a good postdoc lab and scientific field of interest. The next step after choosing the labs you are interested in is to assemble a “postdoc package,” which generally consists of a curriculum vitae (CV) and cover letter. These items will allow you to introduce yourself to your potential future employer and will give them an idea of whether they should interview you. Throughout your time in assembling your package, you should ask your graduate advisor and others (faculty in your department, an on-campus professional development office, or the ASCB CV Review Assistance) to edit these documents. Below are some tips for assembling and sending your postdoc package.

  1. Contact and assemble your references.

All prospective postdoc mentors will require reference letters from faculty members who are familiar with your work ethic and know you well as a scientist. Prior to sending out your cover letter, you should contact two to three PIs in addition to your graduate advisor who are willing to write a letter and will speak well on your behalf. Potential candidates include members of your thesis committee, collaborators, and additional faculty in your department. When asking for a letter of reference, you should make sure that your referees have the time to commit to writing the letters and will be willing to send them out to your prospective labs when requested.

  1. Update your CV.

The CV is an overview of your academic accomplishments as a way to construct your scholarly identity and is usually two to three pages in length (for a recent PhD graduate). This document should be continuously updated to reflect any developments during your academic career. Below are some general components that are included in a CV. Each section is typically arranged in chronological order.

  • Education. In this section you should list your undergraduate and graduate school, majors, and graduation dates. Inclusion of your cumulative GPA for your undergraduate and graduate studies can be added, but is not usually required. In addition, you should include any outside courses that were taken that may have contributed to your education (e.g., the MBL Physiology course and CSH courses).
  • Research experience. Include your past experience as an undergrad, if applicable, and any science-related jobs that you may have had before or after your graduate studies (e.g., laboratory assistant or industry experience). In this section, you can include 1-2 sentences describing your work, techniques used, and expertise gained from each position.
  • Fellowships and awards. This section should mainly focus on awards and grants obtained during graduate school and beyond; however, undergraduate awards that are research related can also be included.
  • Publications. Include all publications that can be accessed from PubMed, including middle author publications from any point in your scientific career.
  • Presentations. This section should be limited to research talks. Inclusion of departmental journal clubs or course-related presentations is discouraged.
  • Poster presentations. Each listing should include the authors, title, at which conference the poster was presented, date, and location.
  • Students trained. Include all rotation students, undergrads, summer research program students whom you personally trained during your graduate experience. It is also nice to include details about the projects that these students worked on.
  • Teaching experience. Include the courses that you taught, were an assistant instructor for, or any guest lectures you may have presented. Alternatively, this section can be included along with the section describing the research students you have trained.
  • Society membership. In this section you can list the dates during which you have been a member of a society such as ASCB. In addition, participation in any committees or subcommittees that are a part of that organization should be noted with the dates and roles that you were active.
  • References. List your references and their contact information.
  1. Write your cover letter.

The cover letter introduces you to your future employer, highlights your research experience and skills, and gives you an opportunity to explain the goals and questions you would like to address during your postdoctoral fellowship. The cover letter should be limited to a single page and should keep your audience and objectives in mind throughout the document. Below are some tips for organizing a cover letter, although there are many different formulas work.

  • Opening paragraph. In the first paragraph you should introduce yourself (include your year in graduate school, institution, and graduate lab), indicate your expected graduation date, and state that you are inquiring about the possibility of a postdoctoral position in their lab.
  • Body of cover letter (paragraphs 2-3). In this section you should describe your research in terms of papers published with the major findings of those papers highlighted. End the summary of your research statement by summarizing the final part of your thesis and whether you expect to publish another paper before or shortly after graduating. You should also focus on telling the story of how you want to transition from graduate student to postdoctoral fellow. This can include a transition such as “my graduate work primarily focused on a, b, c; however, I realize that in order to understand x, y, z…” This section of your cover letter can also highlight skills that you have acquired, collaborations sought outside of your graduate lab, and any additional opportunities you have sought to broaden your research techniques and experiences.
  • Final paragraphs. This part of the cover letter should be tailored specifically to the PI you are writing to. In the final paragraph you should state why you are particularly interested in that PI’s laboratory for your postdoctoral studies. In addition, you can list fundamental questions you may have for that field of research and the questions you want to focus on and address during your postdoctoral fellowship. In addition, you can politely say that you look forward to hearing back from them (as a way to further discuss research opportunities) at their convenience and indicate any additional material (such as the CV) that will be included in addition to the cover letter.
  1. Email the PI(s)!

The final step after assembling and editing your postdoc package is to send it out to your potential postdoc advisors. Most PIs will request that the cover letter and CV be sent directly to their email address or the email address of their assistant. If the lab has a website available, make sure to look for this information on the “contact” or “opportunities” page.

Do you have additional tips for preparing the CV and cover letter? Let us know in the comments! Next week we will discuss how to prepare for the postdoc interview, questions you should ask during the interview, and give tips for choosing the lab that is the best fit for you.


About the Author:

Lesley Weaver is interested in understanding how multiple cells within a tissue communicate with each other to regulate cell proliferation and differentiation. Her doctoral studies were performed in the laboratory of Claire Walczak at Indiana University-Bloomington where she studied how mitotic kinesins are regulated to influence spindle morphology. She is currently a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Daniela Drummond-Barbosa at The Johns Hopkins University where they utilize the Drosophila ovary to understand how inter-organ and systemic signals influence oogenesis. Email:

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