Acquiring a Research-Oriented Post-doc

Graduate school doesn’t last forever, which means that as you approach your defense date you must also consider how to navigate an impending job market. For students interested in research careers, a logical next-step may be to acquire a post-doc, which affords more time after school to expand research skills. Although many psychology students now choose a post-doc as their next career move, the specifics as to how to actually land one are often unclear.

Because this process doesn’t need to be as mysterious as it usually is, below we’ve compiled some tips to help students navigate the post-doc market. Since we’ve already written on the topic of landing a health services psychology (HSP)-oriented post-doc, here we cater more to readers specifically interested in research-specific options.

  1. First, consider whether a post-doc is both right and necessary

 Post-docs are helpful as they offer dedicated time to invest in research. During this time individuals expand expertise, sometimes in new methods and populations. In addition, they may be offered opportunity to mentor younger scientists in the lab. However, while many advisers see the post-doc as the logical next stepping-stone in the careers of their students, don’t let the expectations of others guide you uncritically towards taking a post-doc. In short, ask yourself what your dream job is, and whether a post-doc is both right and necessary in helping you land that position. For instance, you may be more interested in teaching rather than research, in which case you may be better served by a teaching-focused post-doc. These differ significantly from research-only post-docs, as they focus on providing protected time for teaching. Alternatively, you may find that you have garnered enough experience in graduate school to land a faculty position, in which case the post-doc may be unnecessary. Finally, if industry, consulting, or other jobs considered outside the academy are what you’re after, these positions may not require or value time spent in a post-doc.

  1. When to apply

 There is no hard or fast rule on when you should apply for post-doc positions as their availability becomes public on a rotating basis. As a general guide, most graduate students start seriously looking for a post-doc one year ahead of when they expect to defend (if they have not already lined up a post-doc already). Note that some advisers may have already helped their students make connections early in their graduate career to facilitate this process, but don’t feel bad if you’re not in that boat – a lot of us are on our own! If you are the one deemed responsible for finding your own post-doc, consider that it will take time to search, meet PIs at conferences, and interview, so don’t wait until 2-3 months prior to defense to start. With that being said, it is not altogether unusual to see post-doc advertisements posted up to 1 month before a position is intended to start, so keep looking! A good tip is to look at your conference schedule one year out from defense and plan to network with potential employers at those venues.

  1. Be strategic

While you may want to go into the post-doc search with ambitions of applying everywhere to maximize your options, this may not be the best use of your time or energy. It’s okay to only apply to a handful of places. Be selective depending on what you and and your family needs, as narrowing down your search based on criteria listed below will help you maximize your ability to find a well-suited position.

  • Lab Demographics: Labs come in all shapes and sizes. A big lab with a recognizable name behind it may bring recognition, but it may also mean less time for mentorship and direct resources. In contrast, a small lab may give you more of these things but have less “hands-on-deck” for larger-scale projects. Consider your research needs and which of these scenarios is best-suited for you.
  • Research Domain: Some post-docs offer opportunity to research something entirely new, while others will be closely aligned to what you studied in graduate school. Pursuing either type has both benefits and drawbacks. For instance, you may want to expand your skillset to create a well-rounded research program. Alternatively, you may be better off staying in a focused area in order to maximally develop yourself as an expert in that domain.
  • Location: You will need to have a life outside of your lab so consider the city and region that surrounds the university. Can you envision yourself living in that place for a couple of years?
  1. Don’t limit your search to posted ads

Looking for a post-doc is a tricky endeavor, in large part because it is not as simple as applying for a job posted on the web. Rather, labs with open positions may advertise in a variety of ways: either by posting on their lab website, to list-serves, or by e-mailing colleagues. Even trickier, a PI may not know he or she wants a post-doc until a particular research need makes itself known, and may therefore only reach out to a select number of colleagues who specialize in that type of work. In order to present yourself as a possible candidate to all types of employers, make yourself visible at conferences, networking events, in the classroom, and in the halls of your University. Professors in your department may know colleagues looking for an up-and-coming post-doc, so converse with them to let them know you’re on the market. For other good tips on where to search for a post-doc, check out this more recent piece from the Monitor.

  1. Have completed writing samples ready

 It is not unusual for a PI to ask for a writing sample when considering you for a post-doc. The best case scenario is to have a published peer-reviewed article on-hand to send, or a manuscript draft that is in press, under review, or in preparation. While you may want to send a portion of your dissertation, consider that for most cases the writing sample should convey your ability to carry out a research project to completion. So pages of a dense review of the literature, which may serve as a worthy introduction to your dissertation, may not be the best fit. If you don’t have a completed manuscript ready, consider sending pieces of grant applications in the form of a research strategy. If unsure what would work best, ask the PI their preference, and be honest regarding whether the piece has been accepted for publication or funding.

While this list of tips is not exhaustive, and may not apply in all cases, we hope they do some good in helping you on the path towards securing a post-doc. If you have additional thoughts, be sure to share them in the comments below!

Author Bio

Jacklynn Fitzgerald, PhD currently serves as the APAGS Member-at-Large for Research and Academic Affairs. She is a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, Department of Psychology, where she studies the impact of psychological trauma on neural functioning during emotion and emotion regulation. Outside of the lab she considers ways training in psychological science can be improved, and is committed to advancing under-represented students in the sciences, particularly women. She can be contacted here.