On Finding and Choosing a Postdoc

After years of working on your Ph.D. the end is finally in sight! You’ve weighed your options, thought about your career goals, and decided that a postdoctoral position is the next logical step for you. What now?

Finding a postdoctoral position can be a challenging and somewhat mysterious task. Unlike graduate admissions, which have a set process, application, and deadline, there are many different approaches soon-to-be PhD graduates can take to finding a postdoc position. A recent survey by MIT of postdoctoral researchers (350 responses/1500; Nov. 2020) detailed the myriad of ways that people found their way to MIT. Only 11% of respondents obtained their position by applying to a job posting. Instead, the majority of postdocs either cold-emailed a potential advisor (42% of respondents), were connected via their PhD advisor (25%), or had established a prior working relationship through conferences or collaborations (18%). While the survey was completed at MIT, these statistics reflect trends in the wider academic community, as captured by a long-term effort by NSF to track the health of postdoctoral communities through time.

Overall, these data suggest that most postdocs obtain their positions through informal interactions and loose professional ties, rather than formal job postings.  Drawing on our own experiences, and several interviews with current MIT CEE postdocs, we’ll use this post to provide some tips and tricks on how to navigate the search process and line up a postdoc that works for you.

How do I start looking for a postdoc?

Start checking those job boards!

While the majority of postdocs at MIT have found their positions through informal interactions (more on these in a moment), that doesn’t mean that formally listed postdoc positions don’t exist. This is particularly true for postdocs at federal agencies. Dr. Hannah Johlas, now a postdoctoral researcher with Prof. Mike Howland at MIT, experienced this more standardized process first hand: “While my eventual path to Mike [Howland]’s lab was less straight-forward, I did search and apply for job postings in national labs,” says Hannah. “The process felt much more like applying for a ‘normal’ job, where I looked for listings that fit and submitted applications, then interviewed as part of a formalized search.” Industrial postdoc positions may have similarly structured interview and application processes. If these kinds of positions interest you, searching job boards will be an important component of your postdoc search.

For other positions, we recommend talking to your PI, postdocs in your lab, and others in your network about what job boards/mailing lists/twitter feeds your community uses, and subscribing. Check regularly!

Work your network

Let people know that you’re graduating soon and are looking for a postdoc! For Dr. Johlas, the position she accepted was forwarded to her by a summer internship mentor; letting her network know she was looking was critical to the success of her search. Your advisor can be a great help in this, as their network is likely more extensive than yours, but there’s lots you can do on your own, too. Let collaborators know you are looking, and talk to grad students and postdocs in other labs—they may know of openings. If you’re active on academic twitter, post there, too. (As a side note, now is a great time to spruce up your professional digital identity.)

Conferences are amongst the most valuable opportunities for networking, and in fact many postdocs find their positions or first meet their postdoc advisor at a conference—even before they are officially looking. I [Victoria] met my current postdoc advisor at a Gordon Conference well before I had even considered scheduling a defense, and was able to draw on that connection later. If you’ve identified specific PI’s that you might like to work with (more on this in a moment), and you know they are attending an upcoming conference, you can reach out to them ahead of time to let them know you’ll be there and are interested in talking about postdoctoral opportunities.

The larger and more developed your network is, the more effective this approach will be. In fact, a well-developed professional network will benefit you in nearly any job search, not just the postdoc search. Therefore, developing your network should be a priority throughout graduate school. You never know who might point you in the direction of a great opportunity.

Identify specific scientists with whom you’d like to work (and reach out!)

Almost certainly, your postdoc search will involve reaching out to individual scientists who may or may not have postdoc positions posted publicly. There are two challenges associated with this task. The first is coming up with the list of scientists you want to contact, and the second is initiating that communication. Below, we’ll discuss both of these challenges in more detail. Mentors and advisors are an extremely valuable resource in this process. Many of the postdocs we talked to mentioned making a list of potential postdoc advisors with their PhD mentor as an early step in their postdoc search. Throughout this process, you should consider that a postdoc is an inherently temporary role. Therefore, your postdoc should be not just about the work you will do during that position, but about how it will set you up for your future career goals.

How do I make a list of potential advisors?

Scientific considerations

An important first step is to consider what kind of science you might like to do in your postdoc. Because you won’t necessarily apply only to listed positions, it is important to consider which labs are doing science that interests and excites you, not just which labs have open positions.  To answer this question, it may help you to ask yourself why you are doing a postdoc in the first place.

Some postdocs search for positions that are similar to the work they did in their Ph.D. This allows allows them to be a highly competitive candidate, and makes it easier to hit the ground running. This may be a valuable strategy for those who are looking to do a postdoc prior to seeking out a job in industry, since a “quick start” postdoc like this will allow you to accomplish a lot in a short time, publish extensively, and stay connected to your particular area of expertise.  For Dr. Johlas, who aims to work in industry, her postdoctoral position was particularly appealing because it offered the opportunity to work with an industrial partner on a project, and was a good fit for the skills she had developed during her Ph.D.

On the other hand, some postdocs see their new position as a chance to branch out and expand their expertise. For Dr. Hannah Kenagy, a NSF postdoctoral fellow who is jointly mentored by Jesse Kroll and Colette Heald at MIT, choosing the scientific direction of her postdoc came down to a philosophy that her Ph.D. advisor, Ron Cohen (UC Berkeley) shared with her: in your Ph.D., you learn how to do research. In your postdoc, you should take those skills and apply them in a different context to broaden your skill set and knowledge base. Consider what skills you have, and what skills you’d like to improve or gain. Dr. Kenagy laid out instrumental and modeling skills she wanted to learn during her time as a postdoc and sought out advisors that would help her. This strategy can be particularly useful for postdoc candidates who are considering an academic career. While it may take a bit longer to get going, doing a postdoc in an area different from your Ph.D. can allow you to develop an academic identity that differs from either of your advisors, and position you as a unique and independent scientist on the faculty job market.

Once you’ve begun thinking about the kind of science you’d like to do, you can start making a list. Think about papers you’ve read, that you’ve cited, or that have cited your work. Who are the PIs? Look at notes from conferences you’ve attended. Which talks were most interesting? Soon, you’ll have a list of scientists doing work that’s interesting to you and matches your scientific goals.

“Fit” considerations

In addition to finding a postdoc that is a good fit for your scientific interests, you should consider whether a position matches your expectations for mentorship and lab culture, and whether it works for you personally.

Mentorship style and lab culture can be challenging to judge during the application process, but conversations with potential advisors, as well as former and current lab members, can help.  In my own [Victoria’s] postdoc search, I appreciated that my advisor, Prof. Jesse Kroll, gave specific examples of his mentoring style, describing how he met with group members each week and making it clear to me that his number one goal as a postdoc advisor would be to find me a permanent job that was a good fit for my skills and interests. Dr. Kenagy specifically mentioned talking to former postdocs as being extremely valuable, as they have some distance from the lab and can reflect on their experiences in the group more objectively.  One advantage you have looking for a postdoc, compared to when you were looking for graduate mentors, is that you have likely learned more about yourself as a scientist, and what kind of mentoring relationships work for you. Taking some time to reflect on your experiences, expectations, and mentoring needs can be valuable as you undertake your search, and help you ask the right questions in those conversations.

While there is sometimes a prevailing attitude in academia that successful academics must be completely mobile, several of the postdocs we talked to also mentioned location as a significant factor in their postdoc decision.  Dr. Nikolai Radzinski, a postdoc in Penny Chisholm’s lab at MIT, inquired only about postdocs in the Boston area, out of consideration for his partner’s career and family connections to the area.  My own [Victoria’s] postdoc decision as well as my co-author’s, Meghan’s, were also influenced by proximity to family.  Ultimately, being in a location that is conducive to your happiness as a whole person is likely to help you have a successful postdoc experience, and there is nothing wrong with considering location during your postdoc search.

Practical considerations

In addition to personal and scientific fit, you should also consider, practically, how your postdoctoral experience will work. Most importantly, in our opinion, are the questions of timing (i.e. when you will start your position and how long you can expect to stay) and funding. Academic postdocs are typically funded via one of two broad mechanisms: either they are funded by the PI (typically through grants that include provisions for postdoc salary), or they are funded via their own fellowship (sometimes you will hear postdocs describe this as “having their own funding”).  Inevitably, some of the postdoc advisors that you reach out to expressing interest will not have funding available to support a postdoc. To give yourself the most flexibility in terms of choice of advisor and institution, as well as potentially make yourself more competitive for future positions, you may wish to apply to postdoctoral fellowships.

Fellowships available to postdoctoral researchers have widely varying subject focuses, requirements, and application deadlines; there are many resources available that list postdoctoral fellowships (including this fairly comprehensive list from Harvard). We recommend checking these lists as soon as you begin considering a postdoc; some of the application deadlines are well in advance of when the fellowship might begin. Thinking ahead is especially necessary if you think your postdoc project will require data collection or will be in a newer field of study. Meghan’s actually did a small pilot project in the fourth year of her PhD as a proof-of-concept that her project might work in anticipation of applying for a post-doc fellowship the year she finished her dissertation. If you do decide to write a postdoctoral fellowship application, the CEE Comm Lab can be a great resource for support.

While fellowships generally offer more flexibility (and look great on a CV!), it’s important to note that there may be some drawbacks. At certain institutions, for example, fellows may need to fund their own health insurance or cover their own research costs. It’s worth looking into the specific terms for postdoctoral fellows at any institution that you are considering as the host for your fellowship.

That said, it may be difficult to write a fellowship if you haven’t already landed on an advisor. The lab where you will work will often determine what kind of research you are able to do, and many fellowship opportunities require a statement of support from a possible advisor. Dr. Kenagy, who is an NSF postdoctoral fellow, started her first postdoctoral position before her fellowship funding was approved. She had an understanding with her advisor that if she did not receive the fellowship, she could still be funded via existing grants. If you are interested in applying to fellowships, you should mention this when you reach out to potential advisors.

How do I initiate communication with a potential advisor?

In general, initial communication is more likely to get a response if you have a connection, or have met a potential advisor in person. So, once again, working your network will be critical. Ultimately though, many of the initial contacts you make in your postdoc search are likely to be through cold or “cold-ish” emails. Below, we share four suggestions as as well as a template for these emails. Our suggestions are drawn from several resources, including this helpful Science article and this ASBMB article. Having trouble putting together a cold email for postdoc applications? Try making a Comm Lab appointment for help

  1. Be clear and be brief! PIs get a LOT of emails. So do them (and yourself) a favor, and get straight to the point. Make it clear who you are, why you are emailing, and what you want. Be polite, enthusiastic, and direct.
  2. Articulate why you are a good match. We’ve spent much of this post discussing how to choose a postdoc that is a good fit for you. Here, your job is to convince a PI that you are a good fit for them. What will you bring to the table? What do you want to learn from working in their lab? Your Ph.D. research may be somewhat different than your potential postdoc advisor—that’s ok! You can highlight transferable skills and potential overlapping interests.
  3. Do your research. Make it clear that you have researched the PI and you understand what they do. Perusing the lab website, reading 1-2 recent papers, and even talking to lab members (if possible) can help. As a bonus, doing this kind of research should make it easier to articulate why you are a good match. Note that this means that each cold email you send will take some time to put together: all the more reason to come up with a potential list of advisors carefully and thoughtfully. It is better to send compelling emails to a relatively small list of scientists that you would be excited to work with than to blitz out the same exact email to a long list you haven’t thought much about.
  4. Get the details right. Send emails from your institutional email address. Address PIs by their proper titles (Dr. or Professor). Spell their names correctly. Check spelling. Check grammar. Proof your CV before you attach it. Have a friend proof it, too.  Seriously, this is your first impression—it matters.

Cold Email Template

This is more or less the template [Victoria] used when reaching out to potential postdoctoral advisors. It was a successful approach: nearly all advisors I reached out to responded, even if it was to say they had no positions available. We hope it helps you get started on your own postdoctoral cold emails.

Paragraph 0: descriptive subject and polite salutation

Subj: Postdoctoral Opportunities in the X Group

Dear Professor X,

Paragraph 1: introduce yourself and explain why you are emailing 

My name is () and I am a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of (your department) at (your current institution), working with Professor (Ph.D. Advisor). We met last year at (conference, workshop, or meeting where you previously met PI, if applicable). I’m writing because I anticipate finishing my Ph.D. by (date) and am interested in exploring the possibility of a postdoctoral position in your group.

Paragraph 2: describe your accomplishments

My graduate work has focused on (brief description of your graduate research, including key achievements. Be sure to highlight transferable skills!)

Paragraph 3: Why is their group a good fit?What are you hoping to get out of your next position? Personalize this section!

In my next position I am hoping to (skills you’d like to gain, techniques you’d like to learn, or problems you’d like to explore). I’m extremely interested in (a particular project that seems like a good fit) and would be excited to apply (your specific skill set/training) to this work in your group.

Paragraph 4: Housekeeping and a clear ask.

I have attached a copy of my CV to this email for your review, and I’m happy to provide any additional information, including letters of reference upon request. If you anticipate having funding to hire a new postdoc in the near future, I’d appreciate being considered. I’d also be willing to work together to secure external funding.

Paragraph 5: Polite sign off

Thank you for your consideration and your time. I look forward to learning more about your group, and hope we can talk about available opportunities soon.



Happy postdoc searching, and good luck!