Many doctoral students close to finishing their program often wonder about how to find a postdoc, as beneficial opportunities may not be immediately available to them. What they will be doing after getting their degree tends to be a source of anxiety for upper year PhD students. The stress of learning can be tough due to an ever-changing higher education landscape. Thankfully, there are still options for students looking for a postdoc position in research or even teaching, provided they put the time into hunting for them. Knowing where to look and how to steadily increase your odds is half the battle.
This article outlines helpful tips for how to maximize your chances of finding a postdoc by bolstering your application and effectively utilizing your connections.
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It can definitely be a challenge to find a postdoc position. The number of postdoc and career opportunities for doctoral graduates is not immediately obvious, which could make you ask in the first place. When you’re wondering about how to find a postdoc, it may be useful to think about why it may be difficult to find one. To summarize, the higher education landscape is in the midst of a shift for multiple reasons, including world events, generational priorities, and job prospects, among others. More access to education has led to a higher number of doctorate degrees being earned, which is a positive change, but this remains one of the factors that result in fewer available postdoc positions. Even though there are various ways to learn , academic-adjacent jobs are simply not as much of a reliable option for doctoral graduates. This is especially true when looking for a stable, tenure-track teaching role or some other permanent position. These unfortunate circumstances then affect the type and number of post-doctoral fellowships or positions available for recent graduates.
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Due to this, many PhDs are making the move to figure out . In recent years, these individuals have selected industry, non-profit, and government positions over those in the academic sphere. Keeping this in mind, how competitive is the postdoc job market? While postdocs are not the only opportunity available for students who finish their PhD, they are one of the most common pathways. Recent studies indicate that, when taking an average of several disciplines, about 39% of doctorates received postdoctoral commitments. The exact percentages and rates depended on the discipline. For instance, 59% of both life sciences and physical/earth sciences graduates find postdoctoral opportunities. Psychology/social sciences and engineering also have results that meet the average or are just below it. Meanwhile, a field such as education only has about an 8.5% success rate, meaning that it is much more difficult in this field.
The above statistics show that while it is not impossible to get accepted to a postdoc fellowship, there are some obstacles in your way. Your chances can fluctuate depending on your discipline and how many opportunities are available to you. Therefore, it is a mixed bag, but you are never truly guaranteed a postdoc position no matter what your discipline is. You may even decide that a postdoc is not the best decision for you once you spend time looking into it. Revisit any previously written to get more ideas about your aspirations for your future. If you are dead set on a postdoc to achieve your goals, knowing how to find one and where to turn your focus when looking for a position after graduation can make all the difference.
Now that you’re more aware about the limitations to finding a postdoc fellowship or research position, here are some helpful tips for how to maximize your chances at securing one:
1. Get Started Early
As with any new life chapter, it is always better to get started early to prepare yourself. In the final year of your PhD, you should start looking at potential positions to know what opportunities will be out there for you once you graduate. If you think you will need funding as well, it is never too early to see what your options may be or apply for grants or bursaries.
Start having conversations with other PhDs in your cohort or anyone you know who has already gone through the process of searching for postdoc opportunities. Keep in touch with a to get some help with planning your approach to getting a postdoc. Further, you can put together lists of topics you are interested in, academics you follow, or projects you would be interested in working on. Depending on your field, you may also want to gain more research experience ahead of time. For example, graduates with PhDs in scientific fields can find a temporary position in a lab to further improve their application.
2. Broaden Your Horizons
It is important to avoid being too restrictive when searching for a postdoc opportunity. Having broad standards and opening yourself up to positions outside of your exact scope will raise your chances. The goal of your postdoc should be to expand your knowledge, so it can be greatly beneficial for you in the long run to keep your options as open as possible. You may need to be okay with a position outside of your direct specialty that is still relevant to your field as a whole. You may also need to consider international positions or those in another region of your own country, as sticking to opportunities near you might be too limiting.
3. Search Online Resources
As you search for postdoc opportunities, you will likely need to become familiar with databases and web platforms and scour through them diligently throughout the whole process. There are a few types of resources that could be of use to you, depending on your situation and discipline:
4. Secure Funding
Being able to secure funding is very important for postdoc research or fellowship positions, as you will have a better chance of being accepted if you bring in money as well. For jobs that do not come with their own payment plan, having your own funding can secure your spot. Funding can also perhaps lead to more independence and academic freedom in pursuing your own research. If you are being paid for a specific research opportunity, what you work on will likely be determined by whoever hired you. Finding grants or other funding can be done in a variety of ways, but external funding from a government or private source is ideal. Some schools will also offer postdoc funding or have resources where you can find out more about available options. For instance, from the University of Waterloo details their postdoc funding opportunities, both internally and externally.
5. Tailor Your Application
One of the most important ways to increase your chances is to tailor your application to each position you are applying to as much as possible. The different documents and materials you submit should speak to each other and clearly indicate why you are the right candidate for this position, in particular. Using the same cover letter or other application materials may not be specific enough and will not have the desired effect. Use terminology from the posting throughout your application documents to match the qualifications necessary for the role – but make sure to put qualities and qualifications in your own words. You may already have experience doing this for previous positions, so it is all about employing that same concept in your postdoc applications.
Some postdoc fellowships will include a number of requirements as part of the application, while others may be simpler. You could be asked to submit a , an academic CV that details your educational experience, a research proposal, or a research statement and references. Double-check what you need for each position so that you do not send in any unnecessary materials.
In the documents you write up, know what you want to achieve and express it plainly. For instance, in any cover letter or motivation letter, highlight how any work you have completed during your PhD is relevant to this new work opportunity. Use the letter to make a connection between your current expertise and what you can learn throughout the postdoc. This will be similar to a you may have written in the past, but will evidently be geared toward the specific postdoc opportunity, rather than a doctoral program.
When it comes to research, always be thinking about current gaps in scholarship and how your work will interact with those gaps. The research proposal or should indicate what you plan to do with your postdoc opportunity from a research perspective and how you plan to fill in those gaps. Explicitly describe how this research opportunity will further your career and what you can contribute to the field. Meanwhile, your references should be persuasive, have expertise in the field, and be able to vouch for your candidacy for the position at hand. You may be accustomed to asking for , so this process should not be too difficult if you had close relationships with your supervisor and other department faculty during your PhD.
6. Use Your Connections
For academics and other types of professionals, connections are everything. The people you meet and the opportunities you receive can have a lasting impact on the future of your career. There are mainly two types of connections that will be crucial to finding a postdoc in the current climate of the job market:
7. Interview Prep
There is a common misconception that you cannot prepare for an interview or that “being yourself” is enough to secure a job or acceptance to a competitive academic program. Just like any other interview, you can prepare yourself for a postdoc interview. Reviewing and learning how to answer them will be crucial to your success. Become familiar with various question types and develop strategies for how to approach each one. Practicing through a mock interview with a trained professional is always a good way to test your skills.
Naturally, your prep could also be specific depending on your discipline; for example, you might use if you want to work in health care. The interview stage is one of the final parts of the process before you're officially accepted. How you express yourself in the interview can make or break whether or not you end up finding a postdoc. Honing your interview skills can be extremely useful not just for postdoc applications, but throughout your entire professional life.
Finding a postdoc is not easy, but likely neither has been every other part of your journey so far. Earning a PhD is a great accomplishment, and you should be very proud of yourself. That being said, there is still more work to be done. If you are having doubts about your ability to secure a postdoc position, it is time to go back to basics. Recall what you have previously written in your and remember the reasons you initially applied to complete a PhD. This may also be the time to consider whether you want to pursue a postdoc at all. It’s okay to decide after researching your options that a postdoc is not in the cards for you. With a PhD in your pocket, there are a plethora of other careers, whether academic or not, that could potentially interest you. There is a whole world out there for you to explore, and this is just the beginning.
1. What kind of postdoc positions exist?
There are a few different types, with a research-focused position at an academic institution being the most common. Postdocs could also refer to industry, government, or non-profit positions.
2. Why do PhD graduates look for postdoc positions?
A postdoc position is usually considered a bridge between PhD studies and a full-time career. While working on research that interests them or in support of another scholar, the applicant receives beneficial experience that can lead to greater professional opportunities in the future.
3. Why might postdoc positions be difficult to find?
One of the main reasons is that postdoc positions are usually very specific and deal with particular research interests that will not be relevant to most scholars. There are also more PhDs being earned, which can lead to fewer postdoc positions being available. Academic jobs are becoming less of a viable option for those getting their doctorate degrees.
4. What are some concrete measures I can take to improve my chances at getting a postdoc?
Getting started early and being open to a variety of positions is key. The earlier you begin searching and preparing to apply for postdocs, the more you will know what to expect. Not being too selective with positions will give you a better shot at finding one that can benefit your career.
5. How do I expand my network and make more connections as an academic?
Simply reaching out to people is a great way to connect, or you can get to know the connections of your connections to make them yours as well. Conferences, talks, and other events also tend to bring academics together. You can use them to your advantage to build more relationships with scholars in your field.
6. How do I best prepare for a postdoc interview?
As in , using mock interviews and receiving personalized feedback will improve your interview performance. This way, you can prepare basic answers ahead of time and learn strategies to better respond to postdoc interview questions.
7. What kinds of questions will I be asked in a postdoc interview?
You can usually sort the questions you will be asked into several different categories. They can be personal or background questions, questions related to your professional experience or previous work, questions specifically about the role you are applying for, and questions about your particular skills and qualifications.
8. Who else can help me with finding a postdoc position?
There are who are also well-versed in this area or have done it themselves in the past. Academic consulting services can help with career prospects, applying to postdocs, and getting into graduate school.