Sunday, September 13, 2015

10 tips for making postdoc applications (Part 1)

Around this time of year in the academic cycle, thousands of graduate students around the world will be starting to apply for a limited supply of short-term postdoctoral research positions, or 'postdocs'. They will not only be competing against each other, but also slightly more senior colleagues applying for their second or possibly third or fourth postdocs.

The lucky minority who are successful — and, as Richie Benaud once said about cricket captaincy, it is a matter of 90% luck and 10% skill, but don't try it without the 10% — will probably need to move their entire life and family to a new city, country or continent. The entire application cycle can last two or three months — or much longer for those who are not successful in the first round — and is by far the most stressful part of an early academic career.

What I'd like to do here is to provide some unsolicited advice on how best to approach the application process, which I hope will be of help to people starting out on it. This advice mostly consists of a collection of things that I wish people had told me when I was starting out myself, plus things that people did tell me, but that for whatever reason I didn't understand or appreciate.

My own application experience has been in the overlapping fields of cosmology, astrophysics and high-energy particle physics, and most of my advice is written with these fields in mind. Some points are likely to be more generally useful, but I don't promise anything!

I'm also not going to claim to know much about what types of things hiring professors or committees actually look for — in fact, I strongly suspect that there are very few useful generalizations that can be made which cover all types of jobs and departments. So I won't tell you what to wear for an interview, or what font to use in your CV. Instead I'll try to focus on things that might help make the application process a bit less stressful for you, the applicant, giving you a better chance of coming out the other side still happy, sane, and excited about science.

With that preamble out of the way, here are the first 5 of my tips for applying for postdocs! The next 5 follow in part 2 of this post.

1. Start early

At least in the high-energy and astro fields, the way the postdoc job market works means that for the vast majority of jobs starting in September or October of a given year, the application deadlines fall around September to October of the previous year. Sometimes — particularly for positions at European universities — the deadlines may be a month or two later. However, for most available positions job offers are made around Christmas or early in the new year, and the number of positions still advertised after about February is small to start with and decreases fast with each additional month.

This means if you want to start a postdoc in 2016, you should already have started preparing your application materials. If not, it's not too late, but start immediately!

Applying for research jobs is a very different type of activity to doing research, is not as interesting, requires learning a different set of skills, and therefore can be quite daunting. This makes it all too easy to procrastinate and put it off! In my first application cycle, I came up with a whole lot of excuses and didn't get around to seriously applying for anything until at least December, which is way too late.  

2. Consider other options

This sounds a bit harsh, but I think it is vital. My point is not that getting into academia is a bad career move, necessarily. But don't get into it out of inertia. I've met a few people who, far too many months into the application cycle, with their funding due to run out, and despite scores of rejections, continue the desperate search for a postdoc position somewhere, anywhere, simply because they cannot imagine what else they might do.

Don't be that person. There are lots of cool things you can do even if you don't get a postdoc. There are many other interesting and fulfilling careers out there, which will provide greater security, won't require constant upheaval, and will almost certainly pay better. Many of them still require the kinds of skills we've spent so many years learning — problem solving, tricky mathematics, cool bits of coding, data analysis — but most projects outside academia will be shorter and less nebulous, success will be more quantifiable and the benefits of success may well be more tangible.

If you have no idea what kinds of jobs you could do outside academia, find out now. Get in touch with previous graduate students from your department who went that way, find out what they are doing and how they got there. The AstroBetter website provides a great collection of career profiles which may provide inspiration. 

If after examining the alternatives you decide you'd still prefer that postdoc, great. But at least when you apply you won't be doing it purely out of inertia, and you'll have the reassurance that if you don't get it, there are other cool things you could do instead. And I'm pretty sure this will help your peace of mind during the weeks or months you spend re-drafting those research statements!

Image credit: Jorge Cham.

3. Apply everywhere

It's not uncommon in physics for some postdoc ads to attract 100 qualified applicants or more per available position, and the numbers of advertised positions isn't that large. So apply for as many as you can! It's not a great idea to decide where to apply based on 'extraneous' reasons — e.g., you only want to live in California or Finland or some such. 

Particularly if you're starting within Europe, you will probably have to move to a new country, and probably another new country after that. So if you have a strong aversion to moving countries, I'd suggest going back to point 2 above. 

On the other hand, you can and should take a more positive view: living somewhere new, learning a new language and discovering a new culture and cuisine can be tremendous fun! Even remote places you've never heard of, or places you think you might not like, can provide you with some of the best memories of your life. Just as small example, before I moved to Helsinki, my mental image of Finland was composed of endless dark, depressing winter. After two years here this image has been converted instead to one of summers of endless sunshine and beautiful days spent at the beach! (Disclaimer: of course Finland is also dark, cold and miserable sometimes. Especially November.)

So for every advertised position, unless you are absolutely 100% certain that you would rather quit academia than move there for a few years — don't think about it, just apply. For the others, think about it and then apply anyway. If you get offered the job you'll always be able to say no later.

4. Don't apply everywhere

However, life is short. Every day you spend drafting a statement telling people what great research you would do if they hired you is a day spent not doing research, or indeed anything else. If you apply for upwards of 50 different postdoc jobs (not an uncommon number!), all that time adds up.

So don't waste it. Read the job advertisement carefully, and assess your chances realistically. There's not much to be gained from applying to departments which are not a good academic fit for you.

When I first applied for postdocs several years ago, I would read an advert that said something like "members of the faculty in Department X have interests in, among other things, string theory, lattice QCD, high-temperature phase transitions, multiloop scattering amplitudes, collider phenomenology, BSM physics, and cosmology," and I'd focus on those two words "and cosmology". So despite knowing that "cosmology" is a very broad term that can mean different things to different people, and despite not being qualified to work on string theory, lattice QCD, high-temperature phase transitions etc., I'd send off my application talking about analysis of CMB data, galaxy redshift surveys and so on, optimistically reasoning that "they said they were interested in cosmology!" And then I'd never hear back from them.

Nowadays, my rule of thumb would be this: look through the list of faculty, and if it doesn't contain at least one or two people whose recent papers you have read carefully (not just skimmed the abstract!) because they intersected closely with your own work, don't bother applying. If you don't know them, they almost certainly won't know you. And if they don't know you or your work, your application probably won't even make it past the first round of sorting — faced with potentially hundreds of applicants, they won't even get around to reading your carefully crafted research statement or your glowing references.

Being selective in where you apply will save you a heap of time, allow you to produce better applications for the places which really do fit your profile, and most importantly leave you feeling a lot less jaded and disillusioned at the end of the process.

5. Choose your recommendations well

Almost all postdoc adverts ask for three letters of recommendation in addition to research plans and CVs. These letters will probably play a crucial part in the success of your application. Indeed for a lot of PhD students applying for their first postdoc, the decision to hire is based almost entirely on the recommendation letters - there's not much of an existing track record by this stage, after all.

So it's important to choose well when asking senior people to write these recommendation for you. As a graduate student, your thesis advisor has to be one of them. It helps if one of the others is from a different university to yours. If possible, all three should be people you have worked, or are working, closely with, e.g. coauthors. But if this is not possible, one of the three could also be a well-known person in the field who knows your work and can comment on its merit and significance in the literature.

Having said that, there are several other factors that go into choosing who to get recommendations from. Some professors are much better at supporting and promoting their students and postdocs in the job market than others. You'll notice these people at conferences and seminars: in their talks they will go out of their way to praise and give credit to the students who obtained the results they are presenting, whereas others might not bother. These people will likely write more helpful recommendations; they also generally provide excellent career advice, and may well help your application in other, less obvious, ways. They are the ideal mentors, and all other things being equal, their students typically fare much better at getting that first and all-important step on the postdoc ladder. Of course ideally your thesis advisor will be such a person, but if not, find someone in your department who is and ask them for help.

Somewhat unfortunately, I'm convinced that how well your referees themselves are known in the department to which you are applying is almost as important as how much they praise you. If neither you nor any of your referees have links — previous collaborations, research visits, invitations to give seminars — with members of the advertising department, I think the chances of your application receiving the fullest consideration are unfortunately much smaller. (I realise this is a cynical view and having never been on a hiring committee myself I have no more than anecdotal evidence in support of it. But I do see which postdocs get hired where.) So choose wisely.

It is also a good idea to talk frankly to your professors/advisor beforehand. Explain where you are planning to apply, what they are looking for, and what aspects of your research skills you would like their letters to emphasise. Get their advice, but also provide your own input. You don't want to end up with a research statement saying you're interested in working in field A, while your recommendations only talk about your contributions in field B.


That's it for part 1 of this lot of unsolicited advice. Part 2 is available here!


  1. There are often a couple of deadlines per year common to many, or even most, such jobs, and related deadlines when decisions will be made. Some institutes (you know who you are!) have their deadlines, particularly the second, a month or so before the others. So, you can't wait to see what offers you get and make a decision. I suggest boycotting these. Those applying for jobs are at a huge disadvantage compared to the employers anyway. If you get an offer from such a place then of course it is a big gamble to turn it down not knowing if you will get any other offers. Of course, if this is your first choice, it's probably better to take it, but when you are in a position to do so, try to get the institute to use the common deadlines. But if it's not your first choice, and you can't get them to wait longer on a decision, try to get a response from the other potential employers, saying you have an offer but might accept theirs if it is made. However, don't accept anything other than a written offer. Forget oral "it's only a formality" promises. Your employers might seem all-powerful for you, but they are as nothing compared to the funding agencies. If it is really only a formality, they can give it to you in writing. If there is really no risk, they can commit themselves to paying your salary if the funding falls through or, for whatever reason, another candidate is selected.

    Even if it is not the norm in your field (in which case it will be even more impressive), try to publish some single-author or at least first-author papers. At least, don't be too far down in the list. There is no standard, but usually, unless the author list is really long, the lower down in the list, the less work was done. (I have heard that in some other fields this is reversed.) Of course, this means doing the corresponding work first. Especially in borderline cases, for example when your references might not be well known, this can make a huge difference.

    1. In my experience, the majority of US institutions (especially on the HEP side) have a pact about not making prospective postdocs decide on offers before a set deadline sometime around the 7th of January. Most European institutions don't have such a pact, but also don't tend to get around to making offers until mid-January - or later.

    2. Right, this is what I was referring to. I think that the pact is a good thing, but some holier-than-though institutes try to increase their profile by demanding an answer before everyone else.

      It would be nice for a similar pact to come about in Europe, or indeed the world. However, in Europe, due to visas, languages, different customs, and so on, it is clear from the start that moving will be more complicated than in the States, so I think it is easier to put on the pressure if necessary to allow one to make an informed decision of various offers---the employers have to be somewhat flexible anyway.

    3. I completely forgot that there is another "pact": the AAS deadline is 15th February, much later than the HEP ones (so relevant for those cosmology positions leaning more towards the astro side). Some European, and particularly UK, universities follow this schedule too.

  2. Note: If your comment is long, save it first to a separate file, since there is a limit of 4096 characters!

    If you think you want to get out, get out early. This is good for the people who don't (yet?) want to get out, since if means one more position is available. Often, the people who are not really committed to academia end up getting hired, because the boss suspects that they will stick around, rather than moving onto another job, perhaps even before the current one has expired. (Many people see mobility per se as desirable, so many committed to academia try to move about. Of course, there are also people who move about because no-one wants to keep them, and people who stay in one place because they keep getting really good offers.) Also, they have no motivation to spend their time looking for the next job, so they will do more actual work. But it is also good for you. While a master's degree and, arguably, a doctorate might bring some skills needed outside of academia (though in the latter case it's often more just the prestige of the title, rather than actual skills), a string of post-docs doesn't provide much, if any, additional relevant training. Also, some employers hire young people as a matter of principle. (One reason is that they are more pliable. Another is the belief that they will work for substantially less, which is probably true compared to older people coming from similar jobs, but not to those coming from academia (who should be careful not to sell themselves too short---you can make a lot more outside of academia, but you are no longer doing what you really want to, at least in most cases).

    A good point about the importance of references and the fact that their status is also important. However, the status might be necessary but is not sufficient; Einstein was well known for writing essentially worthless recommendations, since he would recommend about anyone. Don't be afraid to introduce yourself to more famous people if you think that they should be interested in your work. They might have seen it already (some really do read, or are at least aware of, all papers) but if not, they might have missed it but be genuinely interested.

  3. The astrobetter link doesn't work. The site itself is there, but the blog entries are not. "Error establishing a database connection"

    1. The link is correct and does bring up the blog entries, but for some reason only works 50% of the time.

    2. Presumably, in another of Max's universes in the multiverses, it doesn't work 50% of the time. :-)

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