Thursday, September 17, 2015

10 tips for making postdoc applications (Part 2)

This post is part 2 of a series with unsolicited advice for postdoc applicants. Part 1, which includes a description of the motivation behind the posts and tips 1 through 5, can be found here.


6. Promote yourself

This sounds sort of obvious, but for cultural reasons may come easier to some people than to others. I don't mean to suggest you should be boastful or oversell yourself in your CV and research statement. But be aware that people reading through hundreds of applications will not have time to read between the lines to discover your unstated accomplishments — so present the information that supports your application as clearly and as matter-of-factly as possible.

As a very junior member of the academic hierarchy, it is quite likely that nobody in the hiring department has heard of you or read any of your papers, no matter how good they were. They are far more likely to recognise your name if you happen to have taken some steps make yourself known to them, for instance by having arranged a research visit, given a talk at their local journal club or seminar series, initiated a collaboration on topics of mutual interest, or simply introduced yourself and your research at some recent conference.

Organisers of seminar series and journal clubs are generally more than happy to have volunteers help fill some speaking slots — put anxieties to one side and just email them to ask! And if they do have time for you, make sure you give a good talk.

7. Know what type of postdoc you're applying for

There are, roughly speaking, three different categories of postdoc positions in high-energy and astro (and probably more generally in all fields of physics, if not in all sciences).

The first category is fellowships. These are positions which provide funding to the successful candidate to pursue a largely independent line of research. They therefore require you to propose a detailed and interesting research plan. They may sometimes be tied to a particular institution, but often they provide an external pot of money that you will be bringing to the department you go to. They are also highly prestigious. Examples applicable to a cosmology context are Hubble and Einstein fellowships in the US, CITA national fellowships in Canada, Royal Society and Royal Astronomical Society fellowships in the UK, Humboldt fellowships in Germany, Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellowships across Europe, and many others.

The second category is roughly a research assistant type of position. Here you are hired by some senior person who has won a grant for their research proposal, or has some other source of funding out of which to pay your salary. You are expected to work on their research project, in a pretty closely defined role.

The third category is a sort of mix of the above two, which I'll call a semi-independent postdoc. This is where the postdoc funding comes from someone's grant, but they do not specify a particular research programme at the outset, giving you a large degree of independence in what work you actually want to do.

Image credit: Jorge Cham.

When you apply, it is imperative that you know which of these three types of positions the people hiring you have in mind. There is no point trying to sell a detailed independent research plan — no matter how exciting — to someone who is only interested in whether you have the specific skills and experience to do what they tell you to. Equally, if what they want is evidence that you will drive research in your own directions, an application that lists your technical skills but doesn't present a coherent plan of what you will do with them is no good.

Unfortunately postdoc ads don't use these terms, so it is generally not clear whether the position is of the second or third type. If in doubt, contact the department and find out what they want.

Also, even when the distinction may be clear, many people still produce the same type of application for all jobs they apply for in one cycle. I know of an instance of a highly successful young scientist who managed to win not one but two prestigious individual fellowship grants worth hundreds of thousands of Euros each, and yet did not get a single offer from any of non-fellowship positions they applied to! So tailor your applications to the situation.

8. Apply for fellowships

Applications for the more prestigious fellowships require more work — a lot more work — than other postdoc applications. They will require you to produce a proper research proposal, which will need to include a clear and inspiring outline — of anything between one and twenty pages length — of what you intend to do with the fellowship. This will take a long time to think of and longer to write. They will probably require you to work on the application in collaboration with your host department, and they may have a million other specifically-sized hoops for you to jump through.

Nevertheless, you should make a serious attempt to apply for them, for the following reasons.

  • Any kind of successful academic career requires you to write lots of such proposals, so you might as well start practising now.
  • Writing a proposal forces you to prepare a serious plan of what research you want to do over the next few years, which will help clarify a lot of things in your mind, including how much you actually want to stay in the field (see point 2 again!). 
  • You will often write the proposal in collaboration with your potential host department. This makes it far more likely that they will think favourably of you should any other opportunities arise there later! For instance, I know of many cases where applicants for Marie Curie fellowships have ended up with positions in the department of their choice even though the fellowship application itself was ultimately unsuccessful.
  • Major fellowship programmes are more likely to have the resources and the procedures in place to thoroughly evaluate each proposal, reducing the unfortunate random element I'll talk about below. Many will provide individual feedback and assessments, which will help you if you reapply next year.
  • Counter-intuitively, success rates may be significantly higher for major fellowships than for standard postdoc jobs! Last year, the success rate for Hubble fellowships was 5%, for Einstein fellowships 6%, and for Marie Curie fellowships (over all fields of physics) almost 18%. All of these numbers compare quite well with those for standard postdoc positions! Granted, this is at least partly due to self-selection by applicants who don't think they can prepare a good enough proposal in the first place, but it is still something to bear in mind.
  • Obviously, a successful fellowship application counts for a lot more in advancing your career than a standard postdoc.

9. Recognize the randomness

Potential employers are faced with a very large number of applications for each postdoc vacancy; a ratio of 100:1 is not uncommon. Even with the best of intentions, it is just not possible to give each application equal careful consideration, so some basic pre-filtering is inevitable.

Unfortunately for you, each department will have its own criteria for pre-filtering, and you do not know what those criteria are. Some will filter on recommendation letters, some on number of publications, some on number of citations. (As a PhD student I was advised by a well-meaning faculty member at a leading UK university that although they found my research very interesting, I did not yet meet their cutoff of X citations for hiring postdocs.) Others may deduce your field of interest only from existing publications rather than your research statement — this is particularly hard on recent PhDs who may be trying to broaden their horizons beyond their advisor's influence.

Beyond this, it's doubtful that two people in different departments will have the same opinion of a given application anyway. They're only human, and their assessments will always be coloured by their own research interests, their plans for the future of the department, their different personal relationships with the writers of your recommendation letters, maybe even what they had for breakfast that morning.

You can't control any of this. Your job is to produce as good and complete an application as possible (remember to send everything they ask for!), to apply to lots of suitable places, and then to learn not to fret.

10. Don't tie your self-esteem to the outcome

You will get rejections. Many of them. Even worse, there will be many places who don't even bother to let you know you were rejected. You will sometimes get a rejection at the exact same time as someone else you know gets an offer, possibly for the same position. (Things are made worse if you read the postdoc rumour mills regularly.)

It's pretty hard to prevent these rejections from affecting you. It's all too easy to see them as a judgement of your scientific worth, or to develop a form of imposter syndrome. Don't do this! Read point 9 again. 

I'd also highly recommend reading this post by Renée Hlozek, which deals with many of the same issues. (Renée is one of the rising stars of cosmology, with a new faculty position after a very prestigious postdoc fellowship, but she too got multiple rejections the first time she applied. So it does happen to the best too, though people rarely tell you that.)


That's it for my 10 tips on applying for (physics) postdocs. They were written primarily as advice I would have liked to have given my former self at the time I was completing my PhD.

There's plenty of other advice available elsewhere on the web, some of it good and some not so good. I personally felt that far too much of it concerned how to choose the best of multiple offers, which is both a bit pointless (if you've got so many offers you'll be fine either way) and really quite far removed from the experience of the vast majority of applicants. I hope some people find this a little more useful.


  1. With regard to self-promotion, I used to think that including a photo of oneself in the application is a bad idea. Applying for a job as a porn actor? Yes, a photo is appropriate. But as a scientist? Anyone who lets that influence their position is not someone I want to work for. However, I no longer think so. Sure, scientists shouldn't be hired based on looks, but there are other uses for a photo. For example, someone might have seen you give a talk and remember the face but not the name. This might tip the scales in your favour in borderline cases. Related to this, try to stand out when giving a talk. You don't have to be Syksy Räsänen, but something to set you off from the crowd might help. (I'm finally perfecting my Tycho-Brahe-style beard, for instance.) Alternatively, sometimes a few people are invited to give talks, then after the talks people look at the applications again. A photo can again associate the talk to the application. Of course, in both cases this assumes that your talk is good. :-|

  2. Isn't impostor syndrome almost the reverse of what you are describing? You say one shouldn't let the rejection get one down, i.e. not let the lack of success cause one to underestimate one's own worth. With impostor syndrome, one underestimate's one worth, but because one thinks one has had too much success.

    1. I believe imposter syndrome is generally used to describe situations when you underestimate your worth in spite of evidence to the contrary (e.g., your publications) because you think everyone else around you is even more successful (other postdocs rarely mention how many rejections they received). That's the sense in which I used it anyway.

    2. Right, but if this is a reaction to rejection, then there is no evidence to the contrary! Impostor syndrome would be getting the prestigious fellowship and thinking "Hey, I don't really deserve this great fellowship", whereas the reaction from rejection would be "Hey, I don't deserve this rejection". Yes, there is evidence to the contrary in, say, publications, but the syndrome is a reaction to getting the job, or not.

      Obviously, if one thinks that one doesn't deserve one's success, one probably thinks that colleagues are better, but the success is essential to developing impostor syndrome, i.e. it can happen only after getting the job, not getting the rejection.

      In the case you describe, yes, if there are publications which are evidence of worth, but also a rejection, then one could underestimate oneself (didn't get the job) despite the evidence of worth (publications), but that is not impostor syndrome. Being an impostor implies that one is not really suited to one's role, but that requires a roll, i.e. getting a job.

      Check out Peter Coles's blog post on this.

    3. You seem to have missed the point I was making, which is that receiving a rejection is not evidence of lack of scientific worth at all.

      For someone still waiting anxiously for that crucial email in February, it may seem that the rejections they have so far received are because they are inferior scientists. That's not necessarily true. It's also easy to overestimate the success of your peers who are also on the job market because everyone else plays up their successes and doesn't mention their failures (especially on the rumour mills). But even the best candidates receive scores of rejections and only a very few offers, as I think both Renée and I are trying to make clear.

    4. "You seem to have missed the point I was making, which is that receiving a rejection is not evidence of lack of scientific worth at all."

      I understand (and agree with) your point. I just think that this is not what is usually called the impostor syndrome; I think most people use it in the sense described in Peter's blog post. In both cases, one overestimates the abilities of one's peers and/or underestimates one's own abilities. But the impostor syndrome can only happen if one is in the same situation the peers are, i.e. the job application was successful, but one nevertheless feels inferior, hence an impostor. (If I were to pretend to be, say, a surgeon, but am not, so I am an impostor, then of course my "peers" have more surgical abilities than I do, because I am an impostor.) The impostor syndrome is when one feels this way but actually one isn't inferior to one's peers, i.e. the objective data are comparable (which isn't the case if one doesn't have a job offer and everyone else does).

  3. "having arranged a research visit, given a talk at their local journal club or seminar series, initiated a collaboration on topics of mutual interest, or simply introduced yourself and your research at some recent conference"

    Also, try to give contributed talks at conferences. If you have a poster presentation, put a photo of yourself on it. If there is a poster session, be there!

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  5. Few of these tips are appropriate but it varies. Because for some osts you must have to paste your photograph but otherwise it's not mandatory.

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