Columns Opinion

The do’s and don’ts of finding a good postdoc

Ron Vale

Finding a good postdoc position is important for your career and also a challenge. Doing all or part of your postdoc overseas can be a very rewarding experience. The challenge is that good laboratories receive a large number of postdoctoral applicants, potentially even >30/year just from India and China alone. PIaces outside of these countries have relatively little understanding of the quality of the different institutes/universities in India and how to judge applicants. In the US, it is also a greater financial risk to accept foreign postdocs, since they are not eligible for many grants that require US citizenship. Don’t despair - many Indians obviously have found great postdoctoral positions and have done very well. However, you do have to present yourself in the best possible light and distinguish yourself among many applicants. Here are some pieces of advice to help your search.


DO

-Consult colleagues (faculty or even former students) on good laboratories to which you might apply.
-Start early. I find that many graduate students in India start applications too late, expecting to graduate, apply for postdoctoral positions and then find a good position in a couple of months. Many of the top laboratories are full and only have space in a year. Furthermore, many laboratories (even good ones) might want you to come with funding. The process of writing, applying, and actually receiving money might take 9-12 months in the best of circumstances.


The timing of when to apply can be tricky. You would like to apply early, for the reasons discussed above. However, you also will be in a much stronger position if you have one good paper published or in press. “In press” is certainly sufficient and you can time your submission once your major thesis paper is accepted.

-Accompany your application with a strong letter of recommendation from your advisor or other faculty member who is very familiar with your work. This letter should be sent separately from your advisor/faculty but should be received within a few days of your initial inquiry. This is very important and few applicants do this. Don’t expect your target laboratory to ask for letters of recommendations. Take the initiative and have at least one strong letter sent on your behalf . If your advisor/faculty KNOWS the PI to whom you are applying, this will be particularly effective (and a phone call can be even better). A good letter of recommendation might shift a “no” response to at least a “perhaps”, and that gets you in the game for a position in a competitive laboratory.

The “rule of thumb” is to list 3 people who can recommend you at the end of your CV, with their emails and phone numbers. As described above, I would recommend that at least one person (usually your advisor) sends their letter to the labs to which you are applying. You can have all three letters sent immediately, but if the postdoc advisor sees one strong letter upfront, then he/she may contact the other recommenders on their own or ask you to send more letters of recommendation. One strong letter also makes a better initial impression than 1 strong letter + 2 short/non-descript letters from people who do not know you well or are unwilling to put in time into your letter of recommendation. If you are planning to send one letter sent to the postdoc PI, you should state this in your email introduction and that “additional letters of recommendation will be forwarded upon request”.
-Get to know faculty other than your graduate student advisor. This could be a collaborator, faculty on your thesis committee or other faculty at your institute. This takes some effort to foster a relationship so that a faculty member really knows you and your work. Also, it can be difficult to get time with busy faculty members, but it is worth the effort. As discussed above, a future postdoc advisor will usually ask for more than one letter of recommendation before making their ultimate decision. Postdoctoral fellowships also often require 3 letters of recommendation. One strong letter is most important. But one strong letter + 2 additional excellent and detailed supporting letters increase your chance of landing your desired postdoc position and money to go with it.
-Write a well-crafted and specific email. Research the lab and indicate what things about that particular lab interest you and why you wish to work there. You do not want your email to sound like a “generic, mass email” (see Don’ts below). DO have your advisor or other senior mentor review and revise your email introduction and your CV for content, presentation style and English grammar.
-Spend time thinking about your postdoc field and specific labs. Read papers, discuss ideas with faculty and fellow students. See if you can learn anything through the grapevine about the reputation and atmosphere of the lab. If you get connected with and can call or email current or former postdocs from the lab, this might be helpful.
-If funds are available, attend and present your work at an international meeting. This can be a good time to learn about laboratories and fields of research as well as introduce yourself to scientists who you might consider for postdoctoral work.

Don’t

-Address your email as “Dear Sir” but rather as “Dear Professor Smith”. Dear “Sir” is polite, but it sounds like a desperate, massive email mailing sent to 100 laboratories. Many good labs will immediately ignore it and not read on.
-List a bunch of technical skills that you can do, especially if they are trivial like PCR, Western blotting, in situ hybridization. This sounds like a job for a technician, not a serious postdoc. You also probably do not want to work in a lab that is attracted to you because they want to treat you like a technician. You can mention special skills that you have briefly, but rather emphasize your intellectual interests and future goals.
-Give up after not hearing back after one email. If there is a special laboratory that you are keen on, I would recommend 1) sending a hard copy letter and print out of your papers, and 2) following up ~3 weeks later with a second email. All investigators get a billion emails these days and it is very easy for any single email to get lost in their massive in box. You do not want to be annoying, but sending a polite second email saying that you are resending in case they did not see the first one and that you are “particularly interested” in their lab and looking forward to hearing from them is okay.
-Accept a postdoctoral position without first visiting the lab. This is my opinion since there is a possibility that it could be a terrible mismatch and make you unhappy. I always interview postdocs before accepting them. Some laboratories might accept you with a phone interview or just from looking at your CV (I would be most wary of this). If you are accepted without a personal interview, I would still recommend that you request a visit to the lab. You might gently ask if the laboratory could fund or split the cost of visit so that you could discuss projects and meet people in the lab. If they say “no” to even partial reimbursement (which would make me a bit worried), then I would still see if you can scrape together funds for a discount flight and make the trip.
-Worry about finding the “perfect” field or the “hottest” field for doing your postdoc. Fortunately, there are many wonderful areas to research in biology. Also, what you think is hot today, may not be so tomorrow. Rather, find subjects that truly motivate you. Being motivated is the single most important factor for increasing your chance of success. If you are interested in a couple of very different fields, no worries - apply to labs in both fields. The application process and interviews (if you get them) might help you in your decision.