This article was first published in SDB e‑news, an electronic newsletter from the Society for Developmental Biology (link).
I think that one of the scariest parts of being President of the Society for Developmental Biology is coming up with topics for these editorials in the Newsletter. This time, however, I want to write about an issue that has bothered me for many years: how people apply for postdoctoral positions. In my experience most people (around 99%) apply incorrectly for their postdocs, and I suspect that many people do not get the postdoc that they want because of their applications. I’d like to change that situation.
So what do the 99% do that I feel is wrong? These applicants usually send a letter or email (either is fine) saying that they are interested in doing a postdoc and like the research done in the lab. Then they include their CV and the names of three references that can be contacted. Very little thought needs to be put into such applications, and they can be (and probably are) sent to tens if not hundreds of people. I am convinced that the usual reply to such letters is, “Sorry, I don’t have room for anyone else in the lab,” which is really a polite way of saying, “No.”
I think the application should be different, but what I have to suggest requires considerable effort. First, pick two people (or three if you are a masochist) whose work you want to be part of and read their published papers. (At this point you may decide that you not that interested in the research and can stop there.) Second, using the papers and maybe work that you have done for your graduate studies, think about the experiments you want to do. Then, write up these ideas into a two-three-page proposal that you can submit with your application.
Why is a written proposal so important? First, it shows a potential postdoc advisor how you think and what you are interested in. Second, it recognizes that your status as a postdoc is different from that as a graduate student, that you are taking charge of your career. Graduate students are learning how to be scientists; postdocs are colleagues (virtually every practicing scientist you talk to will say that their postdoc was the best part of their career and this is one of the main reasons). Third, it is a document that cannot be ignored. I don’t know anyone that is not impressed that someone outside their lab has thought about their research. (By the way, you can always add to your cover letter that you have based your proposal on published material and that you would be happy to think about other projects that the potential advisor may be working on.) Your ideas will be listened to. Fourth, it means that you are well on your way to having completed an application for funding (another way to show that you are taking charge). Finally (and I have to admit that this reason shows some selfishness on my part), it is your ideas. You may not have said something that your potential sponsor hadn’t thought of, but you came up with the ideas, not him or her. Because they are your ideas (and everyone loves their own ideas), you will work particularly hard to develop them once you are in the lab. Future advisors love this.
In keeping with what I have said about taking charge of your career, I would also add that the line “Here are the names and contact information for three references that can tell you about me,” that appears in most applications should be changed. As it stands the line tells a future employer that he or she needs to do some work. I suggest adding, “I have asked these people to write to you directly. If you do not hear from them in the next two days, please let me know so I can prod them.”
Will this work? I have suggested these steps to all the graduate students in my lab since I was a beginning assistant professor, and virtually every one got the postdoc they wanted. In two cases when graduate students needed to apply to labs in particular cities and happened to choose researchers who were about to move, both of the researchers called me up asking what they needed to do to convince my students to move with them. In one case, the researcher said, “I have never had an application like this,” supporting my contention that few people apply for postdocs this way. I don’t guarantee that following this advice will get you the one postdoc you really want, but I am sure that you will be listened to and in all probability interviewed. Best of luck.