Navigating the Academic Postdoc Job Market

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Almost exactly one year ago, in July of 2022, I defended my Ph.D. thesis in physics. After the grueling pace of the first four years, the last two years of my Ph.D. flew by, and before I knew it I was in a precarious situation: I had to find a job soon in order to avoid violating U.S. student visa requirements.

2022 had been a very hectic year, and despite my best efforts I had not made sufficient progress on figuring out what I wanted to do next: industry or academia? What about national labs? How much longer can I make do with meager academic wages? Do I really want to put myself through the hellscape that the academic job market often seems to be? Are my skills marketable to the industry? What about life outside of work? What do I want to do with my life, anyway?

Post-COVID economic realities, hiring freezes, personal life uncertainties and impostor syndrome did not help. At some point along the way, I decided to only look for academic postdoc positions. While that clarity helped simplify the search, it didn’t make finding a suitable position any easier. I still had to grapple with the fact that the postdoc job market is very disorganized, that most cold emails to PIs do not get a response (despite what their website says), that start dates aren’t always flexible enough to fit my visa requirements, that postdoc pay at top universities is often (counter-intuitively) quite poor, etc.

By the time August rolled around, I was fortunate enough to have an offer or two at hand, and I eventually ended up at a position that checked most boxes just in time to avoid visa compliance issues. I hope to not look for another postdoc position after my current one, but I thought it would be useful for me to write down some thoughts and advice while this whole experience is still fresh in memory. So here goes.

What to look for in postdoc positions

First, a non-exhaustive in-no-particular-order list of things to look for and be mindful of as you look for and interview for positions.

Pay & benefits, organizational and union support

A postdoc working group at the NIH recently conducted a study that concluded that the most pressing issue for academic postdocs in the U.S. today is pay & benefits. This is an especially urgent issue for postdocs that live in areas with high (and rising) cost of living and for those that have dependents.

Universities with postdoc support organizations and labor unions may be more likely to offer better pay, benefits and support systems for postdocs. This has certainly been true where I’ve ended up for my postdoc — in 2020, Columbia became the first private university in the U.S. with a unionized postdoctoral workforce. While the pay is still far from what is fair, progress is being made even as I write this.

That aside, if you have multiple postdoc offers at hand, it may be possible to bargain your top choice for better pay. PIs are not always able to pay their postdocs more even if they wanted to, but in my view it is worth being upfront about your financial considerations and not underselling yourself.

Research interests, opportunities to learn

If you are looking to stay in the same research topic as your Ph.D., then you already know which groups to apply to. But if you are looking to branch out a little, like I was, it is a good idea to look for a group where their expertise is just far enough from your Ph.D. research that you learn a lot of new things but also just close enough that you can ramp up relatively quickly.

Whichever way you go though, it’s always good to be in a group that also allows you the room to learn new skills that make you more marketable to future positions. Postdoc positions are temporary by design, after all.

A good advisor

A while back I wrote a whole another article on what to look for in a good Ph.D. advisor. I think all of it also applies to the postdoc context. The TLDR version is that while research expertise and university affiliation of your potential advisor are important, how they are on an interpersonal level can be much more important in determining whether you succeed at their group.

How to go about applying for postdoc positions

Again, in no particular order:

Cast a wide net

This sounds obvious, but it definitely was not obvious to me when I was applying. I found myself applying only to positions where I felt like I had a good chance of being made an offer – this was a mistake. In doing so, as a research scientist in my Ph.D. lab pointed out, I was rejecting myself an opportunity be made an offer.

The correct approach, instead, is to cast a wide net and apply to a variety of different positions (maybe including ones outside of academia and national labs). It is always better to have multiple offers and turn some down instead of having to choose from too few options.

Reach out to collaborators, professional contacts, “competitors”, etc.

I learnt very quickly that many (academic) postdoc positions that get filled are never formally listed on job postings sites. Much more common is that they are announced on email chains or on group websites – and sometimes not even that.

Fellowships are an exception in that they tend to have a well-defined application cycle like graduate school admissions. They are often competitive, but may be worth applying to if your graduation timeline aligns with the application cycle.

For positions that aren’t formally listed, the best way to find them is to reach out to collaborators, “competitor” groups, professional contacts at other universities and national labs, etc. Even if they themselves have no positions available, they may still have a lot of insights on the current state of the postdoc job market that you can gain from.

If you are cold-emailing, do not take the lack of response from a potential PI personally. It may be worth sending a polite reminder 2–3 weeks after your initial email. It is always a good idea to send a link to your website or CV in your email. This brings me to my next two points.

Get your Ph.D. advisor to email people (if they are willing)

It is amazing how much faster a potential postdoc PI will respond if they see an email from a fellow PI compared to when prospective postdocs email them. So if your Ph.D. advisor is willing to send some emails for you, do take them up on it. My Ph.D. advisor was happy to do that for me and put in a good word, which turned out to be very helpful in my current postdoc PI making me an offer.

Website, CV, visuals, 20–30 min job talk etc.

No matter how you reach out to a potential postdoc PI – but especially if you are cold emailing – a well-prepared CV is a must. It can also be very useful to have a good webpage that summarizes and highlights your work with interesting visuals. That makes it easier for your potential PI to decide if you may be a good fit for their research.

And if you do get offered an interview, it’s useful to have a short ~20–30 min job talk slide deck prepared and ready to go.

Job posting sites

Some good places to look for postdoc job listings (at least for the ones that do get listed) are:

Give yourself time! And remember that this is frustrating for most

Given how disorganized the postdoc job market is (not that I necessarily know of a better way to do it), the best thing that you can do is to give yourself a sufficient amount of time to find the right match. What amount of time is “sufficient” can vary, but a good rule of thumb for STEM postdoc positions is to give yourself at least six months.

For international students that may get into visa trouble if they don’t find a job soon after graduation, it may be worth discussing with your Ph.D. advisor in advance if you can delay your defense if it comes down to it.

And finally, it is worth remembering that finding a good postdoc position is frustrating for most people. If you are lucky enough (as I was eventually even if not initially) to end up with multiple offers to choose from, that’s great! But if you are not, it is worth being mindful of the fact that availability of postdoc positions is somewhat random and unpredictable, and that it is not necessarily an indicator of your competence as a researcher. (This is one of plenty of reasons to not do a postdoc and go the industry route instead, but that’s a topic for another time.)

Either way, congratulations on your Ph.D., and I hope you see as much fortune as I did in your postdoc job hunt!

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This story was originally published by the author on Medium.