Life after Graduate School: 12 Steps to Your Post-doctoral Position

Dr. Jill Schumacher, Department of Genetics
2013 G&D Newsletter

It doesn’t feel like it at times, but graduate school does not last forever. For those interested in a career in academic science, identifying and successfully competing for a post-doctoral position in an outstanding lab can be intimidating. Where to begin?

  1. Start early. Begin looking at least one year before you think you will defend your thesis. If you don’t allow sufficient time for your search, you will likely be forced to accept a position that is not optimal. In addition, your PI may not have funds to support you after your defense.
  2. Your qualifying exam is a chance to think in-depth about projects outside of your current lab. Investigate topics that you find interesting and learn about the open questions in the field. Who are the key labs?
  3. Attend the Blaffer seminars regularly and have lunch with the speakers. Even if the topic isn’t in your research area, go anyway. This will provide you a diverse background and you may learn something that enhances your research; for example, a new technique or experimental approach.
  4. At the beginning of your fourth year, sit down with your advisor and have an honest discussion about your strengths, weaknesses, and future goals. Discuss scientific areas that you are considering for your post-doctoral training and the labs that might be a good fit. Talk to your committee members and other faculty as well.
  5. Attend a meeting in your chosen area (the smaller the better) and introduce yourself to potential mentors. Spend time with their students and post-docs. Are they happy? Successful? If they are miserable in the lab, you might be too.
  6. Carefully consider the pluses and minuses of going to a superstar’s lab vs. a smaller or newer lab. The superstar may have the recognition to help you on the job market, but you may be competing with several other post-docs. The younger PI will likely be more invested in your success, but will be learning along with you. In the end, go with the science and whom you can see yourself working with on a day-to-day basis.

  7. About a year before your graduation, contact the PIs on your list (five or more labs). Do not send a generic e-mail! Even junior PIs get daily post-doctoral inquiries. If you can, refer to a time when you met in person (at a meeting or over a Blaffer lunch). Tell them very specifically why you are interested in their lab. Your CV should be well organized without extraneous information. Better yet, also send a package with a cover letter, CV, and publications by regular mail. Your thesis mentor might also be willing to include a sealed letter of recommendation in the package.
  8. Many PIs will have a phone or Skype interview with candidates before investing in an in-person interview. Be prepared and make sure you have no distractions or interruptions during the call. Be able to succinctly summarize your current project and your important contributions. Reread their key papers and be able to discuss potential projects. Also be prepared to discuss post-doctoral fellowships that you may qualify for.
  9. In-person interview: Get a good idea of your schedule and what is expected. If you will be presenting a seminar, practice with your lab and anybody else who will provide honest feedback. Plan your seminar for the particular audience. Remember, this is not a lab meeting. Confirm the equipment they will have for you. Don’t show up with a USB drive to find out you need a laptop. Wear nice but forgettable clothes (slacks or skirt/shirt/blouse). The goal is to wow them with your science, not your choice of clothing. A business suit is too much; jeans and a t-shirt, too casual. Be engaged and ask questions.
  10. After the interview, send a “Thank You” e-mail to the PI and others in the lab you spent time with. When you get offers, consider your decision carefully in consultation with your mentor, friends and family.
  11. You can make the whole process much easier by publishing numerous first author papers in quality journals while in graduate school. [smiley face]
  12. Have fun and enjoy the process!