Applying for post-doctoral positions is stressful and takes a lot of time. On the bright side, convincing others that your ideas are interesting and worth funding can be very stimulating. One hopefully ends up with an exciting new job and lots of new research projects. Because these positive and negative feelings coexist, what we colloquially refer to as “the job season” can be frustrating and stressful for those who face it. The main wave of applications (for fellowships at least) is Sept-Nov, with decisions coming out in Jan-Feb, and several other smaller waves happen during the whole year, usually for standard post-docs.
The thoughts below are my personal opinion (and take-away lessons!). I also highly recommend the excellent tips by Bryan Gaensler & Sarah Maddison.
Several weeks can be consumed in writing and submitting job applications. Those take a lot of brain power and get in the way of one’s normal research schedule. But sometimes the worst part is yet to come: dealing with rejection letters and job offers. Sometimes one ends up having to make a decision under stress, uncertainty, and multiple competing criteria. Also, making a good decision involves evaluating the future work environment. Even when gathering lots of external opinions, there is no guarantee that this evaluation will be fair and useful! Let’s consider some concrete questions. Again, I emphasize that the tips below are my personal opinion are should be taken with a pinch of salt.
Where to apply?
The first stage of the job season is to look at job openings and decide which ones to apply for. These are usually advertised on dedicated websites (which I will collect in an upcoming blog post). My personal advice is: apply for every job that you would seriously consider if you received an offer. In other words, don’t apply for the places you’re 100% sure you don’t want to move to. But apply everywhere else. Don’t only apply for positions where you are a good and obvious fit; also apply for jobs that you like even though they are slightly off your current research. After all, we live in the era of multifacet skills and synergies between subfields of physics and other scientific disciplines.
It might also be wise not to have a ranking when applying. Do your best on each application. Of course, this is within the limits of your energy and other commitments…
Why this strategy? Because most jobs are extremely competitive. To be pessimistic, you probably won’t get your favorite job. Even if you do your best and believe that you wrote a flawless application, there are a huge number of factors involved. To name a few, many other excellent candidates want the same job as you, and you don’t know what the selection panel is looking for (unless you are really well informed, which is excellent too!). This is particularly true for fellowships, where committees might be looking for the most innovative research proposal, or for a specific profile, or even follow some more unconventional criteria. All these aspects are *not* in your control. All you can do is write the best applications you can for the jobs you like. Collecting information about your favorite jobs also helps adjusting both your application and your expectations.
How to maximize your chances
If you really want a specific job, you have to put all the changes on your side. The two things that will help you most are visibility and connections. Both of those result from publishing high-impact papers and giving good presentations at international conferences or institutions you visit. They are also improved by maintaining good relationships and starting projects with lots of people within and outside your field. There is no perfect recipe or unique way to do this, and it is not my intention to advertise mine. Not all of us can handle the stress of frequent travel and crowded conferences, and some research topics cannot yield N publications per year. But trust me: if you focus on developing and maintaining high visibility and connections in your research sphere, you will dramatically increase your chances to get your dream job. As a minor comment, having many publications per year is great, but quality is key and usually overtakes quantity.
Types of jobs
Non-tenured post-PhD jobs are roughly divided into standard and fellowship-type post-docs. The different is simple: with a standard post-doc your are funded by someone’s research grant; in other words you work for this person. As a consequence, you have to agree on the project(s) you will work on and also on the level of freedom you will have. By contrast, fellowships give you the independence and freedom to work on your own ideas and projects.
Fellowships are more prestigious but are not good for everyone. As a regular post-doc, you will likely work on a well-defined project. This is safe and might pay off a lot faster than developing your own ideas. In fact, you might also be allowed to work a fraction of your time on your own ideas. This is the sort of thing you need to discuss before you apply for or accept a post-doc. My advice is to evaluate your work style and the fit with the project and the person in charge. In the right conditions, a good post-doc can be better than a fellowship and allow you to grow and become an independent researcher, leader of your field. Fellowships typically increase your chances to get a permanent position because they are a stamp that demonstrates your autonomy and ability to get funding for your own ideas. However, this is not the only way to proceed, and you should certainly carefully think about your work style, your ideas, and your career plans before deciding to focus on standard post-docs or fellowships. This is a very personal decision that might have dramatic consequences on your career, but not always in the way you think. I have seen successful post-docs getting tenure without ever applying for fellowships. I have also seen excellent young researchers with fellowships struggling to develop their ideas. In my case, having a fellowship suits me because I have lots of ideas and I like being independent. But that doesn’t work for everyone and you should not feel guilty if it’s not your cup of tea. We all work differently.
Doing a postdoc at the PhD institution?
Doing a postdoc at the PhD institution is tempting, but tricky. In astronomy, it is typically expected that a junior researcher with 4 to 6 years of experience (starting at the beginning of the MSc or PhD) begins to have the ability to come up with ideas/projects and execute them. Of course, this is merely a general trend; the actual expectations and workstyles can be very diverse. But independence is the main reason why staying at the PhD institution for a postdoc is tricky. In the UK, this is more common and less of a problem, because PhD programs last 3-4 years and typically don’t promote independence as much as in the US. So doing 1 to 3 years of post doc is fairly standard (I personally did one year) as it mimics a PhD extension, and allows you to do more research and compete with US PhDs on the job market. It worked out well for me because it allowed me to finish a few more projects, boost my CV, and apply for competitive US fellowships. In the US, staying at the PhD institution is less common because PhD programs are longer. The arguments for and against a postdoc at the PhD institution are very similar to the “fellowship vs standard postdoc” case: as long as you demonstrate independence and autonomy, this is not a problem. As a matter of fact, changing institution unavoidably opens your mind to new people, ways of working, collaborations, research topics, etc. If you are able to have that without changing institution, then you are fine. For this approach to work, you probably need to work less with your PhD advisor / past collaborators, create new collaborations elsewhere, and travel a lot to maintain these collaborations. Finally, it is critical to be visible outside of your institution and for people acknowledge that you are an independent thinker. All of the successful examples I see satisfy these conditions. So I would stay that staying at the PhD institution is a more difficult career path because you have to put more effort into being visible and collaborative on the outside. But this could also be extremely good: if your PhD institution is a leader in your research field, and you have productive work relationships with your collaborators, then you may produce much more good research compared to what you would have done elsewhere (especially with the overhead of moving and collaborating with new people). The key is to not continue PhD projects or ideas, but really to develop your own research. Whether that happens at the PhD institution or elsewhere is somehow irrelevant, it is a matter of preference. Just like a good post-doc can be better than a fellowship, a post-doc at your PhD institution could be better than a post-doc elswhere, provided you don’t fall in some of the traps I mentioned. There is no unique path to a successful and fulfilling research career, so design one that suits you!
How to apply?
To apply for a post-doc (standard or fellowship), you basically have to demonstrate in the application that you are a perfect fit for the project and the team. You might have to write a research proposal; this is crucial for fellowships but typically less important for standard post docs (I didn’t say unimportant!). And as I said before you should always discuss the level of independence and expectations associated with the job. Networking is also very critical since the decision to hire you or someone else is in the hands of a few people; sometimes it’s only up to the PI of the project.
Corollary: if you would like to work with someone specifically (say a collaborator), you should ask them well in advance (typically one year) if they might have or apply for funding to hire you as a post-doc. This is a very frequent situation: if someone really wants you they will try to get funding for you, provided you express your interest sufficiently in advance.
Fellowship applications are rather different. They are typically reviewed by large, diverse panels (so connections matter too but in a different way). You will have to write a research proposal and a cover letter. In the proposal you will present a coherent research programme and demonstrate that it is achievable, impactful, and interesting. In the cover letter you will describe how you will thrive at the institution with this fellowship, i.e. what you will bring to the group/institution and why you are applying there. A few remarks:
- Good research proposals involve a combination of established mainstream ideas and more innovative, risky projects. They are usually highly structured, organized in sections, and phrased in terms of concrete realistic projects (and thus, papers).
- Read successful proposals! Kindly ask your colleagues, friends, supervisors, to share theirs. Similarly, have your proposal read by as many people as you can. And take their advice seriously. Of course you don’t have to agree and implement all the tips you get, but in my experience most of them will be very informative (whether you follow them or not).
- Write a good, personalized cover letter. It’s ok to have a more generic research proposal that you reuse for many applications (especially if it is solid and coherent), but bad cover letters are unforgivable.
For “named” or “prize” fellowships, the cover letter should be relatively detailed, i.e. you should mention which senior researchers you plan to work with and why. For national fellowships this should explain why you are taking the fellowship to this institution specifically. Some items you should mention if relevant:
- People you plan to work with and why
- Access to particular data sets and how it is linked to your proposed research
- Why the proposed research is achievable at that institution and not elsewhere
- How the fellowship will help you grow into a successful senior researcher
Dealing with rejection
First of all, let me make something clear: you will get far more rejection letters/emails than job offers. This is a fact that does not depend on your talent; this happens to the most successful and exceptional applicants. Do the math: there are hundreds of applicants for every job ad, and you will probably apply for lots of jobs. Unless you only apply for jobs where you are a perfect fit (which is a bad strategy as I highlighted above) you will get lots of rejection emails. I am saying this because you should prepare yourself and not take those personally. They might hinder your momentum and courage, especially at mid job season. There will be times where a rejection email will come right before you submit another application. You shouldn’t let this discourage you. It happens to all of us and this is unfortunately part of the job application process. Talk to your friends and mentors if you ever feel down!
What if I get only one offer?
Congratulations! Getting a job offer is already an accomplishment. Someone wants you to be part of their group and to work with you. This is pretty much a binary decision: you can either accept of decline this opportunity. Of course you should negotiate the terms of the offer if you are not happy with them.
Finally, don’t forget that life outside of academia is also good. Make sure you make an informed decision and that you are happy about your life choices.
What if I get multiple offers?
Congratulations! You will now have to accept one offer (or zero, see comment above) and reject the others.
My top two rules in this situation are honesty and responsiveness. Otherwise you will be wasting everyone’s time. In other words, try to make the acceptance/rejection process as smooth as possible. Below is a list of concrete tips.
It is fairly common to leverage some job offers to pressure or buy time for the others. This is ethically wrong. If you don’t want the job, refuse it straight away, and state the reasons (if you can/want). The other candidates shortlisted for this job are going through a stressful job season just like you, and you might be holding their dream job.
I have recently developed mixed feelings about the Astro Rumor Mill. I disagree with it being used to leverage offers and pressure people, see remark above. However, many universities (luckily not all!) don’t bother to let candidates know when they are not shortlisted, interviewed or selected. Therefore, the Rumor Mill is actually a very useful tool for letting everyone know when a job is officially taken. This will let the other candidates move on. In conclusion, I recommend putting a name on the Rumor Mill when the offer have been accepted or declined.
If you are unhappy about the terms of an offer, you should try to negotiate them. You should also bring up any details that prevent you from making a quick decision. Selection panels, once they decided they want you for a job, are receptive to negotiations and discussions. You can also bring up personal considerations if they are relevant to your decision. We are all humans, and it’s ok to discuss these issues with potential colleagues.
Here are a few common situations and how to deal with them (in my opinion).
- You got an offer but you are sure you will not take this job.
- Refuse the offer! It is totally fine if your situation and/or opinions changed between the time you applied and when you got the offer. But don’t waste everyone’s time.
- This job is not your favorite (and presumably you are waiting for other decisions/offers).
- Give the committee a chance to convince you! Your dream job might be hiding there. Be honest and let them know about your situation and time scale.
- Your family may not be able or willing to move (or other personal reasons).
- Discuss it with the committee. They might be able to help. And at least they will know why you are hesitating and need more time.
- You know that you will accept or refuse this job – nothing will change your mind – but you are delaying the decision to get more offers/leverage.
- Don’t do this please.
Successful applicants sometimes get multiple offers at different times and with somehow incompatible constraints, which is a source of stress. For example, some places don’t mind if you take three months to decide – others will give you a few days only. There are no good rules to optimally deal with these situations. But honesty should be the baseline. Sometimes you will not be able to make an optimal decision and you have will to accept or refuse opportunities in difficult circumstances. This is tough. But respecting everyone around you, including committees and other candidates, is essential. Selection panels also have a number of constraints to deal with (attracting, selecting and keeping the best scientists is extremely difficult!).
Finally, note that in astronomy you can invoke the official recommendation of the AAS: no one should be pressured to make decisions by mid February. It is merely a recommendation, not an enforced rule. While most people/committees would agree with this principle, it is not always possible for them to observe it due to external constraints (for example deadlines imposed by funding bodies!). But it doesn’t hurt to bring this up if you feel that you genuinely need more time.