Advice for finding STEM postdocs

As part of the 2022 Faculty Job Search Prep Camp, Career Services hosted three current postdocs for a Q&A panel with students interested in pursuing a postdoc in a STEM field.  The panelists provided excellent advice and feedback on the process they went through to identify and succeed as a postdoc.  Their advice is summarized below.

Doctoral students and postdocs are welcome to register for any of the virtual programs for the second part of the 2022 Faculty Job Search Prep Camppenn , to be held in October.  And as always, are welcome to scheduled individual advising appointments with an advisor in Career Services through Handshake!

When to start looking

  • Always good to be thinking about what your goals might be
  • Started actively doing research and making inquiries 6-9 months before they expected to graduate

How they found their postdoc

  • All 3 panelists found their postdoc by contacting labs directly; none of their roles were posted
  • Some postdocs are posted – this is often done through a professional organization or at a conference
  • Conferences are key to attend while you are searching for a postdoc because they are an excellent place to meet people as well as to learn what might be coming
  • Start brainstorming on your priorities – both professional as well as personal – i.e. Are you limited geographically; do you have a desired area of the country?
  • All panelists narrowed down their list to anywhere from 10-30 labs and reached out to the PI directly over email
  • Focus the content of your email on how your background can help them
  • Recommended sending an email introduction along with your CV attached
  • Be prepared for silence – one panelist sent out 30 emails and got back 6-8 responses

Interview process

  • All panelists found their positions pre-COVID
  • They first had a zoom meeting with the PI to discuss their interest and then were invited to a campus visit
  • Institution should pay for your travel to their location
  • During their visit, most postdocs met with the PI individually, did a job talk, and then met with others in the lab
  • All panelists stressed how important it is to approach the visit as an interview, but also as your chance to get a sense for the lab culture and to help determine what your life there would be like
  • Take the opportunity to also check out the city where you would be living – you will be there several years so take the chance to check it out
  • Ask around to see how long people are postdocs in the lab and assess whether that length works for you

Teaching during a postdoc

  • The opportunities are there if you are interested
  • PIs are concerned whether teaching will take away from your lab work – start small if you choose to teach
  • One panelist started as a TA for a lab section, then instructor of record for a lab section, and then taught a lecture course. By the time she got to the lecture course, she was confident she had the time
  • You should be paid separately for teaching unless it was included in your postdoc contract

Salary & negotiation

  • Most postdoc salaries are set by the university and/or the NIH
  • Very little room to negotiate – but you can ask. Might get a small amount of increase but most schools are concerned with equity

 Work/life balance as a postdoc

  • Very important to assess what the culture is like during the interview process
  • Start by being a balanced PhD student and this will help you to be a balanced postdoc
  • What kind of work you will be doing will determine how well you can balance – If you are running experiments around the clock, harder to balance
  • PI sets the culture of the lab, so chose a PI who you would like to be like when you “grow up” – if they seem balanced, you are more likely to be as well

Using a Postdoc as a pivot

  • All panelists made a shift in the focus of their research when they went from PhD to postdoc
  • This is the perfect time to make a change and to shift directions
  • Be open to this during the interview and show interest in using your skills in a new way
By Dianne Hull
Dianne Hull Senior Associate Director, Graduate Students & Postdocs