The other day I was talking to a last-year PhD student about finding a postdoc position. I’ve written before about the various ways I’m aware of to get a postdoc position, but in this conversation, I was recalling all the things I tried that were utter failures.
My situation at the time was a tricky one. I had a three-year-old at the time, and my young family needed two incomes. If I couldn’t find a postdoc position, I’d have to get a job in industry, and for me that pretty much meant leaving ecology, which I didn’t want to do.
I had missed most of the deadlines for the big national independent grants. The timeline on those is so slow that you have to apply more than a year before you need the money. I wasn’t on the ball for that, in part because I had been moving cross-country again at the time, and in part because I wasn’t really sure exactly when I’d be finishing.
One thought I had was to approach professors with similar interests and see if they had any money just lying around. I’d seen this sort of thing happen — or at least, I thought I had. A senior grad student comes and talks to Prof A and then a while later the student shows up as a postdoc. Poof!
I was eager to move closer to family and it just happened that my advisor Dave was going to be spending some time at a university close to my in-laws. So I arranged to drive there to spend a couple days and set up meetings with a few professors at the university.
I remember the first meeting I had with well-known Professor X. I went in and we exchanged a little chit-chat, and then I asked him what he was most excited about in his research. (Always a great question to get a professor talking, by the way.) I was familiar with what he had been doing, but was looking for where he saw his future directions. Part-way through the meeting, Dave arrived; he’d intended to be there for the whole thing, but had been delayed. After Professor X said a few things about what he was interested in, he asked me the same. I floundered. I hadn’t really thought too much about future directions, so I talked a bit about the projects I was working on, which didn’t, on the surface, seem to have much to do with Professor X’s interests. There were some awkward silences. Finally, a “nice meeting you.” I should say that Professor X was completely courteous and kind the whole time. But we definitely didn’t click.
Dave was quiet for most of the meeting, and after, when we had left, he looked at me and asked, “what were you doing?” I asked for clarification. And he explained that when you go and meet a future advisor, you’re not fishing for commonalities, like I was doing. Rather, you pitch ideas. You get the potential advisor excited about working with you because he or she is super excited about your idea.
During that same trip, another well-known ecologist was giving a public seminar. He had done a postdoc at this university and his former advisor introduced him. The former advisor recalled that many years ago a grad student he didn’t know from another institution had asked to meet with him. When the grad student showed up, he was bursting with enthusiasm. He had a cool idea and the technical skills to answer a really important ecology question, while the to-become-postdoc-advisor had the perfect system. It was, in short, a great match.
And that’s exactly what I should have been doing. Approaching potential postdoc advisors with an idea and presenting the combination of our skills, knowledge, and resources as the perfect match for answering a science question.
It’s not easy, of course. I was so focused on finishing my dissertation that I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about potential new research directions. And for me, my dissertation was so broad that it was difficult me for to figure out where I wanted to focus next. But several months later, I arranged to meet with more potential postdoc advisors at the annual ESA meeting. I think that those meetings went a little bit better, though none of them turned into a position. (Eventually, I found a postdoc position by responding to a job ad.)
In general, I’ve seen that the people who get ahead in academic ecology are those who have a clear vision of what research they want to pursue and why it matters. As you finish your PhD, spend time thinking about a few possible future research directions. What do you want to discover? Why? And what will it take to make those discoveries?