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How NOT to get a postdoc position

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?

Permanent link to this article: http://ecologybits.com/index.php/2016/12/14/how-not-to-get-a-postdoc-position/

3 comments

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  1. HM

    When we had a potential PostDoc visiting our group, we had to entertain him that evening, with the PI not being able to attend. At one point, in more or less casual but work-related conversation, he asked me what would be the most exiting thing that could happen to me during the next year. I said: “Finishing my PhD.” He asked: “What else?”

    That was when I realised that my seven-year torture of finishing my PhD, all those submissions, re-submissions, major and minor revisions actually killed all my creativity to pursue any research target, any aim, any project of my own. I could not – and still can’t – answer the question. The most exiting thing?
    Even personally, I am in doubt. People around me are telling me that getting a kid was the most exiting thing, but even that scares me more than it excites me.

    However, I still get easily exited about real science, and ecology. Not the messy bits – academic commissions, grant stuff, even the actual writing of papers suck, and getting published doesn’t feel like a reward, but like a relief. But the mind-blowing things: having the world’s largest database on $thissubject, making it possible to do stats and fancy visualisations to answer the question how the hell did $thatthing happen, and what to expect in the future (given the CIs, other measure of uncertainty).

    I can even get creative on #otherpeoplesprojects, if they let me. I suggested research questions to some master students of a former group at one point, and also to some postdocs I know. (The latter eyed me with suspicion, I feel, as they seemed to assume I was trying to teach them their job.)

    I am now “in-between jobs”. I had a short PostDoc contract from leftover money this year with fed me and paid my insurances, but wasn’t related to any of my research. My partner has a PostDoc position, but no ambitions to stay in science. I bloody well would stay in science, if that didn’t mean that I had to have had 10 more publications in the last 10 years, since there is no middle ground in academia – only professors, and non-permanent positions. (At least in Germany. I wouldn’t mind going elsewhere, but I don’t know where. The US are out, my partner doesn’t want to live there. UK would be London, and I am under the impression I cannot afford that even if I had a contract.)

    So, how to not get a postdoc?
    Easy.
    Don’t even try.

    Additional advice how not to get a career in science, if you are an undergraduate: don’t publish early. Don’t try to get into the working group of someone with experience, and ambitions. Stand up for others in lab discussions, and try to show some spine. Argue with your supervisors if they correct your writing style. Don’t do a speedy PhD, just fiddle with the details until you are convinced that your data, your analysis and your interpretation are 100% watertight. Get depressed when your first major paper is shot down after 180 days of revising. Try to have a social life outside of academia, for the diversity etc, and don’t try to keep a network together by keeping in touch with more senior members of the academic world. Get out of the country for long field research stays, and write back your personal experiences to a mailing list including your colleagues – mixing personal and professional contact. Be outspoken about research you don’t like, and criticise the flaws of other studies in public. Stop going to conferences when you don’t have a talk. And take some time off when you are truly exhausted, but take care to sulk and not to relax. Use twitter or other “social” networks as a tool of distraction from your woes. Start whining online, e.g. in comments sections. Oh, and last not least: spend time on reading other peoples advice, and not learning from it.

    That, retrospectively, seems to be what I did to avoid getting a proper PostDoc.

  2. Sean

    You don’t have to leave ecology to go into industry.
    Are you sure you really looked into what industry has to offer?

    A lot of PhD students go into Post-doc simply because it’s what “they were told to do”.
    They’re just following the system.

    Plenty of people don’t even realize what industry has to offer, especially in terms of research.

    1. Margaret Kosmala

      For me and at that time, going into industry meant leaving ecology. There weren’t any ecology options in industry near where I lived that could pay enough to cover the bills. Probably still aren’t. If you have some great ideas about ecology jobs in industry, I’d love to hear about them.

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