As you start thinking about doing a postdoc, there are a few key questions you need to consider. What type of position will allow you to build the profile needed to be competitive for your ideal career? What skills, knowledge, experiences, and type of environment will support your success and productivity? Knowing this will help you prioritize what to look for in a postdoc and begin scouting for opportunities that fit your goals. This session will help you organize your postdoc search and leverage your mentoring network to find postdoc opportunities that match your career goals.
The last years of your PhD bring a lot of questions. As your PhD thesis starts to take form, you start thinking about what’s next. Should I do a postdoc? What type of postdoc do I want? How do I get there?
It is important to start this process with your career goals in mind. In the previous module, Positioning Yourself for the Postdoc, we covered how assessing your needs, preferences, and values (NVPs) can help you identify your career plans and how to use backwards design to create an action plan. Having a better understanding of your career plan will guide you as you transition out of your PhD lab and into a postdoc or another type of position. Knowing your end goal (i.e., what type of career you would like) will help you search for the type of positions where you can gain the knowledge, skills, and experiences you need to be competitive for your desired career.
Identifying your postdoc training goals:
To identify the type of postdoctoral experience you need, you should start the process by understanding what it takes to be competitive for the particular position you want down the road. Doing this will allow you to identify the knowledge, skills, experiences, connections, and productivity you already have and any gaps that you’ll need to fill in your postdoc to accomplish your goals.
Figuring out what you have (i.e., what you learned in grad school) and what you need to develop (i.e., what you need to do during your postdoc) can be daunting. So, it helps to identify mentors that currently have the position you want and can answer questions about what is expected or required for the roles. Mentors can give you valuable perspectives about your current assets and the ones you need to develop during a postdoc. You can also search online for profiles of people in the positions you want to pursue and evaluate their career trajectory. If you want a faculty position, a handy resource is the Academic Career Readiness Assessment (ACRA) tool, which outlines the competencies needed for the three main types of faculty positions in the U.S.
Once you have a notion of what an ideal CV looks like (what you want), then compare it with your current profile (what you have), and identify the gaps: these will be the training goals for your postdoc. For example, if you want a teaching position at a small liberal arts college but you don’t have teaching experience, you should focus on opportunities that will allow you to enhance your teaching portfolio and experiment with the theory of scientific teaching. If you aren’t sure about what you would like to do after grad school, your training goals for the postdoc could include having time and opportunities for career exploration.
Remember, a postdoc is not required for many career paths (e.g., consulting). If you decide to pursue a non-academic career you should find a position after your PhD that allows you to gain the skills to be competitive in that area. Although our video series is designed for the PhD to postdoc transition, the principles in our series can easily be applied to other types of career goals. We encourage you to use our tools and strategies for your unique post-PhD plans!
Don’t forget about the training environment
As you identify your postdoc training goals and look into different kinds of positions, you should also consider what type of environment supports your productivity. For example, which factors in your current environment contribute most to your productivity? What factors do you wish you had or could remove or improve? Understanding what you have (or don’t have) in your current institution and how that has affected your learning experience will help you understand your ideal work environment. In addition to getting a postdoc position that allows you to build the profile needed, finding the right environment is important. Once you have identified your training goals for your postdoc, and have thought about what type of environment will aid your productivity, you will be ready to start looking for opportunities.
Scouting for positions: Establishing and using your mentoring network
Students often search for postdoc positions online in scientific journals, job boards, or the websites of individual departments or labs. But a big number of available postdoc positions aren’t posted online. Instead, they can be found through mentoring networks or personal connections. You can think of your mentoring network as those individuals that you would contact for a reference or that have guided you through your career. These can be peers, lab mates, friends, former professors, etc. They are the people you reach out to for professional development questions, general career advice, or to help you navigate difficult issues.
To identify and build your mentoring network, pinpoint the people around you that have guided your personal and professional development. You can also reach out to individuals that have the positions you want. If time permits, plan to attend conferences where you could build a presence in your scientific community and identify potential postdoctoral mentors or mentors to guide your professional exploration after your PhD. In the activities section, we include exercises to help you identify and build your mentoring network. Once you have your career and postdoc training goals and your mentoring network, you’re ready to start scouting. To begin scouting, tap into your mentoring network: email them to ask for informational interviews or advice; invite them for coffee or an online chat.
If sending an email to potential mentors feels intimidating, you’re not alone! Everyone struggles with this process. Use the strategies and resources presented in this session to get started. The emails you send your mentoring network can be about career exploration, inquiring about a possible position, or general career advice. Be direct, concise, and clear about your specific ASK. This will help your mentor understand how they can best help you (see examples of draft emails in the resources section).
The amount of time that you spend scouting will depend on how much time you have before you complete your PhD. A strategy used by students is to create a peer-mentoring group with other students going through the same process. Finding others to work with enhances productivity and accountability, and it just makes the process more fun! Also, these are opportunities to build life-long mentoring relationships. You can start the process of building your mentoring network and scouting for positions at any stage of your career, but it’s helpful to start as early as possible.
Activities (Exercises and Self-Reflection):
- Activity 1.1: Self-Reflection: What are you looking for in a post-doc position?
- Activity 1.2: Building your Mentoring Network
- Activity 1.3: Scouting for positions using your mentoring network
Dr. Rachel Care is a Program Director at the Office of Career and Professional Development at the University of California, San Francisco. There, she aids the career and professional development needs of graduate students and postdoctoral scholars. She also leads postdocs through their transition into a faculty position. Rachel is passionate about supporting early-stage students…. Continue Reading