How to Find the Right Postdoc Position

16. July 2013
Ming Li
 
Many recent Ph.D. students would like to land a faculty position at a university or research institute soon after graduating. However, there are only a few of these opportunities available every year. For each opening, there will likely be many qualified applicants from all over the world, with very strong CVs and publication records. In this climate, it is extremely challenging to break into academia immediately following grad school, and so a postdoctoral position has become an important springboard to a tenure-track academic job.
 
For the past four years, I was a postdoctoral research fellow in two Canadian photonics research groups: the Microwave Photonics Research Laboratory at the University of Ottawa, under the supervision of Jianping Yao, and the Ultrafast Optical Processing group at the Institute National de la Recherche Scientifique (INRS), under the supervision of José Azaña. My time as a postdoc has been a great experience that others could benefit from as well, and so here I provide my personal perspective and advice about how to find and take advantage of a postdoctoral position.
 
Find the right match for your research interests. A postdoctoral research contract is usually for about two years. Due to this short timeline, professors are looking to hire researchers who can be immediately involved in the research activities of the group and make meaningful contributions, particularly in the form of journal publications or conference presentations. The capability of the postdoc to bring new ideas into ongoing projects is critical to hiring professors when they are assessing candidates.
 
Use your network. A nice recommendation letter from someone who is familiar with the professor with whom you’d like to work can play a key role in successfully applying for a postdoctoral position. Professors often approach friends and colleagues to recommend a candidate who has the necessary background and capabilities. Try to take advantage of your existing connections, and work to broaden your network in addition to strengthening your CV.
 
Hone your communication skills. In Canadian labs, a postdoc serves as the liaison between students and the professor. In addition to working on his or her own research, a postdoc also assists the professor in guiding students, scheduling experiments, arranging group meetings, etc. Therefore, interpersonal skills are crucial, in and out of the lab. I learned these abilities from my two supervisors and practiced them throughout my time in Canada. Now, I use these important skills when working with my own students in China.
 
Seek out useful collaborations. On a related topic, it is important to take advantage of opportunities to form helpful relationships between different research labs. A postdoc must be able to negotiate and communicate with the people in other groups in order to complete projects in the most effective way. These collaborative experiences not only helped me to finish some of my most interesting research, but also to build a large professional network—which can be even more important in the long-term.
 
Although it can be difficult to get the tenure-track position that you’re hoping for immediately after finishing your Ph.D., don’t be discouraged. There are many valuable skills that you can learn as a postdoctoral researcher, and this experience will put you on the right track to accomplish the rest of your career goals.
 
Dr. Ming Li (ml@semi.ac.cn) is a full professor at the Institute of Semiconductors at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. 

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Career Paths: A Conversation with Jannick Rolland

29. May 2013

OSA Director-at-Large Jannick Rolland talks with Optics & Photonics News about her path to academia. Thanks to OSA member Brooke Hester for working with Jannick to gather her insights.

What is your background prior to becoming a professor?

I was a postdoc at an academic institution that evolved into a research staff position. I was there for a total of six years. 

How did you enter academia?

My funding was beginning to dry up, so I decided that it was time to look for a new position. Shortly thereafter I spoke with my former advisor at an OSA Annual meeting, and he recommended that I tell everyone that I was looking for a job. So that’s exactly what I did. I mentioned to an old classmate that I was back on the job market, and he introduced me to M.J. Soileau, who was then the director of the Center for Research and Education on Optics and Lasers (CREOL) at the University of Central Florida. About eight months after that meeting, I applied at CREOL and was offered a position. I also interviewed at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory; however, because I was not a U.S. citizen at the time, I decided that it was not my best option. 

What are your current responsibilities?

A few years ago, I joined the Institute of Optics at the University of Rochester. I am currently a chair professor, the Brian J. Thompson Professor of Optical Engineering, the director of the R.E. Hopkins Center and also the director of the planned NSF Center for Freeform Optics. My responsibilities are teaching, research, mentoring students on every aspect of their work (and sometimes on a more personal level) and serving the Institute of Optics, my university, various societies and scientific communities locally and globally. For example, I am a professor invitee at the Institute d'Optique in France , and I help teach some short courses in optical instrumentation. 

How does your role now differ from your previous roles?

My responsibilities have only grown over time. Now, in addition to my other tasks, I have to raise funds to support as many as 20 people and keep them employed through economic ups and downs. That is considerably more accountability than I had as a graduate student focused on my Ph.D. topic, or as a postdoc working on only a couple of projects.

What was the biggest challenge you faced?

It was securing funding for my research in instrumentation innovation. This work requires working in multiple disciplines, and getting funding can be quite difficult—particularly because it can take years to complete a project. Although the National Institutes of Health was a good fit for my work, it was difficult to obtain grants from there because my institution was not well-positioned for medical research. I had to develop a business strategy that allowed me to focus on the science, rather than just fundraising. It hasn’t been easy, but I still have a passion for medical instrumentation, and I have succeeded through relentless effort.

What advice would you give to others looking to break into academia?

Get as much experience as you can as a postdoc or research scientist for up to three years before entering the tenure track. Your mentors during this period will be your advocates for life. If possible, also work in industry for up to six years. Try to get a position in a reputable company, so that you can build your network along with your skills. Look for an institution that fits with your long term goals. That said, you can make some shorter-term strategic decisions while building your long-term plans and looking for the best way to advance your vision.

Jannick Rolland (rolland@optics.rochester.edu) is the Brian J. Thompson Professor of Optical Engineering and Director of the R.E. Hopkins Center for Optical Design & Engineering and the Planned Center for Freeform Optics at the University of Rochester.

 

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How to Prepare for a Postdoc

12. March 2013

Yanina Shevchenko

Although a postdoc appointment might only last for a few years, it can have a tremendous influence on a scientist's career. A good way to approach the process of choosing one is to think about your long-term career objectives, identify your research interests and find a laboratory where you can leverage your strengths.

Like many people, I started my postdoctoral work right after finishing my Ph.D. I enjoyed joining a new lab and starting fresh research projects. Here I offer a few tips that could help current students to prepare for this important transition.

Plan ahead.

There is no such thing as preparing for your postdoctoral position too far in advance. I have colleagues who started planning two years before they completed their degrees, and it completely paid off. It takes time to choose a new research direction, identify the main players in the field, go through the interview process, and move to a new place. Last-minute arrangements might not be as rewarding as a well-researched decision.

Seek external funding.

There are generally two ways to fund postdoctoral work: through the research grants of a professor for whom you work, or with your own funding from an external source.

I highly recommend researching the scientific funding agencies in the country where you plan on working and applying for existing external postdoctoral fellowships. Having your own funding not only looks good on your resume; it also provides you with some flexibility in choosing an institution and a research group. Additionally, the application process is a useful exercise that allows you to polish your grant-writing skills and think about specific projects that you would like to work on. It is helpful to ask professors and other postdocs about available sources of funding as some of the fellowships are not very widely publicized or may be offered only within certain organizations.

Consider your long-term career objectives.

Are you preparing for an academic career and need to publish intensively in a certain research domain? Or are you thinking of broadening your research skillset in preparation for transitioning into industry? Depending on the answers to these questions, some people prefer to work in the area where they completed their Ph.D. in order to build a stronger reputation and deepen their expertise. Others choose to work in a completely different field in order to diversify their skills and learn about emerging research trends. Which direction you choose depends on your long-term career goals.

Choose a research group with care.

Before selecting a specific research group, find out as much information as possible about their work. Everything is relevant: the group's research priorities, their size and dynamics, the principal investigator's management style and expectations, etc. It helps to discuss these issues with other students, postdocs or former lab members. Time invested in learning these details will pay off, as it will help you to find a lab where you will be the most comfortable and productive.

"Try to find a group, not a place," says Carlos Lopez-Mariscal, a research scientist at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. "That is, get a postdoc at XYZ group because of its merits and reputation, rather than getting one with ZYX group at Harvard just because it is at Harvard."

Approach a potential supervisor.

Some postdocs meet their supervisors at a conference or through collaboration during their Ph.D. Others are referred by a mutual colleague or someone who knows a professor personally. However, soliciting people directly via email can also be a great way to find someone to work with. Before contacting a potential supervisor, it is important to spend time putting together a comprehensive cover letter. Showcase how your experience would be useful for that particular lab and include ideas for future research. Familiarize yourself with the group's current efforts, and make sure that the cover letter is personalized--not just a copy of a letter that was sent to another researcher.

Overall, working as a postdoctoral researcher allows you to learn new skills, broaden expertise and establish new connections. Even if you have not made up your mind about your ultimate career goals, doing a postdoc can help you figure out your next steps. It can also provide you with an opportunity to relocate to a different country or start working in a new field. Although a postdoc takes some planning, it is a very rewarding experience that is worth all the hard work.

Yanina Shevchenko (yshevchenko@gmwgroup.harvard.edu) is the NSERC Postdoctoral Fellow in the Whitesides Research Group, department of chemistry and chemical biology, Harvard University, U.S.A.

 

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Postdoc Perspectives: Looking Back on My Year in France

3. February 2012

by Elena Silaeva

I got the idea the first time I traveled abroad to attend an international scientific conference. Wouldn’t it be exciting to do a posdoc abroad?

It was an ongoing dream during my doctoral research, and I actively networked throughout my studies. However, when my thesis defense came around, no one was clamoring to welcome me into his or her lab. Like many of you, I faced the inevitability of having to write 100 emails to lab managers in the hopes of getting at least one positive answer. (I knew the sad statistics from the experience of my peers.)

Then I got lucky: One of my colleagues forwarded me an email announcing a postdoc position in Saint Etienne, France. I sent my CV immediately. Quite soon, I received a couple of emails back with relevant questions about my thesis and abilities. My future employer also asked my colleague about my work during a conference. In the end I received an offer, which I was very happy to accept. The following are my reflections on the experience as well as my advice to others who are looking to pursue a postdoc abroad.

Prepare for paperwork. For the two months before starting my contract in France, I had to get all the paperwork in order. The bureaucracy is very strong there. I was not shocked because it can be worse in Russia. However, for someone who is accustomed to a neat and quick process, such as in the United States or Germany, it can be daunting. If you are considering a foreign postdoc, make sure you understand which documents you will need and build in enough time to deliver the required information.

I was asked to provide some documents that don’t even exist in my country. For example, I had to get a medical certificate in Moscow … from a French doctor! I also had to track down my birth certificate, which I had not used since I was 16 years old. Fortunately, I found it at my parents’ home.

Learn the language. Another important thing to consider in any foreign position is the language barrier. My future supervisor advised me to learn some French before arriving in the country. I took a short intensive course that proved to be very helpful. In France, most people don’t speak English. I had to speak French to the administration of the University, in the bank, and in order to rent an apartment. In the lab, it was easier: Everybody knew English, although they preferred to speak French.

In general, it was easy to get to know people and become part of the lab. Everyone was very friendly. Every morning there was an all-lab coffee break, and my lab mates and I went to lunch together as well. Our most important decisions were made over a cup of coffee or a glass of wine.

Test your limits. My postdoc brought with it a new level of responsibility. Since my research is related to numerical simulations, the way that I worked—in an office, on a computer—was not very different in the two countries. However, the subject of my research changed a lot. My thesis was devoted to nonlinear optics and laser pulse propagation, whereas my postdoc project was about material science and laser-matter interaction. The particular problem I was studying was new to the lab, with only one postdoc (me) responsible for its solution. Since my supervisor was busy coordinating many other projects and applying for new ones, I was largely on my own. I even had to install the necessary software on my computer. This was very different than my doctoral research, which was a continuation of earlier work and for which I received a large degree of guidance from my advisor.

Starting from almost zero was scary. I was expected to get results and have papers published by the end of the year. I worked hard and accomplished more than I thought I was capable of. I acquired new skills and knowledge. At the end of the project, I was offered the opportunity to continue working on the same subject in another French lab.

This year was very exciting and unforgettable. In addition to my professional achievements and growth, I took advantage of the wonderful French culture, great cuisine and beautiful mountains. And now I speak French.

Elena Silaeva (elena.silaeva@gmail.com) is a postdoctoral researcher in the University of Rouen, Materials Physics Group, France.

 

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