Post-doc searches are tricky and difficult. Networking is a big part of it, so talk with your doctoral advisor, see who they know that is searching for post-docs, and keep your eyes open for opportunities. Professional societies and the divisions can also help connect people, people looking to hire postdocs and people searching for a post-doc lab. So, if you haven’t already joined, consider joining the Polymer Chemistry (POLY) and Polymeric Material Science and Engineering (PMSE) divisions of ACS. Also, many post docs that are funded are advertised through Twitter, so sign up for twitter and follow people who you are interested in working for. They may advertise a post-doc opening!
This page has lots of content, so scroll through to the sections most relevant to you. Much of this content is applicable across the STEM fields.
What exactly is a Post-Doc?
A post-doc is a fantastic opportunity to work in a lab, discover fundamental or applied breakthroughs in science, publish cool papers, without the pressure of a dissertation. You will already be a skilled scientist/engineer, and now you get to use those skills to make a rapid and efficient impact on the field. Post-docs positions can be in academia, industry or government.
During your postdoc you will use the skills you gained in your doctoral work to make contributions to polymer science, or your chosen field, as well as gaining new skills. You will also have the opportunity to develop and realize your own ideas. Ever wanted to make a new type of polymer material or application of a polymer, a post-doc is a great opportunity to do just that. Be sure you have an idea of how you can contribute and be mutually beneficial in a lab. Have a plan for the type of work you could do in the lab you are applying to, and why it is beneficial, both to you and your potential post-doctoral mentor. Do your homework on why that lab and your skills are a good fit.
Timeline for Starting a Post-Doc
Your timeline for starting a Post-Doc is going to depend on several factors. Make sure you have a clear agreement and timeline in place with your doctoral advisor(s). You are going to leave their lab, so you all need to be on board. Also, ask yourself how much gap do you want between the end of your dissertation work and the start of your postdoc. This is a personal choice, but make sure you factor in time needed to regroup, move etc. Also celebrate your doctoral achievement! You did an amazing job completing your doctoral work!
Labs are usually flexible about when you can start (unless there is a strict timeline for the funding or project). So, don’t let timing stop you. If you impress the potential advisor, they will do what they can to hire you if it works out for everyone. We understand getting visas can take time, or relocating (especially now) is tricky, or you need to finish that one more experiment to wrap up a paper. Just communicate these thoughts and see if you can work something out. Your first aim is to impress the PI, so they want to hire you so bad!
Choosing a Lab.
Ask the following questions, and we will provide some talking points for each of them below
Do you want to take this as an opportunity to gain a new but related skills set, or to solidify your position as an expert in the research area of your PhD?
Do you want to join an established lab and work with a team with a track record of success, or would you prefer to join a growing new lab and be part of the rise of that area of science?
There are advantages and disadvantages to each pathway!
Moving to a new area will diversify your skill set, but the ‘learning curve’ can be pretty steep. This could mean it takes a bit longer to publish in your new lab, but could also enable more collaborative publications. Most STEM areas are broad, including polymer science and engineering, so make sure you can identify how your training fits in and enhances the opportunities in your new potential lab. The new skills you gain will almost certainly help you as you move into your independent career in either industry, government, or academia.
Choosing a lab that is closely aligned with your doctoral work is also potential successful pathway. There may be a group that you frequently cite in your publications in your dissertation work. The ‘learning curve’ is probably going to be less steep if you join a lab as a post-doc that aligns with your dissertation work, and you will likely become a leader in that field! Demonstrating leadership is going to be key to your independent career in industry, government or academia.
The other big question is established lab vs new lab. The definition of established vs new lab is murky, and not clear cut, and we don’t want to get into specific cases here. However, you for sure know which groups you cite a lot, and these are likely to be established labs with prolific publication records. Having said that, those groups can be quite large, meaning lots of independence, but possibly less one-on-one time with the advisor. New and recently started labs are fantastic, often brimming with new ideas and directions. That level of enthusiasm and discovery is huge. Also keep in mind, each established lab was once a new lab! Joining such a lab right as they make huge breakthroughs is going to be huge for you!
As with job applications at any level: When you are reaching out to a potential employer/mentor, don’t only mention what YOU will gain from working with them. Also mention what you will bring for THEM. What expertise will you bring, how will you help elevate their research?
When to start thinking about your Post-Doc?
Ideally, start thinking about postdoc positions a year (or more!) before you defend your dissertation. Especially if you feel strongly about working with a particular PI, or at a particular place. This will give you (and the PI) enough time to secure funds.
If you are interested in working at a particular lab, you do not need to wait that lab to advertise a postdoc position. Get in touch with the PI, tell them why you are interested, and ask if there are any opportunities at their lab. If the match is good, they will do what they can to hire you.
It is possible your potential mentor will have some extra funds to support you until you get your own fellowships. Maybe they are willing to help you apply for fellowships. So don’t just wait for jobs to be advertised. Be proactive. You need to actively look into what fellowships are available to you, and ideally have some kind of a vision for what you want to do next.
Make sure you have looked into fellowships and funding you can apply for, and be prepared to write your own projects when you join a lab (unless the PI wants you to do otherwise). Show this in your cover letter / email. Tell the PI you could apply for X, Y, Z fellowships. This only going to help your application, even when you are applying for an advertised (PI-funded) postdoc position. Because those jobs are typically advertised for 1-2 years, and it is imperative you seek additional funding and not depend on your mentor. PIs do their best to keep funding going but things happen, maybe they won’t be able to get funds for you. But more importantly, as you grow, you will start developing your own ideas and having your own funding will give you freedom to explore those ideas. Who knows what types of materials, polymers or structures you will make!
While it is not always possible for a PI to come up with a huge chunk of money to hire a postdoc, they may be aware of internal fellowship (at their university) OR they may be able to write grant supplements, OR maybe they have startup funds etc… But it is also entirely possible they have none of that. There is a bit of luck as well. Which is why it is probably not about you (assuming you have done your homework) but it is meeting the PI at the right time. We all know somebody looking for a Post-Doc, so if someone cannot hire you, they can refer you to a person who is looking for a Post-Doc. They will be thrilled if the right person contacts them at the right time! Again keep up the networking, for instance through ACS, POLY and PMSE and Twitter.
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