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Compiled by Lucy Zheng

It’s the start of another academic year, and as many graduate students approach their fourth and fifth years, you might be thinking about next steps after your PhD. Here's some advice, straight from the postdocs’ mouth, on picking a program, getting the position, and securing funding. We also have a special section on finding a postdoc from an international student’s perspective!

How should I pick a program?

  • Dream big.​ Ask yourself where in your wildest dream you would take your research, and try to get in a lab that will help you obtain the skills/expertise/resources necessary to take your research there.
  • Think carefully about the story you are going to want to tell when you apply for faculty positions. Doing a postdoc on a topic that doesn’t interest you might not be a great choice.
  • Introspect and make a plan. Ask yourself how your PhD training can be best complemented, and set specific learning/performance goals for your postdoc before you apply.
  • Think critically about what you want to get out of the postdoc. This is an opportunity to gain additional training and really develop your independence as a researcher. Are there new analytic techniques you want to learn? Is there a new perspective from which you want to work? Is there some intellectual shift you want to make?
  • Find a lab that has a different style than your current lab. Receiving different mentoring styles helps you identify what works and what not works within each mentoring style. If you are pursuing an academic job, this matters for developing your own mentoring style.
  • Consider postdocs to look outside traditional social psychology programs. Social psychologists can fit in a variety of departments. As a graduate student, I applied to postdocs in vision science, public health, management, and public policy.
  • Think global. Reflect on the possibility of doing a postdoc abroad. If there is a team outside of the U.S. that would be a strong fit for you, look up funding opportunities for foreign researchers in that country. (Tip: In countries like Canada, many postdoc researchers secure their own funding but must apply for it during the fall season before they begin—not during the winter or spring before they wrap up their PhD).
  • Think about people just as much as you think about places. Postdocs can feel isolating. When deciding where to take your next step, try to get a sense of the community and how postdocs have been integrated (or not) within your programs of interest. Would you be the sole postdoc? Are there internal funding opportunities for postdocs? Research support?
  • Make sure your postdoc position is at least a two-year position. It’s difficult to improve your publication record during a one-year postdoc in time for the job market (which starts during the fall of your first year as a postdoc!).
  • Before accepting a position, discuss options for taking on ongoing projects. For example, you can see if the PI/lab has data that have been collected but no one is writing up at the moment. This is a great way to start working on publications as soon as you arrive while working on developing your own projects and data collection.

How do I find a position?

  • Identify some people you’d like to work with early on, attend their talks at conferences, and approach them personally about their research. This will give you an idea about their research style, personality, and mentoring style.
  • Keep an eye on the university and department announcements for open positions.
  • Network, network, network. Think strategically about who you want to work with, who you can learn from, and which skills you want to gain. Reach out before a call for applications is posted. Demonstrate your passion, try to kickstart a collaboration, apply for funding together, and make it a no-brainer that they want to hire you. The more ways that you can interact with a potential mentor without explicitly asking for a postdoc the better.
  • Postdoc hiring seems to be a less formal market than the tenure track. That means that having someone who knows you or people in your network will probably matter more. Your connections might matter as much (or more) than your CV.
  • Don’t be shy about letting people know you are interested in a postdoc. Before ads are posted, faculty members will often reach out to their colleagues in the field to find potential candidates. The more people who know that you are looking, the better!
  • If there’s someone you’re interested in working with, you should contact them early on (at least 12 to 18 months before your planned graduation date). The idea being that if you did not get a postdoc position, you want to at least be enrolled in your Ph.D. program.
  • Join relevant listservs (e.g., cogdevsoc, relevant APA division, spsp, jdm, etc.) and track when calls are sent out and with what frequency. At the same time, don’t wait for calls. Reach out to faculty of interest to determine whether they have funding or whether you need to secure funding.
  • Before you contact them, see if they have NIH funding (https://projectreporter.nih.gov/reporter.cfm). You can also learn about postdoc fellowships that you can apply for to receive funding to work with that person.

How do I get a position?

  • Try to present your work at several different conferences. Presenting your work often gets your "name out there" as someone who works on a particular topic. In particular at specialized conferences (e.g., an SPSP preconference), you might find that a potential postdoc adviser is in the audience and you can use your presentation as a talking point. This can serve as a starting point for a more formal discussion. For example, many senior graduate students start conversations with a potential adviser about writing a grant together to try and secure postdoc funding.
  • Have a good publishing and teaching record. As the job market gets more competitive, postdocs are no longer just for those seeking R1 jobs. R2s and good SLACs will also expect you to have a good publication (potential for good research as an assistant professor) and teaching record.
  • Highlight quant skills or time-intensive methods (e.g. fMRI, peripheral psychophysiology) in applications and look not just for a match in research interests, but also in what skills you bring to the table from day one.

How will funding work?

  • Funding plays a major role in determining whether you can join a lab. Apply for grants (NIH/NSF/private institutes; even the small ones) at the same time (or before) you find a postdoc.
  • Explore funding organizations (e.g. John Templeton, William T. Grant) that fit your research topics. Students are not usually eligible to apply as PI, so you would typically apply under the name of the professor who you want to work with. The agreement is that, if granted, your postdoc salary and benefits would be supported by the grant.
  • The postdocs that give you the most freedom are often the ones where you bring your own funding, such as through the NSF program. It can be good to apply for these a year before you need to leave your program so that if you get it, great you can go, but if you don't, you aren't scrambling to find funding.
  • International students: Generally speaking, there are two types of postdocs: ones funded by the Principal Investigator through a grant, and ones funded through external sources (e.g., NIH, NSF, University-wide fellowship/scholarship). Unfortunately, there are few government-funded opportunities for international students. Based on my research, only K99/R00 does not require U.S. citizenship. However, K99/R00 is highly competitive and tend to fund senior postdocs. International students can apply, but be prepared to spend a great amount of time and effort collecting materials with a low chance of receiving it.

General tips

  • Applying for postdocs is not just about getting your research statement and CV ready, but also preparing for interviews and job discussions. It is not uncommon for a PI to invite you to a campus for a one-hour job talk. Prepare your thesis as well as your 1-, 5-, 10-, 30-, and 60-minute research talk (with slides).
  • Some people liken a postdoc to a grad school sabbatical, where responsibilities are lessened. This is partly true in that you may have more unstructured time than you did as a graduate student. But a postdoc can also be more like a job than like grad school. You aren't there just to develop yourself and learn how to be a scholar. You're also there to be a competent contributor to someone's existing research project. Make sure that the project you'll be working on is something you're willing to invest several years of your life into. While your PI might be open to kicking around ideas and coming up with projects together based on common interests, there's definitely going to be an emphasis on the specific project you were hired to complete.

Some final advice...

  • Try to build collaborations with people other than your postdoc advisor (especially if you worked primarily with one person in grad school). You will need multiple references when applying for jobs, and you will need at least three senior colleagues who really know your work well. Establishing collaborations with people other than your advisors is also a good skill to practice on the way to establishing independence as an emerging scholar.
  • Make sure to take on mentorship roles to both undergrad and graduate students. It’s good practice!
  • Writing a grant as a postdoc feels like a pain, but it’s also great practice for when you are writing grants on your own (and even more relevant if you end up pursuing an R1 or R2 job, as well as for SLAC jobs).

Thank you to Dr. Andy Pin-Hao Chen, Dr. Michael Pasek, Dr. Miao “Kitty” Qian, Dr. Laura Wallace, Dr. Selin Gülgöz, Dr. William Brady, Dr. Regine Debrosse, Dr. Alexander Danvers, Dr. Chelsea Schein, and Dr. Margaret Echelbarger for their contributions to this article.