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I finished my PhD, now what?

Written by: Marcela Hernández
Published on: 21 Feb 2023

Many of you have just finished your PhD studies. Congratulations! This is a great achievement. But what happens next? Many new graduates nowadays are navigating options to pursue their careers in industry, but many others are considering staying in academia and are currently thinking about applying to postdoc positions and/or fellowships. A survey of 4,731 PhD holders (response rate 39.5%) in the UK who had graduated within 3.5 years of the time the survey took place (2011/12 and 2013/14), showed that about 30% of PhD holders end up working in academia and, of those, about 70% work as teaching professionals and 30% as researchers.

Applying for postdoc positions can be stressful, especially when moving countries or when you think you do not have the correct expertise for that specific call. If you are moving countries, consider the extra costs, for example, for relocation, visa costs, rental contracts, insurance, selling old furniture and buying new furniture. Sometimes it is good to focus more on the reasons why you have decided to move, what you will achieve at the end of your contract, rather than the cost. If the balance goes towards the experience you will gain, think about the financial costs as an investment in your career. If you think you are not the suitable candidate, but you would really like to join that group, position yourself as a hardworking person willing to learn new techniques and ask your referees to comment on these characteristics in their reference letters.

Here, I suggest some simple ideas to make your journey towards applying for postdoc positions less stressful:

  1. Contact the principal investigator (PI) to ask questions or suggest a meeting. Getting the PI to know that you are serious about joining their group is a big plus. When sending emails, address them by their name (for example, ‘Professor Smith’, rather than ‘Respected Dr’). Read about the PI’s research and ensure the letter is tailored to their group and is not generic.
  2. When writing your cover letter, make sure you align your experiences with what is being advertised. Do not worry about not having all the requirements as very rarely a PI will find a candidate who is a perfect match for the call.
  3. Your cover letter should not be a copy of your CV. Instead, it should state why you are a suitable candidate. If you have achievements like papers and patents, do include them in the letter. Sometimes, PIs receive many applications and will read the cover letter first and the filtering can be quite tough.
  4. Think about the pros and cons in joining a large group with a senior PI. If you have the experience needed, then it will be very beneficial for your future career, but if you don’t have the experience, it can be tricky to adjust, especially when you don’t know the team, and you may get lost. On the other hand, applying to join a group of a new PI can be beneficial but can also have its disadvantages. It can be beneficial because most of the time new PIs are still working in the lab and have the pressure to publish, but a disadvantage is that they may not have the status of more senior academics and that may play against your future prospects.
  5. If you receive an offer, talking to the team sometimes can be useful to envision how your life will be as a researcher in that group. Contact former members of that team as well and ask for their opinion. Sometimes you have a successful PI with a lack of empathy towards their team. Balance what is more important for you.
  6. Last but not least, attending conferences is the best option to secure a position in a lab, especially when willing to move abroad. At the conferences, most of the PIs are available to chat and many will do so happily. During conferences, you have full opportunity to meet several PIs and to also attend their talks. Some PIs have a secured budget for postdocs and meeting them at a conference can open a door for your future positions. Also, during conferences, you can meet potential hosts when your goal is to apply for fellowships.

All the ideas suggested above are just simple tips to help you navigate the challenges of finding a group to pursue your postdoctoral research. But the top suggestion I always give to people is to separate from their lab group when attending conferences. You see them all the time in the lab, so instead go and meet people, talk about their research, ask them questions, let them know you like their research line, and be proactive! Finding the ideal postdoc position is many times unrealistic, so think about your career goals and your personal goals and try finding a group that best aligns with what you want. Finally, make sure you find a PI who supports you and who can be a mentor when you are a PI.