Student News

Postdoc Pointers

Student members provide their insights on how to find the right postdoctoral experience.

By Jennifer Bellingtier, PhD, and Vanessa L. Castro

Deciding on your next step after earning your PhD can be a daunting process. For many of us, a postdoc is the logical next move. Here we provide some insights and tips from our own experiences in finding the right postdoc.

Figure out what you want

There should be some novel experience you hope to gain, as the postdoc is a period for gaining new skills and training. For example, Vanessa wanted additional adult lifespan training, including hands-on experience collecting data with older adults and training in test design and psychometrics. This information helped her to identify the specific mentors with whom she wanted to work.

Consider going abroad

Your postdoc could be an exciting time to gain international experience. Working with researchers from different backgrounds and perspectives can provide nuance to your understanding of psychology. Your research could be enhanced by considering cultural differences. Although some international postdocs may require you to already know a different language, many do not.

Be open to possibilities

Make sure you subscribe to the Listservs for the societies focused on your area(s) of research. The Div. 20 Listserv announces numerous postdoc opportunities, as do others (e.g., GSA and Div. 7). You can also monitor psychology job wikis that include postdocs.

Use your network

Once you have honed in on potential postdocs, it is useful to put the word out through your professional network (e.g., faculty advisers and mentors), as they may have inside knowledge regarding the person you want to work with (e.g., what their work style is like, whether they have any funding opportunities) and/or can pass on any leads. Moreover, your network may act behind the scenes in ways that facilitate a connection between you and your prospective mentor; for example, they may be able to vouch for your abilities and work ethic.

Work conferences to your advantage

Conferences are additional resources to build professional connections and discuss postdoc positions. Attending social events can help, but you may also find it useful to request individual meetings with prospective mentors. Going into her last conference, Jennifer had identified the postdoc mentor she was most interested in and scheduled a meeting not only with her, but also a separate meeting with one of her former postdocs. This scheduling can be done via email ahead of the conference, or you might ask your current adviser to help facilitate setting up meetings. Ask if they have time to meet after a symposium talk, during a social event or over coffee.

Gather information directly

You may also find it helpful to directly contact potential mentors or program coordinators to find out more about the position and what they are looking for in a future postdoc. This action demonstrates your enthusiasm and may also save you time from applying to positions that might not be a great fit.

Make your own opportunities

If you feel prepared enough, you could make your own postdoc position by writing a training grant. To do this, first brainstorm some ideas; then, contact prospective mentors with these ideas. Training grants are hard to get but afford unique training opportunities that might not be available through traditional postdoc positions. In our experience, it is generally rare for a mentor to turn someone down if they want to create their own funding through a grant application. It’s kind of a win-win situation for the mentor and mentee.

Think about starting early, and then start even earlier

Finally, start your postdoc process early. With funded positions, announcements may be made throughout the year, as grants are awarded; putting your name out there (and early) for consideration is likely not a bad thing nor is establishing some kind of connection with a prospective mentor. If you are writing a training grant, starting early is especially important. Many resources are available to assist with writing grants, and Vanessa found the NIH grant writing workbook an especially invaluable tool in securing her postdoc (there are similar resources for other funding mechanisms). Allow time to reach out to your network for feedback on various aspects of your postdoc application.

Footnote

Jennifer A. Bellingtier is a doctoral candidate graduating in May from the Lifespan Developmental Psychology program at North Carolina State University. She serves as the graduate student representative for the Div. 20 Executive Board. This fall she will begin an international postdoc at Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, Germany. Her research interests focus on individuals’ perceptions of their own aging and how those perceptions influence daily well-being.

Vanessa L. Castro is a NRSA postdoctoral fellow working with Derek Isaacowitz, PhD, and Judith Hall, PhD, at Northeastern University. She received her PhD in Lifespan Developmental Psychology from North Carolina State University. Her current work, funded by NIA, examines age-related differences and similarities in everyday interpersonal perception skills.