From Postdoc to PI — Ten Simple Rules for Applying (part 2)

Welcome back! The last post discussed rules 1-3: the importance to do a postdoc, a concise CV and a unique research statement. Like the last post this one is inspired by a Career Development Workshop at ISMB 2012 that I contributed to (download the slides).

There is still one thing missing from a standard application pack:

4. Pretend you care! The teaching statement

Together with CV and research statement some places ask you to submit a teaching statement. So write one. But don’t be fooled, it’s pretty low on the priority list (for the hiring committee, even if maybe not for you). Academic employers want three things from you: money, papers, and … long time nothing … teaching. I’m not saying they won’t ask you to teach for many hours a week, but when it comes to you being evaluated its money and papers (in that order) which counts.

So don’t kill yourself over your research statement. Just give everyone a warm feeling that you care deeply. I (and almost everyone else in my postdoc lab) just copied the following short paragraph from our advisors teaching statement.

“I have always found teaching to be very rewarding and learned early on that it cultivates a fundamental understanding that only comes when you try to distill and convey concepts to others.”

And then a short list of potential courses you would teach. Done!

And, yes, you need to come up with your own paragraph, because this one is now public knowledge and you can’t just copy it like we did.

I’m writing about applying for research positions. Obviously, if you are looking specifically for a teaching position you might want to deal with this part differently.

5. Find a mentor!

What I am telling you here is pretty general and might not fit your personal situation. That’s why it’s important for you to speak to other people who know you well. Find yourself a mentor! Ideally, someone who is few years ahead of you. If your mentor is too senior, s/he might have forgotten what junior folks worry about these days; and if your mentor is too junior, s/he won’t have advice you need. I was lucky enough to know PIs 4-5 years my senior, who I trusted and who shared their experiences with me when I had important decisions to make.

6. Network!

And once you have a mentor, you have made one of the most important steps in your career: you have started to network!

And there are many more ways to build your network:

  • By joining mailing lists where job ads are spread. There are many of those, including CRA, Bioconductor mailing list, LinnkedIn groups and national newspapers (like Germany’s Die Zeit), and even blogs like It Takes 30.
  • Give talks! As many as you can! As early as you can! Giving talks means that people know who you are and what you do. The better you and your work are known in the field, the bigger your chances for a job. Also, your job talk is the most important bit of your interview and you need to practice that.
  • Ask your supervisor (or mentor or anybody more senior than you are) to introduce you to other people at conferences. ISMB is a great opportunity for that.
  • Every time an outside speaker gives a lecture at your institute, meet with that person and discuss your research. This exercise will give you invaluable experience in presenting your work – exactly what you need for a job interview – and you get to know many people.
  • Talk to other postdocs who are in similar situations like you are and form peer groups to discuss your CVs and research statements. As long as you are not direct competitors for the same position, this is very helpful.

7. Think globally!

The wider you throw your nets, the easier it is to get a job. If your personal situation makes it possible, don’t limit yourself to one particular city/region/country. When I was on the job market I made a list of around 50 open positions all over the world. In the end I interviewed at 5 places in the US, Canada, England and Germany. It was quite a good experience and showed the different research styles in those countries first-hand. The five interviews turned into 4 offers. That gives you an idea of how bad the offers to applications ratio is.

8. Enjoy the ride!

Being on the job market is not all stress and pain – I actually found myself enjoying (certain aspects of) it. I liked to make my list of open positions, to google-stalk these places and see what they are like – and the day-dreaming of how my life would be in California or Spain. Waiting for responses was nerve-wracking … but the joy of every invitation! I liked the inverviews (even though they were stressful), because usually they put you up in a good hotel, they try to show off their university to you, everybody is super-nice, and you are the center of everybody’s attention for that day. When you think about it, that’s not too bad — just enjoy the ride!

9. Be lucky!

So, you got a great CV and research statement, have networked like hell, and still … your dream place doesn’t even invite you. That’s bad. But most of the time it’s not your fault. Job ads are often very unspecific and invite applications from all kinds of fields, but internally people might have a much more focussed idea of what they are looking for. And maybe you just didn’t fit into that profile. And sometimes lucky opportunities open up that you haven’t even planned for. So on top of all those preparations there are things outside your control. Don’t feel bad about it.

10. Most importantly: No new shoes!

This is the most important tip I have for you, and it also leads over to the next step after applying – the job interview. When I had one of those in LA, I spend the day before the interview shopping and bought some really nice shoes. Hand-stitched Italian calf leather — what beauties!

On the morning of the job interview I put them on for the first time and started to walk over campus. God, did they hurt! When I met my host, the first thing I said was ‘Where is your first-aid kit? My feet are bleeding!’. Not an auspicious start …

In the end, I didn’t get the job.

I blame it on the shoes.


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7 thoughts on “From Postdoc to PI — Ten Simple Rules for Applying (part 2)

  1. nextgenseek says:

    thanks for the ten tips. would like to request a post(s) on what happens during the interview (especially expectations for the chalk talk), second visit, offer, negotiations and more.

  2. Y. Cun says:

    very detail guidlines for young fresh PhD students. thanks, Dr. Markowetz.

  3. [...] have blogged about the ISMB workshop “From Postdoc to PI” before (here and here) and now the organizers published a paper about it in PLoS Comp Bio: “Don’t Wear Your [...]

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