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How to land an excellent postdoctoral position

Andrew Watson

We have been discussing future career possibilities quite a bit lately, simply because we want you to be aware of the many directions your career can take once your graduate degree is completed.

Sometimes, a more traditional pathway just makes sense. We always need strong academic recruits and young researchers with cutting edge talents and questions to address.

For those of you interested in pursuing a postdoctoral position, I have some advice to offer.

Schulich Medicine & Dentistry’s PhD graduates are very much sought after for postdoctoral positions in institutions across North America and around the world. I repeatedly hear my American colleagues discussing how desirable our PhD graduates are, because of their research skills training, maturity, oral and written presentation skills, and strong work ethic.

So how does one go about finding a great postdoctoral placement? Here are six tips you can follow as you begin your search:

1) Start Early: You need to start preparing a minimum of one year before you wish to take on your postdoctoral placement and ideally 18 months to two years before you expect to complete your PhD.

2) Ask Questions: Where do you wish to go? What type of postdoctoral placement do you want? Do you want to stay in the same field as your PhD? Asking these important questions up front will save you time and energy throughout your search.

3) Consider Moving Away: I personally think it is essential to move away from your home PhD institution for your postdoctoral placement, as research is a global pursuit. You must acquire as broad of an understanding of your field as you can during your training. This will also help you build a research network of colleagues on a national and/or international scale, which will be advantageous when applying for faculty positions.

4) Apply for Funding: The best way to obtain the postdoctoral placement you want is to bring your own funding. You need to give yourself enough time to apply to competitions and ideally achieve success in those competitions before the completion of your PhD. Apply to every possible opportunity that you can that may have relevance to your needs.

5) Do Your Research: Make sure you thoroughly research possible labs for your postdoctoral fellowship before agreeing to pursue an opportunity with them. Talk to your PhD supervisors about the mentors and labs. Ask to visit the lab and find out what type of environment you would be working in before making a commitment. Make sure to interview them as much as they interview you.

6) Have a Plan: This may sound like a strange tip before you even begin your postdoctoral fellowship, but this opportunity will fly by very quickly. It should be a wonderful time in your development as a researcher, and one of the most productive times in your career. It is important that you know what you want to get out of the experience.

Your postdoctoral placement will determine how competitive you will become for a faculty position. It is a time when you can focus primarily on research, and, more importantly, pursuing research skills and outcomes that will distinguish you. If you follow these steps, and choose a placement that you will enjoy, I expect a bright future awaits you and the ride will be worthwhile.

If you have questions for me, or would like more advice, please do not hesitate to come and see me. I would be happy to help in any way I can. Also, please keep sending me possible topic ideas for this newsletter!

Talk to you next month,

Andrew J. Watson, PhD
Associate Dean, Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies