Get Out of Your Way! Seven Tips on Applying to Postdoctoral Fellowships

Jan 17, 2019

By guest author Dr. Sara K. McBride

To postdoc or not to postdoc, that is the question. Post-doctoral fellowships have become an increasingly necessary part of the academic and research career progression when there is a lack of openings for tenure track positions. But the post-doctoral position can be more than just a “fall back” position until you get your tenure track post. The right postdoc is an opportunity to learn new disciplines, skills, expand your network, and continue to find your voice as a scholar.

When I was applying for postdocs, I found some great tips online about how to apply, but very little on the mentality or strategy regarding the application process, which can be pretty rough. So I’ve put together some of the mental and emotional tips and tricks I used to keep going on my post-doc search, even when things seemed pretty hopeless. Remember: advice is general and it may not work for everyone! Take what is useful and leave the rest.

#1 Get out of your way.

Discussions about imposter syndrome keep growing in academia, and I think this is great! I remember reading the postdoc descriptions, and while I had the interests and qualifications, I didn’t feel that it would be possible to get that kind of post-doc – meaning, one that was highly competitive and prestigious. But I applied anyway. Then, when I was interviewed for that post-doc, I knew the interviewers had attended some of the best schools in the country: MIT, CalTech, Stanford, and Scripps. To say I was intimidated was an understatement; after all, I had mostly attended state schools and earned my PhD in New Zealand. I didn’t come from the traditional “pipeline” of prestigious academic institutions. But I did my best to show that I could be a contributing member of the team because I had a different perspective to offer. I got the postdoc. Later, I was told that  I showed I had something unique (different than the traditional pipeline) to contribute, which is why I got the fellowship.

So, don’t exclude yourself on the basis not feeling worthy. You are worthy, for reasons you may not even know. If you meet most of the requirements, go for it!   

#2 Burnout is real, but don’t let it sink your chances.

Perhaps one of the most significant issues that recent PhDs struggle with is seeing the end of the tunnel. Stress can add up, which can make it feel impossible to do one more thing other than finishing your dissertation. Addressing burnout is a whole topic unto itself and one I won’t belabour here, but know a couple of things: it is normal to feel this way because lots of very successful people have. I know I have! Here is where you need to make a choice. It is okay for you to rest and pause your postdoc search if you don’t feel you have the ability to put in good quality applications.

But resting won’t help one part of burnout: guilt. Not doing anything can make you feel worse because you feel guilty about not getting enough done. Instead of taking a complete break, try taking small, daily steps can add up to a lot of meaningful progress: you don’t have to commit to making an application per day. Maybe just one day is about writing one paragraph on your cover letter or working on formatting your CV. Setting small goals is the best approach if you are struggling with burnout but still want to continue the postdoc application process.

#3 Find your edge.

What makes you stand out? In order to get that post-doc, you do need an edge that attracts the attention of the people reviewing your application. But it can be hard to find that edge. I live in Silicon Valley, which is a profoundly competitive culture. If you haven’t given a TED Talk, written a novel, directed a film, or been a CTO with a startup by the age of 30, then you start to feel left out of the successful track. But fear not! There is something about that you that helps you stand out and figuring out what that is will be crucial to your success. Maybe it is your deep passion and dedication to the research or your ability to produce publications rapidly. Maybe you provide a different way of thinking about problems or have unique experiences. Or perhaps you spent time out of academia and can bring a variety of skills to your academic work. There will be something that helps you stand out. If you don’t know what your edge is, talk to your academic supervisors or your peers; they can often be good sounding boards for what makes you unique.

#4 Find the fun.

Make the journey as exciting and fun as you can. For instance, in one of my proposals, I wrote it as a story, a narrative, about the project and what success looked like. I had characters and a plot line. I started my proposal with the story, and my conclusion was written with the end of the story, bookending the proposal with the narrative. Writing the story took about less than a page overall but it was fun to write, and it helped me make sense of my project for myself. I had intended to remove it, but I kept it in, at the last minute, because I thought it gave the proposal more meaning.

Later, when I got the postdoc, one of my advisors told me it was one of the best he had ever read because he wanted to know how the story ended! It made him read the whole proposal, and it also showed my creativity. And I had so much fun writing it.  

#5 Gamify it.

At that point of the PhD, I was desperate for a distraction. I put all my applications together on a spreadsheet, with headers that included: deadlines, materials required, contact details, salary, start dates, and I had a five-star grading scale for how much it matched my academic interests. I gamified the process by providing rewards for applications completed or emails sent about the postdoc. Keeping track of my applications this way gave me focus and helped me collect data on how my applications were going, and I love collecting DATA! In the end, it was one of the last applications that got me my postdoc. I think this was because I learned a lot from my earlier applications that helped me become a better applicant overall. Again, this goes hand in hand with having fun throughout the process.

#6 Engage in *meaningful* networking.

Networking is a big word used all the time. But what makes it meaningful? For me, this means spending your time cultivating good relationships with your supervisors and your grad school cohorts. If you can, get to know the people who your supervisors work with; it may be that one of their co-authors would be a good fit for your work. Leveraging your close network helps more than sending random emails to people you’ve never met. Academia tends to work as tiny communities so getting to know the people in that extended community, through a network you already have, really can help.

For roles I’m interested in, I do try to contact people in those institutions, and, if I feel that it would be appropriate, I approach the lead advisor. Now, not everyone does this, and some advisors don’t like it, so do your research first! For my postdoctoral fellowship, it was encouraged to contact the advisors; for others, not so much.

#7 Your success is in applying, not getting the post-doc.

I know this seems odd but hear me out. I celebrate my successfully submitted applications as THE success, not whether I got the job. I assume rejection for the job, so I celebrate the win I have control of: submission. You might ask that if I assume rejection, then what is the point of applying? Rejection can be fierce to come to terms with, especially if you are not used to it. But assuming success for any application can be detrimental to your success in getting a postdoc if it stops you from continuing to apply for other fellowships.

For me, once I put in an application (and entered it into my nerdy spreadsheet), I consider it a personal success, no matter the outcome. And I celebrate that win in a variety of ways, like going to the theatre, buying a pair of shoes, getting a massage, or drinking a nice glass of whiskey. I reason that you never know when you are applying for something if it already has a preferred candidate or if there is a better candidate concerning fit. You have no control over this. So, I forget about what the outcome is and apply to another fellowship again. And again. Even when I have an interview for the postdoc I want, I would still look at other postdocs because you never know when something might fall through.

In conclusion, building a robust mental framework during this time is critical to long term success for any post-doctoral path. And when I mean success, I mean not just getting a post-doctoral fellowship but keeping a positive mentality during what can be a pretty difficult time. I can’t promise you puppies and rainbows after you take these steps; I can only share what has worked for me.

Even if you don’t get that post-doctoral fellowship, you’ll have learned a lot about academia, research, and the job market, as well as how to apply for jobs. You’ll have learned how to write research proposals, craft an excellent CV, and network with a wide range of people. If you decide, after not finding what you want, that you want to apply for a role outside academia, you’ll take those skills with you, which will improve your career, no matter what happens.

Happy hunting!  

Dr. Sara K. McBride is a Mendenhall Fellow at the U.S.G.S in Menlo Park. Sara has 20 years of experience as a professional communicator and disaster responder, having recently shifted careers into social science research.  She has a Bachelor’s Degree in Arts in Law and Justice from Central Washington University, a Master’s in Public Administration from the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, and her Ph.D. from Massey University in English and Media Studies. Sara McBride is an employee of the U.S. Geological Survey but the above views do not represent the USGS’s position and is not an official statement from the organization. This post was not sponsored.