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This expert advice comes from Christine Kiefer – Scientist at MedImmune, and Adjunct Professor, Loudon campus of The Northern Virginia Community College

Deciding whether to look for a post-doctoral appointment depends on your long-term career plans. Lately, more and more doctorates in the sciences are finding that a post-doctoral fellowship is a prerequisite, or at least a very strong advantage, when applying for research or teaching positions in academia, industry, and government. Finding a post-doctoral fellowship that will meet your professional and personal goals can be a challenging task. The following are a few tips on finding the right post-doc that works for you, your family, and your career ambitions.

As early as possible, ask (and answer!) the hard questions:

  • What are your career goals?
  • Do you ultimately want to work in academia, industry, or government?
  • Have you considered alternative career paths?
  • Can you obtain the permanent position of your choosing without post-doctoral experience?
  • Should you choose an academic or industry post-doctoral fellowship?
  • Do you prefer basic or applied research?
  • Do you want opportunities to teach?
  • Do you want to change fields?
  • Do you prefer a big lab or a smaller setting?
  • Do you have geographic limitations?

The most important thing here is to do your research and make an honest assessment of your needs, both professionally and personally.

  • Start early - About a year from graduation is a good time to start actively looking for a post-doc. By now you should have a good idea of your short-term and long-term goals. Be on the lookout for available positions and get some input from your advisor, committee members, and colleagues. Network with the people you have met at meetings and seminars and investigate online resources and advertisements to look for open positions. 
  • Get prepared - The first priority is to review your C.V. What are your strengths and weaknesses? Like any job search, finding a post-doc requires some effective marketing of your skills and experience. As you narrow your choices and decide where you plan to apply, start writing your cover letters. Make each cover letter as specific as possible to the position and lab where you want to apply -- don't use a form letter.
  • Recommendations - Don't underestimate the importance of recommendations. Be confident that the people you ask will speak of you in a highly positive way. Make their job easier by providing your cover letter, CV, and a description of the lab or company you are applying to.
  • Prepare for rejection - Do your best to follow up on your application in a timely manner, but don't be discouraged if the lab you contacted doesn't respond favorably or doesn't respond at all. Getting an interview will be a huge step forward. Then it's time to sell yourself.
  • The interview - Be prepared to discuss your graduate research as well as your plans for the next few years and your ultimate career goals. If you need to give a seminar, make sure you are organized for every possible computer failure and bring several back-ups. Spend some time talking one-on-one with lab members to learn about the lab, the institution, what they like, what they don't like, and what the former post-docs are doing now. They will be your best resource to assess whether the lab environment is a good fit. And most importantly, try to enjoy yourself!


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About the Author: Christine earned her Ph.D. in Molecular Biology from the University of Florida, College of Medicine. Currently, she works as a Scientist at MedImmune, as well as an Adjunct Professor, Loudon campus of The Northern Virginia Community College. Throughout her training, she has been a successful laboratory mentor to high school, undergraduate, graduate, and medical students.