Natural Rationality | decision-making in the economy of nature


On Being a Postdoc - tips and advices

After two years of postdoc, I felt that my experience could be useful to others.

1. There's a good chance you're nobody.
Being a postdoc means that you're not really a student, and not really a professor (try to explain to your non-academic friends what exactly is a postdoc in one sentence). Don't be surprised if you miss a lot of parties: students see you as someone who can grade their work, i.e. a teacher, and professors see you as a trainee, an intern, or an advanced students. You're too old to be a student, and too young to be a professor. If you want to have a social life, you have to be pro-active and meet people, organize reading groups, attend to conferences, keep in touch with people. Another problem is your status in the university administration: you are not a regular employee, but you have access to most of the facilities. Sometimes it is tricky: for instance, you are probably spending a lot of time sending job applications or thinking about a career switch, yet in certain universities you cannot use the resources of the career centers (other than the library). So if you want to meet with a counsellor or need advice about your cover letter, you have to pay or forget it.

2. Finding a job is a part-time job.
If you want to work in academia, you need to devote a considerable amount of time to your job search. You need to:

  • Learn about the job market and academic jobhunting (the Chronicle of Higher Education is the best place to start; there are also plenty of books and blogs that can help you, see this and this), the selection process, the interview, etc. You need to acquire a lot of know-how, and you probably did not learn that during your thesis.
  • Seriously think about who you are, as a researcher and teacher, because in most job applications you have to write a research statement and a teaching statement.
  • Search for job applications (subscribe to mailing lists, browse the Chronicle of Higher Education career section, departmental websites, etc.)
  • Write a good cover letter that explain why you're the best candidate for the job you are applying to.
  • Have an up-to-date academic cv.
  • Ask 3 persons to write reference letters.
  • In many jobs application, you need to send a writing sample (choose your best peer-reviewed paper, or start writing one right now) a syllabus and student evaluations.
  • Network: you need to meet people and to be known by other researchers. Try contacting them, or put your papers online, start a blog, attend to conferences.
  • Learn about each of these steps
  • Be prepared to receive a lot of refusals. Departements often receive 200 hundred applicants. If you are lucky, you will have to give a job talk and go through an acaemic interview.
  • Think of a plan B: what will you do if you can't find a job in academia? Don't wait until the end of your postdoc, because non-academic jobs are not easier to find. See my post on What to do with a PhD outside academia?
3. Publish or perish.
Your main goal, research-wise, is to publish as many peer-reviewed articles as you can. So think, read, write, proofread and submit. Learn about the different journals, their status (certain publications are more prestigious than others), how to submit articles. Of course, you will need new ideas and knowledge, so try to find a good balance between learning and writing. You can't learn all the time (at one point you have to publish), you can't write all the time (at one point you have to browse the literature), so you have to do both (it's an example of the exploration-exploitation tradeoff). Use RSS feeds to be up-to-date in your field, and subscribe to journals and blogs feeds.

4. Mens sana in corpore sana.
There's a good chance you spent the last years sitting in front of a computer trying to finish your phd thesis 24/7. You are now about to be, or are already, a thirthysomething. You're last memories of doing sport go back to high school and somehow you always associate sport with those jocks who made you feel terrible during your teen years. Well, these days are over now: you're not getting any younger and you have no idea how physical activity can be good for you. It it good for relaxation, mental health, well-being, attention, etc. (I started karate last year and it's one of the best decision I ever made. I'm now purple belt and in a better shape, mentally and physically).

5. Adjust to pressure - be productive.
So you have to keep up with the literature in your field, publish papers, teach a class, speak in academic conferences and search for a job (and learn about all that). It's a lot. Multitasking, time-efficiency and productivity are important concepts in the academic world: you have to be organized, to allocate your time and energy to each of these tasks, to keep track of all your ongoing projects. A good start is to have a calendar and a to-do list, and to always have a pen and paper with you: any time you have a good idea or remember that you have to do someting, offload your brain on paper. It's also a good idea to have a work schedule: treat your postdoc as a job that begins at a certain time of the day and finishes at another one. Take week-ends off if you can. It's easier to have a social life when you work during business hours and it's rewarding to have some time off. Moreover, you might be more productive if you devote a definite amount of time per day to your work. You don't need to work all day and night to be productive (although sometimes you will be in a rush).

These tips are just the tip (if you'll forgive the pun!) of the iceberg: you have to learn about academic jobs, research, writing, teaching, public speaking, reviewing papers, making good powerpoint presentations, etc. Here is a couple of links to start with:

Blogs about academia and lifehacks


  • Finally, a good tips is to google anything you need about academic life followed by "tips".