• Duncan Astle

It’s a jungle out there: bagging a post-doc job

The incomparable Sue Fletcher-Watson and I continue our intermittent blog series on academic life today, this time focusing on the stressful post-PhD employment scene.  There are a number of options for those who want to stay in academia post-PhD, all highly competitive and with unique stressors. Today, we’re talking about one of the most common scenarios: applying for an advertised pot-doc research role in someone else’s lab. In this case, a PI has secured a grant already and is now advertising a clearly defined job, for someone to carry out the project. So how do you get your application to stand out?  How can you impress at interview?  Here’s a few tips, based on our recent experiences of being on the other side of the interview table.

Address ALL the job criteria, thoroughly but succinctly

Job adverts normally list essential and desirable criteria. In your application, compose a cover letter which specifically demonstrates your ability to meet these criteria. You’d be surprised how many people don’t do this, instead providing what amounts to an abstract for their PhD.  This is all well and good, but remember that the selection panel will use the job criteria to rate applicants.  They won’t give you the benefit of the doubt – you must demonstrate what you can do.

It is tricky to do this succinctly of course, and criteria like “must have excellent communication skills” can be hard to prove.  “I have excellent communication skills” isn’t exactly convincing. Focus on experiences you’ve had and what they taught you.  e.g. “My PhD was supervised by academics from two very different disciplines (informatics, psychology), enabling me to develop my excellent communication skills.  I ran three novel eye-tracking experiments, recruiting more than 80 autistic adults in 12 months, showing my innovative approach to science and time management abilities”. This tells the panel something about your specific skills in a range of areas: research methods, project management, interpersonal skills.

Don’t give the panel extra work

Very occasionally there is a really good reason to contact the panel before the interview. You might have a pressing question about the planned start date for example, or want to ask about potential to do the role part time. However, even in these cases you’d probably do better to apply and then negotiate on the details afterwards, if you’re offered the job.  If they’ve decided you are the right candidate, they will be much more willing to adapt to your situation.

More commonly, people get in touch before the interviews to ask questions like “Am I eligible for the job?” This infuriating query amounts to a request to vet your application prior to seeing other candidates, which is entirely unreasonable. The answer to this is always the same: please read the job description and if you think you are eligible then apply. The second type of advance question is along the lines of a proposal to adapt the study: e.g. have you thought about adding in an fMRI element to this? This also gets Sue’s back up. By this stage, the proposal for funding will have been tweaked and adapted in response to comments from multiple co-applicants, internal and external reviewers. It may have been turned down by one or two funders previously. This is not a good time to start to question fundamental components of the design!

That said, we should note that asking at the interview about where in the protocol there is room to innovate and make your mark on the project is to be encouraged. No-one wants to work with a cipher, just make sure you ask this with a recognition that there is a fixed topic, budget and timeline which you must operate within.

For goodness’ sake, proof-read

Another way to demonstrate your excellent abilities is to show them off in the quality of your application documents. Most scientists will value thoroughness, clarity and precision. Illustrate these qualities by submitting a clearly laid-out CV and cover letter, without typos or grammatical errors. Save it as a pdf so the formatting won’t be messed up by the recipient’s Word template. Don’t submit additional attachments such as reference letters or transcripts of your grades (unless the job advert specifies these). These are superfluous to requirements and just add to the difficulty of screening large numbers of applicants.  It will not work in your favour.

Aim to submit 24 hours before the deadline so you can check the upload works OK.  Sue once applied for a job very close to the deadline, and found at the last minute that her application file size was larger than that allowed on the system.  Cue frantic panic, adapting the document to get under the limit.

Preparation, preparation, preparation

So, you’ve been invited to interview?  Well done! Probably only 4 or 5 people have got this far. Most panels will ask you to prepare something – often a short presentation.  Whatever you do, practice it a lot and keep it to time. Remember that you might be a bit slower on the day if you are nervous (though Sue and Duncan always speed up when anxious…).  Pay close attention to what you’ve been asked to do and stick to the remit. Duncan’s experience is that candidates often overrun… and he has now taken to cutting people off mid-sentence. Everyone should have the same time, and managing the time limit is one of the points of asking interviewees to give a talk.

Prepare for some standard questions: why do you want this job?  What skills and experiences will you bring to the team?  What do you think are the major challenges for this project? How does it fit in with your personal career goals? Make sure you are familiar with the definitions (or debates over definitions) of key terms linked to the project so you can use these confidently and fluently.

It might be that the project has some aspects which are outside your expertise. Sue recently advertised a job on an autism & bilingualism study. This topic is so under-studied that none of the candidates had detailed expertise in both areas. If this happens to you, make sure you read up on a few of the latest findings in the literature – familiarise yourself with the current big debates so you can mention them if asked. Don’t worry about becoming an expert overnight though – it’s OK to say “I haven’t done work in this area myself…” so long as you follow up with “…but I’ve read a handful of papers to prepare and I was struck by…”.  Your panel will like to see that you care enough about the job to do some reading and won’t expect you to know every detail.

Focus on your transferable skills

In your statement and CV, and when preparing for the interview (well done if you get that far!) pull out what type of things you have learned which will be relevant to the project. Your panel are looking for aptitude and abilities that transcend the specific topic.  Maybe you’ve never worked with brain scans, but you have processed and managed large, complex data sets. Maybe you haven’t done research with children, but you did volunteer on a play scheme in the past. Maybe you haven’t done working memory research but you have designed novel tasks to measure attention. Show how what you have done relates to the project by pulling out the common threads – ability to innovate, attention to detail, sensitivity to participant needs.

If you’ve had challenges in the past it is fine to mention these – for example if you’re asked about the experiences you bring to the project. The panel will sympathise with issues recruiting hard to reach populations or making sense of complex patterns in your data.  Make sure though that you present these as problem-solving experiences: this was difficult and this is how we solved the issue. Whatever you think of your former supervisor or boss, don’t complain about them at the interview (yes, this has happened!).

Where the role requires some technical skills, you may find that these are put to the test. Duncan uses a simple ‘data handling’ exercise in his interview process for postdocs. This is undertaken on the day of the interview. Candidates can use any package of their choosing (R, Matlab, Python, Excel), and are typically given 30 minutes to complete the exercise. Be aware that if you have said that you have programming skills then you may have to prove it.

Show 360º thinking

A good researcher will always have multiple levels of a project in mind.  These include the theoretical level – what motivates this research?  What can it tell us theoretically or mechanistically about the way the world works? This should, in turn, relate to the methodological level: how are we going to address this question? Will we develop new methods or work with existing tools? Then there’s the practical level: what resources are needed to carry out this project?  How will they be managed? And finally you will want to consider the human level: who will I be working with – in the research team and as participants? What do they need from me and how can I deliver it?

Thinking about the job you’re applying for at all of these levels encourages you to consider deeply the pertinent issues that will make the study a success. If you take this approach, you won’t go far wrong.

Of course, it is possible that after all this you won’t be offered the job.  If that happens, don’t be down-hearted.  In academia, putting yourself out there by applying for jobs, writing papers, giving talks, submitting grants and speaking up in your workplace is essential.  Knock-backs are a core part of the process and one which we must all learn to embrace and grow from. By all means, email the panel and ask for their feedback. But remember, in 90% of cases the difference between you and the successful candidate will be about fit for the role (e.g. specific experience in a specific skill) rather than anything you could have done differently.

So, go for it. Be brave. Be thorough. Be a good scientist.

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