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General Timeline to Become a Post-doctoral Researcher in Academia

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Hi folks,

I am in a situation where I may either graduate in Spring/Summer 2017 (lack of funding), or in Spring/Summer 2018 (if secure a dissertation fellowship). Since neither alumni from my lab nor alumni from my program (STEM) typically go into academia to be a postdoc, I would like to know at what point of time should I do such or certain things, so that I can ultimately getting a post-doctoral research position that I want, presumably at the beginning of a Fall semester/quarter or as soon as I fulfilled all the requirements that complete my program.

I think that inputs from those who are graduating / graduated from grad school can be gathered and combined into a "timeline", so that future viewers/readers of the forum can use it as a guidance.

I would assumed that the first step is when "you about to start / started writing your dissertation", or "meet individuals / POI who you wanted to work for as a postdoc".

Many thanks in advance!



- [If necessary] The summer before graduation -- prepare research and/or teaching statement(s)
- July-December the year before graduation -- apply post-doctoral research fellowship(s)

Edited by aberrant
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I think a timeline may be hard, because a lot of this will be field-specific. But in my experience -- prestigious/named fellowships tend to have early deadlines (it can be as early as July or as late as September-October, though you can probably also find some with later deadlines). Postdocs that are just at someone's lab who has funding can come up at any time, but often they will get sorted out after TT jobs are mostly decided. Find out if your field has a jobs wiki where these positions might be advertised. You can (and should) also reach out to contacts to make it known that you are looking for a postdoc and to ask if they have any money and are hiring or if they know of anyone who might. Connections are everything. A lot of these positions never even get advertised, so it's important that people who might have money know that you're looking. 

Also, look at some older ads to see what the requirements are. If they ask for things like a research or teaching statement, the summer before your last year of grad school is a good time to get started with those. Getting the first draft done can take a lot of time. 

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Thanks for the responds, @fuzzylogician. I have a few follow up questions:

1. for most post-doctoral fellowships, do they allow ABD people to apply? (in other words, applicants do not have to be graduated/received their PhDs at the time of application)?

2. for the same post-doctoral fellowships, do you need to communicate with a POI to be your sponsor? What if I have a few POIs, must I choose 1 POI for each application that I plan to submit?

3. Is it common that people send out a few (let's just say up to 10) e-mails to their POI to inquire potential postdoc positions? Or you would recommend sending this kind of inquiry e-mail one at a time, and go down my "list of POI"?

4. I supposed research statement is to explain my research interest and such. What about teaching statement? What should it entail?

These are some great information. Thank you in advance!

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1) ABDs can apply but you should be close to defending.

2) It depends on the fellowship. But many prestigious postdocs require you to have a PI who has agreed to supervise you. I don't know how you'd do that without being in contact with that person in advance.

3) This question is field specific. Do you know any grad students (even those at other institutions since you say those at yours don't do this kind of thing) who would know more? Conferences might also be a good place to learn about potential postdocs. I get the sense that a lot of people get their postdocs through networking at conferences so you should make that a part of your plan.

4) Check chronicle's Vitae and Inside Higher Ed for what goes in these statements. Plenty of advice on these is available on the internet.

FWIW, I'd highly recommend that you search through higheredjobs.com and Inside Higher Ed to get a sense of what the ads for postdocs look like, the materials they ask for, etc. If you're not doing that, you aren't really helping yourself prepare to apply for these positions. While there may not be many biophysics-specific ads, there are plenty in other areas of biology and physics which will give you a sense of the requirements and materials. Also, that will be more helpful than asking a bunch of strangers on the internet who aren't in your field.

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I'm also about to enter the job market (applying this fall for positions beginning Fall 2017) so I don't have much experience here. 

But I can add one thing based on my observations of my friends going through this process.

Regarding Q1, you definitely do not have to have your PhD before applying to postdocs.

Typically, the prestigious fellowships timeline in my field goes like (example dates for starting Fall 2017): Applications due September-November 2016, decisions made January 2017, people have to make their choices by Feb 15, 2017 (in a very similar deadline to grad students and April 15), and the position typically begins September-November 2017 (although depending on the award and the faculty and the postdoc, this date may be flexible). For non-fellowship postdocs (i.e. positions where you work directly with a prof on a project they chose or an area they chose) then everything is shifted by a few months. Decisions are made after Feb 15, 2016 because they will wait until all of the movement from fellowships settle before making offers.

So, in my field, everyone who is looking for a first postdoc after a PhD is applying about a year before they are going to defend. In my field, most students don't want to have a gap in income between their PhD and their postdoc, so they only set their defense date after negotiating a post-doc start date. For example, 4 months ago, my friend accepted a postdoc fellowship and chose to start on Oct 1, 2016. But they only finalized their defense date (September 2016) a few weeks ago. This allows for no gap in income.

In addition, this means that many people will start their postdoc before they have the actual PhD degree in their hands. My school only confers degrees once per year (in June), so my friend who is defending in Sept 2016 will not receive their physical degree until June 2017. The degree itself is not often important for the postdoc, often all you need is the letter from your school that states you have met all degree requirements, which you get after you defend and submit your thesis!

Because of these factors, in my field, it's much more common for students to secure a job first (whether it's academic or industry or elsewhere) and then set up their defense and write their thesis afterwards. So, sometimes students will go on the market but if they don't get an offer that interests them (or receive additional funding for another year of grad school), they might choose to remain in grad school for another year and reapply with a stronger application the following year. You also see the opposite---sometimes a student isn't planning on graduating but then get a great unexpected job offer (a postdoc opening up exactly in their field of expertise or they get headhunted by a company) and then suddenly they are defending way sooner than they had originally anticipated. In my field, it seems like the minimum amount of time needed between deciding to defend and actually doing it is about 6-8 weeks. 


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In my field, the prestigious postdocs have an application deadline sometime between October and December but most formal postdocs have application deadlines in December and January, and some of them are as late as February. Then there are what I call 'informal postdocs' - postdocs that aren't part of a training program like a T32 but are some professor hiring a postdoctoral fellow to help them in their research. Those can come at any time of the year, really.

In my field, postdoc start dates can be flexible. I actually committed to my postdoc more than full year before I started (April 2013, and I started in August 2014). Some people applied under the regular deadlines but started in January instead of August. It's not quite like graduate school when you have to start at a specific time.

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