How to get the Post-Doc of your dreams and survive to tell

I thought that sharing my experience during the search for a Post-Doc would be useful to some fellows. I promise myself I would tell my story.

I realized I wanted to move on from my PhD’s topic during the last years of my research. What I did in Karolinska is awesome and I love the direction of the projects, but my interpretation of a Post-Doc is more about “getting a shake” then “go for a safe bet”. Importantly, I needed to answer the question: Can I make science in another contest? Can I contribute intelligently to someone else project? Will I be able to write my own?

To this end, I needed to assess my selling capability, to show my true potential to the job market.

Here’s what I did to get the Post-Doc I really wanted.

1) Start in time. My graduation was in March 2014, thus I began to contact people in December 2013. I actually began long before that: during my PhD, every time I bumped into a cool scientists (“cool” is the most accurate adjective to describe what I was after), I would write down her/his name on a “hot list” that was always with me.

Here’s an extraction of a nearly 3-years list of excellent researchers I felt I wanted to work for:

the post-doc list

The actual use of this list, however, turn out to be limited. After contacting few of them (and some even kindly replied to me :), I began to use canonical job-seeking methods, and NatureJobs became my bible.

After few weeks in search, I realized one, very important thing: mathematicians, epidemiologists and computational biologists were in high demand among life-scientists. For wet-lab people like me, there was a much limited number of options (at least in the part of UK I looked at = Oxford, Cambridge, London).

That was the time when I freaked out about my inability to understand bioinformatics, and I decided to fix my luck of knowledge with the Python Club. But that will be another story.

2) The Excel sheet. Organization is everything: which jobs I already contacted? When? With time, I developed a pretty neat way of working: list the interesting positions per deadline. Work with the most urgent. Send reminders one week after the closing of the applications. Keep showing your interest. Be smiling…

exl applications

organization is everything

In total, I applied for 13 places. I later got 5 invitations to interviews and actually attended 4.

3) The envelop. Receiving a letter in the mailbox excites people. I love when I receive unexpected letters. Once I read about a lady who managed to talk to Steve Jobs by sending him a formal request, via FedEx, every week. For few weeks in a raw.

Guess what? She managed to meet him.

So I did: along with the online application, my future employers received an envelop with my complete publication record, my CV, a list of all my referees and a well-written-very-specific motivation letter.

Spamming mode: ON.

4) Talk to someone. Looking for a job made me feel uncomfortable. I like to succeed and to show to people the times I win, rather then the times I lose. Looking for a Post-Doc may turn out a loosing game, thus frustrations and emotions must be kept in check.

I faced my insecureness with a colleague, whom herself worked in UK before. I decided to make her the only person I would complain with, during the entire process. And yes: you complain a lot. She gave me precious advices, and I felt less lonely.

5) The chance. After few applications, someone contacted me for an interview. I went back to all my “pending” possible employers and spammed them with this:

Hi XXX,

I have good news! [You always bring them good news. n.d.r.]

Next week, on dates 5-6th of February, I will be in London for business. This will be a golden occasion for us to meet. I look forward to illustrate to you why my research experience is valuable for your lab, and to discuss together future projects.

If you let me know your schedule, I will do my best to pay you a visit at XXX.

 

That’s how one interview became three in just ~30h trip to London.

Demanding but efficient.

At the end of the interviews, I crystalized in my mind where I wanted to go to work, and with whom.

The post-doc road? From the Wizard of Oz. Credit: http://www.carltaylor.com.au/

6) Timing. Offers arrived. One very, very good lab proposed me to join them for a very stable position. It was a “must say yes” offer, yet not my very first choice.

As my “first choice” was quite for more then a week, I decided to play the game my way: I picked up the phone, and I called my favorite employer (from now on: FE) to tell him that other labs offered me a job, but his research and his institute were my priority. He should take me before someone else would.

R- “How far are you from a decision?”

FE- “One more week”

It turn out to be one of the longest week of my life.

7) Diplomacy. With the risk of fucking up everything, I very politely persuaded the other employer (whom offered me a job)  to wait a bit longer, as I was…

… going through a decision making process that takes longer then expected. I apologize for this, it is entirely my fault: I was not able to make you aware of the amount of days this would have taken.

Wait.

8) The letters. All the employers that offered me a job asked for a reference letter from my supervisors. As a young child that explore the world for the first time, I made a simple association:

they ask for a letter –> you get the offer

Surely is “a bit more complicated then that”. Nevertheless, the fact that my FE didn’t ask any made me really nervous. It was Wednesday when I took initiative: I will send him some, though he didn’t ask.

For a number of reasons, I am very reluctant to ask for recommendations. I wrote one for a student few years ago, and that made me feel awkward. It took me a while before asking few, key people to write one letter for me. I chose the best ones, those who influenced me the most and could prove my networking skills.

I got them all signed, I put them in an envelop and shipped.

People love letters, right?

9) Monday. No reply from my FE. Panic begin to rise. Nothing appeared in my email for the whole morning, except a text from the other employer who rightly complained for my delay in taking a decision.

That morning I was stressed, uneasy and unfocused. Probably rude to colleagues at work.

It was 14.30 when I picked up the phone and called my FE. I wanted to, and I didn’t want to listen to what he was going to say. A “no” would badly hurt me.

I don’t remember what we said, but after what I consider the best phone pitch of my career, he offered me the job, I fell from the chair, and I brutally celebrated.

Home-taking messages: Be organized, be persuasive, be brave. Be a bit stupid.

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