How Postdoctoral Admissions Works

Applying for Postdoctoral Positions

As a postdoc, you'll probably be doing many of the same things you did as a student. You may still be working in a lab, you may still have an academic supervisor, and you may even still park in the same parking lot. However, the postdoc application process is decidedly un-studentlike. First of all, it does not stick to regular timelines. Whereas your standard undergrad, graduate or doctoral applicant will usually need to apply for a fall entry, postdoc positions can become available with no regularity [source:]. However, there are regular timelines for certain types of fellowships, so if there is one you have your eye on, be sure to check the application deadlines.

Wherever you decide to apply, be prepared for a lengthy application process. For that reason, at least six months before you graduate, you should start reviewing your postdoctoral options [source: Noordam]. Each postdoctoral position will have its own details for what to send in an application package, but you can generally expect to send a resume or CV (curriculum vitae) and cover letter. The cover letter should be well-researched and targeted specifically toward your institution of choice. As with traditional job-hunting, the more they can tell that you've done your homework, the better your chances at getting an interview [source: Powell]. Spelling, grammar and style mistakes must be avoided at all costs. Errors portray you as sloppy -- a very undesirable trait for an academic researcher. Also, be prepared to round up recommendation letters from your previous academic supervisors [source: University of Alberta].

If your application looks promising, your next step will likely be to pass a phone interview. At this point, it's good to remember that applying for a postdoc is also a very back-and-forth process. For as many questions as you're asked, you should probably be asking just as many in return. Here are some good subjects to focus on:

  • The basics: What are the options for sick days, maternity leave and general workload?
  • Funding: Will you need to apply for grants and funding? Will your mentor assist?
  • Term limits: Are there term limits, and if so, for how long?

Another way to get a good idea of what the potential workplace will be like is to ask whether you can speak to current postdocs or postdoc alumni. Ask them their top five favorite and least favorite things about the institution [source: Ferguson].

Once you get a postdoc position, be sure it's the right one. If you feel it's not the right fit, don't be afraid to restart your job search [source: Noordam]. You've probably spent at least a decade and a half getting this far, so don't worry about taking a few extra months to get it right.

Learn lots more about admissions and postdoctoral work by visiting the links below.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


  • Bagley, Katherine. "Best Places to Work; Postdocs 2010." March 1, 2010. (March 4, 2010)
  • California Institute of Technology. "Postdoctoral Scholars: FAQ" 2005. (February 23, 2010)
  • Cherwitz, Richard A. and Teresa A. Sullivan. "Postdocs as Intellectual Entrepreneurs." Science Careers from the journal "Science." August 30, 2002. (March 4, 2010)
  • Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy. "Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers: A Guide for Postdoctoral Scholars, Advisers, Institutions, Funding Organizations, and Disciplinary Societies." National Academies Press. 2000. (March 4, 2010)
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