What is a post-doc for (and how to succeed in getting one)?

Last week, the McGill Association of Postdoctoral Fellows hosted a very useful seminar on how to succeed with post-doctoral fellowship applications. Those in attendance were privy to very sound advice from a charismatic and knowledgeable speaker, Dr. Madhukar Pai, a McGill Associate Professor in the field of Health Sciences. Over the course of his career, Dr. Pai has served on review committees of numerous granting agencies (such as CIHR or FRSQ) and has become an expert on what makes certain post-doc candidates immediately stand out from a pile of applications. His insightful and honest descriptions of the review process – peppered with his humorous comments on the harsh reality of academia – are indispensable words of wisdom for PhD students at any stage; whether you are just beginning your PhD or have reached the end of the long process and are about to jump ship, these are valuable strategies to keep in mind as you plan your future in academia.

Here is a 5-point summary based on what I took away most from Dr. Pai’s recommendations:

(1) Apply for every competition for which you are eligible.

Dr. Pai highlighted that the expectation in academia is that we, as researchers, will raise money. This is ultimately why universities hire us, and so it is critical that we demonstrate our skills of raising funds for research as early on in our careers as possible. His advice is not to be picky at this stage, and to apply for every fellowship possible, irrespective of dollar amounts. Of course, applying for several fellowships inevitably allows you to gain experience with the application process itself as well as “to improve your selling skills”.

(2) Study the guidelines extremely carefully, and give yourself plenty of time.

Putting together a successful post-doc application requires a strategic, meticulous approach. First, one must study the guidelines and familiarize oneself with every single evaluation criterion. “Stare at them”, says Dr. Pai, “Understand the expectations”. A reviewer will simply check boxes as he/she reads through your application. They do not have time to dig deep – it has to be clear on the page. The more you have to say about every criterion, the higher your score will be. Dr. Pai advises to spend the most time on those elements which are given a heavier weight in the evaluation grid. He also recommends to get a hold of recent successful applications (ideally from the same competition) and follow them as a model or template. Finally, make sure to give yourself enough time for your application to go through several revisions before submission. Dr. Pai emphasized how easy it is to tell which applications went through 15 rounds of revisions, and which ones went through just one.

(3) Understand the goal of a post-doc (and be clear about your goals).

I must admit that, until recently, the precise goal of a post-doc eluded me. Initially, I simply thought of it as the chronological successor of the PhD – a step that everyone had to do. I grappled with this reality, as did my appalled friends and relatives (“What?! More schooling??!”). I also felt that the line between student and research fellow becomes somewhat blurry at this stage, and it would confuse me when I’d meet individuals who had done several post-docs, sometimes for a longer period than the PhD. But the way Dr. Pai explained the goal of the post-doc immediately streamlined my perspective:

The goal of the post-doc is to acquire the remaining skills you think you need before you become an independent researcher. Period.

According to Dr. Pai, after your PhD, your vision should be clear, and the post-doc is simply a short bridging time to equip you with the skills you need to move on. His description of the post-doc highlights two points: (a) Don’t get comfortable! The post-doc should be as brief a stepping stone as possible before you become an independent PI; and (b) Do something new. The assumption is that you’ve learned everything you could possibly learn from your supervisor and your institution during your PhD and, aside from exceptional circumstances, it is apparently a big negative on your file if you choose to stay within the same institution (i.e., same skills, same network) for your post-doc.

Once you have figured out WHY you are doing a post-doc and why you are doing it WHERE you are doing it, make it explicit in all the parts of your application which call for this justification. There is usually a section where the applicant must describe his/her “training expectations”. Here you would explain what you worked on during your PhD, and what skills/experiences you aim to get out of your post-doc. A separate section is also devoted to describing the “research training environment”. Here it must be demonstrated that the post-doc environment matches the applicant’s area of interest, and that the lab was chosen wisely (e.g. stellar lab with necessary equipment, top-notch researchers in the field and a supervisor who is a well-published expert in this area). The stronger you make your case about your WHY and WHERE, the better.

(4) Reference letters won’t save you (but how they could help):

Dr. Pai gave us a blunt, insider perspective on reference letters: They do not help much!

They are generally all glowing, because one is typically written by the person who wants you as a post-doc (conflict of interest) and another is written by the supervisor with whom you got your PhD. Reviewers on fellowship committees often say that the reference letters all look SO similar that it is difficult to rely on them to distinguish the candidates. That said, reference letters are telling in the sense that brief, non-specific letters are worrisome to reviewers. Candidates should always choose sponsors who know them well enough to write in detail (with as many concrete examples) about their qualities and accomplishments. It is also important for the candidate and the sponsor to be on the same page about the candidate’s proposed project and post-doc goals; Dr. Pai joked that it looks really bad if the candidate says he will be working on mice while the sponsor writes that the candidate will be working on monkeys!

Where reference letters DO help is if your sponsors highlight elements that may differentiate you from other candidates, or if they explicitly clarify circumstances that may have been otherwise missed in other parts of the application. For example, if the candidate doesn’t have many awards but has been offered multiple paid (PhD stipends or post-doc) positions internationally. Another example: if the candidate has many book chapter publications and book chapters are actually more valued in his/her field than in other fields. In short, whenever a circumstance may be different for a particular candidate, it is worth highlighting it for the reviewers to consider it in their evaluation.

(5) Know what counts (and work on it as early on as possible!)

Finally and perhaps most importantly, work strategically on what YOU could control – your CV!

Know what is considered valuable on paper, and do your best to add these elements to your CV as early on in your academic career as possible. Most post-doc fellowships only attribute 10% of your score to your proposed research project, while instead attributing a much larger weight to your publications, honors/awards and leadership.

Apply for as many awards as you can during your PhD (remember that what is valued most in academia is your habit of “raising money”), and list them all on your fellowship application.

Get involved with extracurricular activities, volunteer work and leadership. Some fellowships value leadership tremendously, both in an academic and non-academic setting. Consider teaching, volunteering on committees, organizing events in your department or institution, being a student representative, training students or research assistants, etc. Volunteer with the community, participate at fundraisers, etc. Do what you can, and do it consistently (not just two months before your application is due).

Focus your time and energy on PUBLICATIONS. Dr. Pai reiterated what many of us have known and feared for a long time: sometimes all that differentiates a winning application from a non-winning one is how many first-authored publications in highly-ranked journal a candidate has. “Nothing matters more than publications”, Dr. Pai’s words were clear and simple. His advice was not to fight the system – you’re not going to change the way academia works nowadays. Whether it’s wrong or right, this is the way it is, and we have to do our best to put out that finished product that tells reviewers that we are focused leaders in research. Dr. Pai explained how, from a reviewer’s perspective, it doesn’t look good when you have several conference presentations and no papers; it demonstrates that you are not focusing on the final product of your research (i.e., the scientific paper). He also conveyed that it looks weak when you have several publications but are not first-author on any one of them, as this is typically perceived by reviewers as a lack of leadership. Dr. Pai also suggested to list your contributions to each paper you list (relative to the other co-authors) and to be honest in your descriptions of your contributions.

My advice would be to discuss publication strategies with your supervisor as early on in your PhD as possible. Try to get involved on other research projects where you could have a clear role and could be a part of the paper. Focus on writing from early on; conferences are great to get the ball rolling to develop your ideas and gain experience on communicating the findings to the community, but what is valued is the finished product – the published manuscript (not in preparation, not submitted, not under review, but published!).


Thank you to the APF for organizing this event and to Dr. Pai for giving this very mind-opening talk on how to navigate our scary, uncertain future! To anyone currently applying for post-doc fellowships, GOOD LUCK and feel free to share your own recommendations in the comment field below!

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