How to…Apply for a postdoc


Rebecca Nesbit looks at making the transition from postgrad to postdoc

The Biologist 63(2) p30-31

How many people enter the final months of their PhD with the twin fears of whether they will get it done in time and whether they will actually get a job at the end of it? Tackling the fear of finishing on time almost always takes priority. And if a job in the local sandwich shop is funding your write-up, this probably means even less time for job applications.

For anyone serious about getting a postdoc, however, the work is best done before, not after, you've written the PhD.

There's no need to combine the last few months of writing up with a constant trawl of postdoc adverts. It's often better to be proactive and approach labs you are really keen to be part of. This has to be done early, though: if an approach leads to a grant or fellowship application, this can take months. The application also has to be done well.

How to apply for a postdoc position comes up often in my role. I visit universities around the world with the Nobel Prize Inspiration Initiative, giving young scientists the chance to interact with Nobel laureates. The laureates' advice for postdoc applications is very consistent.

Martin Chalfie, who shared the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on green fluorescent protein, is on a campaign to encourage people to apply for postdocs appropriately. He says that 99% of people who apply for postdocs do so incorrectly.

"When people apply for postdocs, they'll hear about somebody's work and say, 'here is my CV, I'd really like to work in your lab, and do you have any space'. That's a letter that could be sent out to 1,000 people." Some employers refer to this approach as a 'cookie cutter' letter, which isn't good.


Sir Paul Nurse FRS Hon FRSB

Sir Paul Nurse, director of the Crick Institute, isn't interested in letters that rewrite his website. He's looking for new ideas. "If they've tried to explain something they're thinking of, even if it's totally wrong, at least they are thinking about it," he says.

Likewise, the Nobel Prize-winning American cell biologist Randy Schekman is looking for an ability to think. When people approach him for a postdoc position, he wants to see that they have ideas of their own about his lab's work.

"When the letter comes, there's a page of description about what's going on in my lab; they've obviously read it, they've done some thinking about it themselves, and there's an idea, whether it has merit or not. Those are the only ones I pay attention to, and those are rare," he says.

Making a good application may sound time consuming, yet this advice is also reassuring. Every PhD student has the importance of publication drummed into them, and probably absorbs the myth that career possibilities are very much dependent on impact factors. 'Failed' experiments are often beyond your control, yet applications are a chance to show your ability in a situation where luck plays no part.

Alternatively, if you are a PhD student finding the prospect of approaching people with an idea fills you with dread, perhaps it is a sign that you should be part of the 53% of science PhD candidates who opt for a career outside research. Only 0.45% of science PhD students will end up as professors, so think about the other options too.

Top tips: Refine your research CV

Rebecca Nesbit and The Biologist's Professor Alison Woollard share their tips for creating a compelling postdoc application


If you are applying for jobs overseas, research appropriate CV styles for that country.

Consider writing a concise impact statement. "This could include your discoveries so far and your aspirations for your research career – be ambitious," says Woollard. Make sure your CV is well presented with consistent formatting.Ask a friend to proofread it for you – any mistakes look unprofessional.

Submit a CV as a PDF. If you ever need to use a Word document, turn off spelling and grammar suggestions.

Highlight any funding you have been competitively awarded e.g. to attend a conference or significant course or workshop – "This shows initiative," says Woollard.

Use the cover letter to provide insights into your scientific passions and concrete examples of how you may have overcome particular obstacles in your work, or worked creatively in a team, or whatever else you think is relevant to the particular lab you are interested in. Avoid the temptation to make generic statements that you are passionate, dedicated and work well in a team.


Employees shouldn't be making judgements on appearance or age, so a photo is not necessary. There's also no need to include your address or date of birth.

There's no need to limit yourself to two pages for a postdoctoral CV, but make sure you only include relevant information.

Don't include every poster presentation you've ever done but select ones you won a prize for. Do, however, highlight oral presentations where they have been selected in a competitive process, and make this clear.

Dr Rebecca Nesbit MRSB is scientific programme manager at Nobel Media.

For more advice, visit the Nobel Prize Inspiration Initiative website, at