A guide to applying to astro postdocs. Part 2: The application process

In Part 1 of this series, we talked about navigating the different kinds of astro postdocs and deciding which ones you want to apply for. Now it’s time to actually apply to the positions on your list! 

Important note: Other than this bite, there are many resources for the postdoc application process out there, and we highly recommend you check some of them out! 

  • This website by Dr. Taylor Hutchison is a particularly comprehensive resource (with lots of free-to-use templates!) 
  • This Twitter thread by Floor Broekgaarden is a great compilation of resources (from around the world!)

Applying for postdocs is frequently a full-time job. It’s not unusual for applicants to pause research and other activities to focus on applications for a few months! For US-based postdocs, the first due dates for fellowships are usually in October and most final decisions are made by February—but there are plenty of due dates outside this window, especially for non-US postdocs. One great way to check ahead of time is to consult the archives of the AAS Job Register to give yourself an idea of when annual opportunities tend to be posted and when they are due!

1. Make your list.

See our previous post. Figure out due dates, materials needed (especially recommendation letters), criteria, etc., and find a way to organize all this information. Here’s an example spreadsheet made by an Astrobiter.

2. Ask for rec letters.

You will typically need three rec letters for most (US-based) fellowships. Share your spreadsheet with your rec letter writers! Make sure your letter writers have access to your application materials and know how to submit the letters (will they get an email? do they have to submit through a particular system?).

  • It can also be helpful to work out some kind of reminder system with your rec letter writers. One way to do this is through a weekly “digest” email; each Monday morning, send them a reminder of all of the letters due that week.
  • You can also have “letter tracker” spreadsheets, as Dr. Taylor Hutchison did. Check out her templates here.

3. Get information.

Go to info sessions if available. As noted above, some postdocs (especially national fellowships) will have informational webinars with more information about how to apply. Definitely go to these!

You can also reach out to potential PIs, especially if you’re planning to apply for fellowships! Professors pretty much always want a postdoc who can bring external funding to a group, so if you express interest in doing a fellowship to work with them, they will frequently be happy to assist you in putting together applications.

Finally, even if you don’t apply for the NASA Hubble Fellowship, you may want to check out successful Hubble applications from this repository for inspiration on how to structure and format research statements.

4. Look for “job talk” opportunities at other institutions.

These “job talks” are a good way to advertise that you’re on the job market. Here are some places to find job talk opportunities:

  • Use your network! If former grad students from your program are now postdocs (or faculty) elsewhere, ask if their institutions have some kind of “tea talk” or seminar where you could talk about your thesis work. Ask collaborators, ask people you know from Twitter, get your advisor to ask people they know.
  • There’s always the option of “cold emailing” folks (i.e., contacting people you don’t already know), like potential PIs or the organizers of seminar series, to ask about talk opportunities. It’s a lot less awkward than you think.
  • Some places have sign-up forms for folks interested in giving talks (for example, the Carnegie Observatories Lunch Talks and the Harvard CfA Seminar series both do this). Priority is usually given to folks on the job market.

You don’t have to apply to all the places you give job talks! Sometimes it’s helpful just to get the word out that you’re applying (for example, the selection committees for the national fellowships will be made up of folks from lots of institutions). Also, it’s helpful just to practice presenting your research! Make sure you put all job talks on your CV!

And while you’re busy advertising your research, go ahead and make and/or update your website! You can look at current postdocs’ websites for inspiration about how to structure it, but typically you want a section about your research, a CV (often as a downloadable file), a list of publications (it’s usually easiest to link to an ADS library), and—most importantly—your contact info.

5. Write your applications!

Here, we’ll go through the components of most postdoc applications.

a) Research statement:

This is the single most important part of your application! The main goal of the research statement is to get a reviewer, by the time they reach the end of the statement, to think, “Of course the obvious next step for this person is to come do their postdoc research here! That is the natural arc of their trajectory as a scientist.” Your research statement should involve two main parts (which may be explicitly separated into two different statements, depending on the application):

  • Previous research: Summarize any previous research, including any relevant research from outside your PhD thesis. It can be uncomfortable, but make sure you hype up your work! Really emphasize the impact of your research, and try to show how it fits into the broader context of astronomy. Don’t spend too much space on the exact details—especially since not all of the reviewers will be in your specific subfield—but do focus on your particular contributions. 
  • Research proposal: Start with the “big picture.” What big astro/physics questions will your proposed research aim to answer? Why does it matter? Then zoom in a bit: how will you, specifically, address those questions within the timescale of your postdoc? What methods will you use? (Again, avoid getting bogged down in too much detail, but include enough to show that you actually know what you’re doing.) Finally, tie in how your previous research has prepared you to do the proposed work, and make sure to specifically discuss how this research fits into the broader goals of the institution: what people will you collaborate with? What tools can the institution offer (telescope/computational time, etc.)? 

Some other tips:

  • Thoughtful formatting can help make your statement easier to read! Informative section headers are useful. You might also consider bolding relevant phrases or sentences.
  • Definitely include appropriate figures (and informative captions that summarize the takeaway points of those figures)!
  • If you’re running up on page limits, it can help to creatively format bibliographies (smaller text, two-column or running formats, abbreviated journal titles, etc.) and in-text citations (numbered citations take up less room than text citations). Just make sure that you’re following instructions for fellowship applications (the NSF AAPF, for example, is notorious for strict formatting rules)!
  • Making a timeline of your proposed research project, like the one shown below, can be a good way to show that you’ve considered how your proposed research can realistically be done within the timeframe of a 1-3 year position.
Figure 1. Example timeline from an Astrobiter’s successful Hubble Fellowship application. This was made using Excel, but you could probably make something similar using any spreadsheet software.

b) CV:

Hopefully you already have a CV that you’ve been updating. If not, look at examples of other postdocs’/professors’ CVs! There are plenty of LaTeX (or Word, I guess, if that’s what you’re into) templates. Make sure you obey any page limits given in the job ad.

c) List of publications:

Sometimes this is separate from the CV. Important note: remember that N(publications) isn’t everything! You absolutely don’t need to have X first-author pubs to get an amazing postdoc position (where X is any natural number)—and if a selection committee does have some kind of cutoff based on N(pubs), then you probably wouldn’t want to go there anyway.

d) Cover letter:

This is sometimes a required application component.

For a postdoc position, keep your cover letter to 1 page maximum! There are plenty of cover letter templates out there, but here’s some good general advice. In general, think of the cover letter as answering why you are a great fit for the given institution and/or program.

Also: format the letter nicely. Use letterhead from your current institution, and make sure you properly address the letter to whoever is listed as the point of contact on the job ad (although the salutation should probably always be something along the lines of “Dear members of the search committee”).

e) Other statements:

Some applications will ask for other kinds of statements. Here are some thoughts on common types of additional statements:

  • Personal statement: These sometimes come up for non-astro-specific fellowships. Make sure you address the criteria of the fellowship! If they ask about, e.g., “leadership,” talk about any (research or non-research) collaborations in which you’ve had a leadership role. Mention your career goals and how they align with the goals of the fellowship/institution. Again, it can help to build a narrative about yourself, making it clear that the position you’re applying for is the obvious next step in the narrative.
  • Diversity statement: For many astronomers, the connections between our research and broader social issues of equity and inclusion are not always direct (although if they are, that’s amazing and you should definitely mention them!). But you can always talk about other ways you have worked to impact communities that are not traditionally served by professional astronomy: science outreach, advocacy for minoritized groups within academic spaces, activism outside academic spaces. Mention how the particular fellowship and/or host institution will help you continue and further advance your work.

6. Edit, edit, edit.

Get other people to read your statements: other grad students, your advisor, your rec letter writers, your potential PIs (if you have a strong relationship with them already). Of course you don’t have to accept all the comments you receive, but your application will be better the more you seriously engage with feedback.

7. Submit! Celebrate your submissions! Then prepare to wait.

For the sake of your mental health, we strongly encourage you to not look at the AstroBetter Rumor Mill while waiting to hear about applications, for a few reasons: 

  • The Rumor Mill is an anonymous crowdsourced list, and may not always be an accurate source of information. 
  • Also, people post on the Rumor Mill about their acceptances without showing the (often far more numerous) rejections, which can produce skewed perspectives of “success.” This can be very bad for your mental health during an already stressful time!

Instead of the Rumor Mill, check your spam folder regularly! Important emails have been known to get caught in spam filters.

And seriously, don’t look at the Rumor Mill. Unless you are actively trying to make a decision about multiple offers, you are extremely unlikely to gain any positive knowledge from the Rumor Mill. You might even want to install a site blocker.

8. Interviews

Many postdocs don’t have an interview stage, but some do. Here are some tips on preparing for interviews:

  • Prepare a 1-3 minute “elevator pitch” for your research! Avoid jargon; you want to make sure your spiel is comprehensible to folks outside your research area (especially important for non-astro-specific postdocs). You definitely want to emphasize how your research fits into the broader context of astronomy: does it answer any open questions? Why is it interesting for folks who aren’t in your field?
  • Other typical questions:
    • Why this specific [fellowship/institution]?
    • Where do you see yourself in 5-10 years? What do you want to do after a postdoc?
    • What research question in your field is of most interest to you? Where do you see your field going in the next few years?
    • What has been your biggest challenge in your research program, and how have you dealt with it?
    • What do you consider your most innovative accomplishment to date and why?
  • Always prepare some questions to ask the interviewers! For example, you may want to ask about research resources, department culture, professional development resources, opportunities for teaching/outreach, etc.

9. Make decisions.

You might start hearing back from places as early as late December (though this is rare), but most postdoc offers start being made in January. Astro postdocs in the US typically ask you to make a decision by February 15 (although non-astro-specific fellowships may not always respect this deadline). 

  • You should absolutely take as much time as you need, but it’s common courtesy to give notification as soon as you’ve made any firm decisions. The earlier you let a place know that you won’t be accepting their offer, the earlier they’ll be able to make an offer to someone else.
  • If you have an offer, you may be able to negotiate some terms of your offer! You may be able to combine offers and do a joint postdoc between multiple institutions, for example, or maybe you can negotiate for a higher research stipend. Your ability to negotiate will vary, as some positions may be more flexible than others, but it never hurts to ask politely.

Finally, if you don’t get the postdoc offer(s) you wanted, remember: it really isn’t you. So much of this process is effectively a lottery! There are many factors outside of your control—who has funding, which research areas an institution is focusing on, etc.—and at the end of the day, there are multiple qualified applicants for any single position.

The academic job search is grueling and frequently not equitable; while we hope this guide can help, it is entirely possible to do everything “right” and still not get the job you want. Just remember that there are many versions of “success” in (and out of) academia—and many ways to get to your vision of success. 

This series was written by Mia de los Reyes and Luna Zagorac, and was edited by Pratik Gandhi, Lina Kimmig, Ishan Misra, and Jenny Calahan.

Featured image credit: modified JWST image of the Carina Nebula (NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI)

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This post was written collectively by multiple members of the Astrobites team. Meet the authors of Astrobites.

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