This past September, I participated on an Ask Me Anything (AMA) roundtable about post-doctoral positions as part of the APSA Career Fair. In an effort to continue and expand upon these conversations, I compiled a list of my personal answers to three of the most frequently asked questions with respect to the post-doc job market.
Why seek out a post-doc position?
Too often I have heard post-doc positions referred to as a ‘Plan B’ or fallback option. For some, this certainly may be the case. Yet to me, this is not only dismissive to a large portion of the academic market, but it also is one of the greatest mistakes an individual can make when considering such an opportunity. A strong post-doc position provides an opportunity to establish oneself as a scholar, researcher, teacher, mentor, and collaborator.
In our AMA roundtable, Vice Provost Postdoctoral Fellow Brielle Harbin (University of Pennsylvania) described a post-doc as an opportunity for early-career scholars to fill their ‘buckets’ to become well-rounded academics. Thus, when looking for a post-doc position, you should identify not only the skills you possess but those you would like to hone. As a personal example, I left graduate school with grand ideas of course design but little experience implementing them. My position as a Diversity Post-Doctoral Fellow at the University of Virginia allowed me to realize my teaching philosophy, develop my teaching agenda, and foster mentorship of a diverse student body. I will take these experiences with me as I jump to my next venture with a significantly stronger teaching portfolio.
Beyond this ability to develop new skills, one of the greatest benefits of a post-doc position is the ability to learn from scholars and peers from a wide range of academic trainings. This value of interacting with a diverse group of voices, perspectives, and ideas cannot be overstated. Expanding one’s vertical and horizontal networks can spark new collaborations across sub-fields and academic disciplines as well as expose you to new approaches to your area of interest. As a result, a good post-doc position can exponentially expand your research agenda to shape the questions you ask, methods you use, and contributions you will make, all the while drawing in a wider audience for your scholarship. In light of these benefits, your chances to secure a tenure-track position may grow as you find your unique voice in the literature, classroom, and discipline.
How do you go about finding post-doc positions?
The short answer is anywhere and everywhere. APSA’s eJobs is a great resource but it isn’t the only way to find out about established and new post-doc positions. If you feel comfortable, reach out to your personal connections to find out if there are any potential post-doc positions in the pipeline. To have the job ads come to you, sign up for field specific listservs and participate in APSA sections. For instance, the PolMeth and Migration and Citizenship section listservs are excellent resources for a wide range of positions including post-docs.
A perhaps less intuitive resource for job hunters is Twitter. The Twitter profiles for Women Also Know Stuff and People of Color Also Know Stuff, for example, regularly promote a wide range of academic opportunities (e.g., #womenalsojobmarket). Scholars also sometimes advertise their own post-doc openings via Twitter. Additionally, keeping up to date on Twitter with institutions who regularly hire post-docs (e.g., Perry World House, Woodrow Wilson School) will give a better idea of the current and on-going activities of associated faculty and post-docs.
Lastly, start early. If you aren’t on the market yet, this is a perfect time to get a head start. Create a running list of positions you see come up and review the call for applications carefully to find out whether the position is renewable, designed to support a project, or part of a larger post-doc program or initiative. Knowing which opportunities may be one-time positions (e.g., for a specific project) or more institutionalized (e.g., opening annually) and the general materials the application requires can save you precious time when your job market season rolls around.
What is different about post-doc application materials?
Much like assistant professorships, being a good fit is an important piece of securing a post-doc. Unlike the tenure-track market, however, each post-doc position will have a much more in-depth focus on a specific topic or project. This means each piece of your application will need a great deal of tailoring if not completely new materials to address the specific teaching, research, or project mentioned in the job ad. For example, a teaching statement for a teaching post-doctoral position should not only list the courses you would teach but detail your ideas for each course’s design including readings, assignments, or other relevant related information. Even the general staple of the application packet –– the cover letter –– will likely need to be entirely revised to address to the specific requests and needs of each position.
In developing your application materials, I highly recommend researching the university, position, affiliated centers, as well as current and previous successful applicants much like you would for any assistant professorship. Ask yourself whether the people you will be working with in addition to the fellows past and present have career paths that mirror your own goals.
As a concrete example, when crafting cover letters, I made sure to address the following questions:
- What makes me a good fit for this specific position?
- Why do I want this position specifically?
- What will the position offer me in terms of reaching my career goals?
- What will I add to the department/program/project?
Answers to these questions should carefully use the language from the job ad to outline how your research or teaching agendas make you an ideal fit for the position. For example, if a position is looking for someone who can assist in the implementation of a new project in the field, my cover letter would explicitly lay out how I would go about such tasks, providing specific examples, skills, and experience wherever possible.
Additionally, outline specific research centers or programs of interest to you. Consider also who you would assist in research including affiliated faculty, other post-docs, or graduate students. To go beyond ‘name-dropping’, mention the ‘why’ behind your choice including specific projects you have in mind.
Finally, given the high investment needed for each application, I do not recommend applying for positions that you would not reasonably take. Again, this means treating the post-doc market as a serious and worthwhile opportunity to achieve your career goals and build your reputation as a valuable scholar in your field. Confidently communicate this commitment outlining how and why each position is of unique interest to you. Should you decide to venture into the post-doc market, I hope you too find a position to help shape your identity as a confident and collaborative researcher, teacher, and mentor.
Hannah Alarian is a current Post Doctoral Research Associate at Princeton University and a former Post Doctoral Fellow at the University of Virginia. Her research focuses on topics of migrant integration, immigration, political identity and participation, and public policy. Dr. Alarian received her PhD in political science from the University of California, Irvine. You can learn more about her research and teaching here.