An NCI-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center
By Krist Azizian | May 10, 2012

On March 21, 2012,  Jeremy Stark, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Cancer Biology, gave a great seminar during which he touched upon the finer points of preparing an application for a postdoctoral position. I attended the presentation because I’m currently searching for a postdoctoral position but find myself confused by conflicting advice and a lack of structure surrounding the process. I’m happy to report that Jeremy provided concrete advice and helped clarify the process of applying for a postdoctoral position in a straightforward manner. I thought I’d share some of his insights with those City of Hope graduate students who were not able to attend.

The goal of Jeremy’s presentation was to help us understand the components of a strong postdoctoral application and, importantly, to avoid setting red flags that would detract from the strength of our applications. My impression was that a lot of his advice was based on personal experience, which, given his youth and success, seemed timely and indispensable. He listed the steps of applying as:

  1. Identifying labs based on genuine research interest
  2. Reading papers from each lab
  3. Writing a cover letter for each lab
  4. Sending an application email identical to your cover letter with a single PDF attachment that includes your cover letter, curriculum vitae (CV) and three references
  5. Sending a follow-up email two weeks later
  6. Interviewing and giving a job seminar for a broad audience

I think that the gist of everything we heard centered on writing a strong cover letter. Your cover letter should consist of about three paragraphs explaining who you are and why you’re writing, what you accomplished as a graduate student and why you want to work in that specific lab.

Of these, being able to articulate your accomplishments well has the strongest potential to set you apart from others, keeping in mind that this does not depend upon the grandeur of your results. In Jeremy’s words, the ability to articulate your accomplishments (no matter the impact), shows evidence of motivation and productivity.

This is of paramount importance because a principal investigator (PI) is looking for someone to lead a project independently — later, to support this idea, it was stressed that technical skills should be omitted from an academic CV because what’s expected of a postdoc renders them moot. A postdoc is expected to lead and learn new skills, which lessens the emphasis on skills acquired in the past. It’s a subtle but insightful point. To describe your accomplishments, use a long-form abstract style that focuses on the importance of your findings with a reasonable amount of detail.

Effectively communicating your interest in the lab’s research also will keep you competitive. Most likely you will be applying to a few labs, some at the same institute, so you should identify a broad topic of interest that is consistent between all your letters, but then focus on a line of research specific to each lab to which you apply. For example, you might state “stem cell biology” as your broad area of interest but then focus on “epigenetic mechanisms that maintain pluripotency” as an interest specific to a lab.

This is why it’s important to familiarize yourself with a lab’s research by reading papers. In your letter, describe a specific project that you’re interested in and propose how you would like to contribute to advancing that area of research by recapitulating the significance of the findings (in the discussion section of the paper) and what the obvious next steps are. Be sure to mention that you also are open to other possibilities in case your specific proposal is not immediately feasible.

Hopefully your stellar cover letter will lead to an interview. Keep the mindset that you will be interviewing with everyone you meet that day (e.g., administrative assistants, support staff, etc.) whether or not you’re scheduled for a formal sit-down. Be prepared with questions for members of the lab that will provide information indirectly (and thus help you determine the atmosphere of the lab without asking awkward questions such as how long working hours are or if the PI is disliked). These questions can assess what lab meetings are like, how often members communicate with the PI, which conferences are attended and the extent of collaborations.

Show enthusiasm and interest when discussing lab projects but avoid criticism, and when the inevitable question of what you’d like to work on is presented, rely on your previous reading of the lab’s work coupled with what you learned that day from individuals. Importantly, be prepared to meet one disgruntled lab member but always keep a positive attitude and focus on getting the job first. Don’t let negativity side-track you by preoccupying your thoughts about the nature of the lab during the interview. You can decide whether or not you’d like to work there after the interview, when you’re alone.

In summary, a strong postdoctoral application consists of a succinct cover letter that describes the importance of your graduate work and why you’re interested in joining a lab’s research program, specifically. Overall, Jeremy helped to make the process of applying for a postdoc position a little less intimidating, and I thank him for that.