Tips for applying for a postdoc position

5 Tips for Applying to Postdoc Positions


By Tara Burke, PhD


As you’re rounding home base in your graduate career you have more than a few things on your plate: wrapping up your research and publications, finishing your dissertation, scheduling your defense, and nailing down your next job. More than likely, the last thing on your mind is your next step. If you know that you would like to continue with bench research and pursue a postdoctoral fellowship after graduation, it’s best to get an early start in the application process. Since many labs interview candidates months to even a year before they may need a postdoc, the earlier you start applying the better. Applying to postdoc jobs can be a daunting and lengthy process, especially for graduate students, who have spent several years out of the job market. Fear not! The tips listed below will provide you with some helpful guidelines to get you organized, prepared and make you an attractive postdoc candidate.


1)   Make a list of potential labs

Hopefully in the last few years of graduate school you have taken the time to think about what type of research you’d like to pursue, the research environment you prefer as well as where, geographically, you’d like to be located. Ideally, you have a list of labs that interest you or, even better, that you have networked with already. Since funding these days is somewhat volatile, you want to make sure this list is pretty long. Also, you want to have an extensive list because even though you are very interested in the science, it is very difficult to know if a lab is good fit until you visit in person. Although many investigators advertise their open positions, many do not, so take the time to go through the websites of all labs that seem interesting and do not discount them because you do not see that they are currently advertising an open position. I recommend rating the list and apply to the ones that interest you the most first.


2)   Perfect your CV

Since there is little structure to how a CV (curriculum vitae) should be constructed, it can be confusing to know what to include and what not to include in your CV. Science Careers has a great post about creating a successful CV with basic dos and don’t along with tips on structuring and styling your CV. Once you have a good draft, it is crucial that you have other people proofread and edit your CV. They will catch mistakes that you miss. Ask to see a colleague’s or your mentor’s CV. Having examples of great CVs on hand will help you create a great one yourself. Seek out the career resources at your university. They have professionals that will be vital in helping you create a CV that is error-free, aesthetically pleasing, and that presents you and your qualifications in the best light. Once you have a great master CV you can use this template to create a CV that is tailored to the postdoc to which you are applying. For example, you may want to highlight a specific method that may be beneficial to the lab you are applying to by placing at the top of a subheading. Also, if you are applying to lab that is not in the same field as your graduate lab, you may need to simplify the scientific language used on your CV for that particular application.



3)   Master the cover letter

The key to a good cover letter is that it is tailored specifically to the position you are applying. A good cover letter should not be a regurgitation of your CV; it should highlight your accomplishments and emphasize how your expertise would work well in that prospective lab. I cannot stress enough that making one general cover letter for a myriad of different labs is not a good idea. A good outline for academic cover letters is to construct a letter of three short paragraphs. In the first paragraph you should introduce yourself, state your current position including your current department/university name as well as the name of your Principal Investigator. If you haven’t yet completed your Ph.D. you need to mention your predicted or scheduled defense date. You will also want to mention how you came to know about the position. The second paragraph is the most important paragraph and the meat of your letter. Here, you will talk about what interests you about the research of this particular lab and why you think you are a good candidate. You want to accentuate the skills and expertise you have that you can bring to the lab. It also helps to mention specific papers or research talks that compelled you to apply to this lab. In the third paragraph you should state what additional documents you are sending with this cover letter. Also, include a thank-you and how it is best to reach you. Science Careers has an excellent article on cover letters that I highly recommend using a guide.


4)   Obtain and ask for recommendations

On your CV you should list three references. Before you list these individuals as references you need to ask them first. You want to make sure that these individuals will provide you will positive reviews. If one of your references seems hesitant to give you a review, it is probably a good idea not to pursue it. Also, don’t choose a reference because they are big name in place of a younger faculty member who knows you well. Let your references know the time frame of when you will start applying and talk to them about your process. They may even know some of the labs on your list and can help you get a personalized introduction. Once this entire process is over, don’t forget to thank all your references for their help and time as you may need them to serve as a reference for you in the future!


5)   Proofread one last time!

You’ve constructed your email. You have a stellar cover letter and a pristine CV. You are ready to send your application. Wait! Save your email. Walk away from the computer and take a break. Walk your dog that has been patiently sleeping at your feet while you finish this application, or go for a run to clear your mind. Then, after you have taken a mental break from the computer drain, go back to your application and give it one last, slow read. You’d be surprised what you missed. You will be able to find errors that you didn’t see before. This will allow you to confidently send a great application.


Good Luck!


5 Tips to Kickstart Your Postdoc Job Search!


By Tara Burke

The last few years of your graduate career are both exciting and stressful. If you think you’d like to continue your biomedical training after graduation it’s never too soon to get a jump-start preparing for the next step in your career. As someone who recently went through this transition, I learned a lot about this lengthy process; a transition that can be a little daunting at times. A compounding factor of the postdoctoral job search is the lack of a defined roadmap. While there are numerous graduate school and job fairs, I have yet to come across a postdoc fair.  Below, I offer you 5 tips that will help you make the transition from graduate student to postdoctoral fellow. In my next two follow-up posts, I will provide more tips on the application and interview phases of your search. Together, these tips will help guide you towards your dream postdoc!


1) Construct a timeline 

It’s important to consider all the factors of your postdoc search and to assemble a realistic timeline. A general timeline for the entire postdoc job search is about 6 months (from sending the first application to your start date) but you need time before those last 6 months to prepare your materials and decide your direction. You may require less time if you’ve already been networking with a specific lab or if you don’t plan on moving to a new city or university. More than likely however, 6 months may be too conservative if you plan on moving long distance, are unsure about what research you want to explore during your postdoc, or have to coordinate your prospects and location with a significant other’s career. It is also important that you establish a timeline with your advisor. Some advisors may need you to stay in the lab for a bit after your defense to wrap up projects and manuscripts while others may not have the money or space for you to stay.


2) Review your current credentials

Your research interests, publications and recommendations will be the main focus of your CV when applying to postdocs. Assessing the quality and quantity of these items a few years before graduation gives you the time to strengthen them. For example, if you feel that you don’t have three strong names to list as a recommendation, now is the time to foster some additional relationships. The more your recommenders interact with you, the more personal your recommendation will be.  If you fear your publication list may be a little thin, you may want to talk to your advisor about helping with another project in the lab or writing a review.


3) Seek out career resources 

To prepare for the job application process, find and use all available resources provided to you by your lab, department and university. As career services for graduate students can vary widely depending on the university, you may have to do a little searching to find the right websites and/or offices that can aid you in a number of skills important for securing a position. Career counselors provide helpful services such as proofreading of cover letters and CVs, and help with the interview process (proper etiquette, mock interviews, phone interview guidelines etc.). Additionally, making regular appointments with a career counselor can make you accountable to deadlines you set for preparing your application materials. Don’t forget to seek out help from those around you. Your advisor, postdocs in your lab and fellow graduate students either have experience with this process or are about to go through it themselves.


4) Observe your lab environment

Working in close quarters with a spectrum of personalities can lead to a stressful and frustrating environment. As a graduate student you should take note of certain environmental stressors that you don’t want in your next lab. Do you thrive in a highly collaborative lab or would you rather work solely on your own project? You should also assess your relationship with your advisor. Do you enjoy being micro-managed or would you rather be completely autonomous? While most of us fall somewhere in between these two extremes, it’s important to know where you fall. Knowing what you need in a mentor and lab environment will help you find a lab and advisor that will allow you to thrive.


5) Get out there!

Although it may be a little early for you to start sending out applications there are other things you can do to prepare for your next career step.  Start making a list of interesting papers you have read recently. This list will be a great start to your online search for potential postdoc labs. Attend more seminars outside your direct research interests. You may discover a lab doing really neat research that you may not come across while reading papers.  Volunteer to help host a speaker at your university. This will allow you to directly network with an investigator whose research you admire. Present posters or give short talks at your university. This will make you more comfortable speaking about your research and this skill will come in handy when you have to sell yourself during a postdoc interview.




Tara Burke

The molecule pregnenolone protects the brain from marijuana intoxication

Ringing in 2014 brought the legalization of recreational marijuana (Cannabis sativa) sales in Colorado. As views towards the regulation of recreational marijuana usage continue to loosen in the United States and abroad, addiction to marijuana remains a serious problem. Cannabis consumers quest for a state of relaxation, however various dangers are associated with consuming cannabis including memory impairment, loss of motivation and withdrawal from social circles. Drug addiction clinics are seeing an increase in patients seeking treatment for marijuana addiction and consumption is particularly high in younger individuals ages 16 to 24. As a result of this increase, developing an effective treatment for cannabis addiction has become high priority in the field of drug addiction research. A recent publication in Science found a potential therapeutic target for treatment of cannabis addiction.


Scientists in Bordeaux, France administered various compounds of the major classes of abused drugs (cocaine, morphine, nicotine, alcohol and THC (the main active ingredient in marijuana)) and measured levels of pregnenolone in rats and mice. What they discovered was a 3000% increase in the amount of pregnenolone after administering THC. This increase was shown to happen through THC’s binding of the brain’s CB1 cannabinoid receptors and pregnenolone was show to be part of a feedback loop regulating the cannabinoid receptors. Therefore, THC binding to the cannabinoid receptors drove production of more pregnenolone, which in turn, blunted the response of the cannabinoid receptors and prevented them from producing a high. Until now, the naturally occurring steroid hormone, pregnenolone, was thought to be an inactive precursor to other steroid hormones such as estrogen and testosterone. In fact, because of this, it is currently sold over-the-counter as an anti-aging supplement.


This study also showed that pregnenolone administration blocked THC-induced food intake in rats and mice and stopped the memory impairment caused by THC in mice, two well-known behavioral disturbances of THC. More importantly, the administration of pregnenolone greatly reduced the release of dopamine triggered by THC. This is a vital finding if pregnenolone is to be considered as a treatment for marijuana addiction since addictive drugs involve the excessive release of dopamine, a gatekeeper of the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. The researchers in charge of this study hope that a new addiction therapy will emerge from this research. In fact, their studies continue with efforts now being focused on creation of a well-absorbed derivative of pregnenolone because when taken orally, pregnenolone is quickly converted into estrogen and testosterone.


In addition to addiction therapy, this discovery also has the potential to be helpful in other medical avenues. Blocking the intoxicating effects of marijuana may be beneficial to those that take it as an anti-seizure medication or anti-psychotic medication since these actions require a separate active ingredient of marijuana, cannabidiol. However, it is important to note that pregnenolone will not be useful to cancer patients and others using medical marijuana to alleviate pain or increase appetite since pregnenolone would block these effects of THC.  It will be interesting to see how development of pregnenolone progresses. With many potential uses and an increasing addicted population, I am sure drug companies are following this study closely as well!

Keep Calm and Comment On


Tara Burke

PubMed begins pilot program to allow users to comment on abstracts


Traditionally post-publication commentary on scientific publications has been limited mainly to the ‘Letters to the Editor’ section of journals. Last week, in an effort to create an easily accessible forum for open criticism and dialogue about scientific ideas, the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) started the pilot phase of PubMed Commons, a program that will allow users to comment on any publication indexed by PubMed, a free database of abstracts from biomedical journals. As of now, PubMed Commons is open to limited users but once the program is officially launched every individual listed as an author on a PubMed citation will be able to be make and view comments.


Before you rush to comment on a paper that contradicts your research, you should read the detailed PubMed Commons user guidelines. The most significant guideline is that comments can only be made with a user’s true identity. That is, no anonymous comments or pseudonyms will be allowed. The guidelines also ask that comments be detailed and provide specific references to the papers (i.e. page and figure numbers). You may mention your own unpublished data but NCBI asks that you not comment on unpublished work by others. NCBI requests that comments be respectful and polite, and neither contain partisan political views nor commercial endorsements. It’s also worth noting that the comments will be permanent once posted and will be citable. A more detailed explanation of the comment guidelines is available on the NCBI FAQs page.


Right now, reactions to the addition of comments to PubMed show moderate enthusiasm as scientists wait patiently to see how well the pilot program is executed. The most contested parts of PudMed Commons appear to be whether comments should be anonymous and who should be allowed to comment. NCBI has adopted the strict commenting guidelines because they are concerned that many scientists may not want to comment if a large number of the comments are irrelevant. Some argue that not allowing comments to be anonymous may deter younger scientists from commenting on certain publications out of fear that it may hurt their career. PubPeer, a website that allows scientists to provide feedback on publications, is excited about PubMed Commons but urges NCBI to allow anonymity of commenters. They argue that anonymity is vital to boosting useful comments. PubPeer sites that the majority of their comments do not come from registered users but from unregistered commenters. Another criticism of the new comment system is that it’s too exclusive, allowing only PubMed-cited authors to comment. Retraction Watch, a blog that reports on retractions of scientific papers, is generally enthusiastic about PubMed Commons. They are excited to see another forum for post-publication review. However, they hope that PubMed Commons eventually becomes open to all individuals.


The implementation of online comments on PubMed brings up other important issues that plague the scientific community such as a seemingly lackluster effort by scientists to engage the public, open-access to all journals, as well as the often criticized peer-review process. More specifically, if comments were open to the general public this may require the addition of a synopsis that better explains and communicates the significance of the findings to the general public. Also, allowing open comments by the general public may further propel the movement to make all journals adopt an open-access format as it may become contradictory that the general public is allowed to comment on PubMed abstracts but doesn’t have access to the full articles. The most direct effect of the new PubMed policy will most likely be on the peer-review process. Comments will likely extend peer review so that it no longer ends once the paper is published. Also, since comments will now be recorded, opinions of papers will now extend beyond the discussions often observed during scientific conferences.  NCBI hopes the pilot program will reveal the best guidelines for comments on PubMed but it is clear that science publications are headed towards a more open policy.


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Every Postdoc Should Take Control of Their Career: Here’s How

Tara Burke

[highlight]Stay informed on changes to NIH training policies and career opportunities[/highlight]


This week is National Postdoctoral Appreciation Week! Congratulations to those who have made it through graduate school and are continuing their research training.  The postdoctoral fellowship is a time to further develop your bench skills and fine-tune your investigative prowess.  It’s also a time to seriously consider the next step in your career. However, this task may seem daunting since postdoctoral scientists often feel tied to the bench with little time and support to pursue career options. To add to this, federal budget cuts are severely affecting academic research funding (with the possibility of more cuts looming) and the prospect of an academic career is becoming unattainable for more and more postdoctoral fellows. While federal budget cuts are not the only reason for the precarious job situation, it certainly has exacerbated the problem, bringing it to the forefront. The decline of tenure-track and other academic positions is trickling down to trainees, pumping out large numbers of postdoctoral fellows who are fighting for fewer and fewer jobs.


Most recently, the NIH has created a new website to update researchers and the public on new policies implemented to address the problems trainees are facing. Some of the new initiatives taken by the NIH include establishing a grant program to nurture innovative training proposals, tracking all trainees that receive federal funding, from undergraduates to postdocs, and improve graduate and postdoctoral researcher training. These changes are a step in the right direction towards updating an antiquated system. However, some argue, that the NIH has glossed over the big problems facing the biomedical training infrastructure. Additionally, a recent survey from an organization in the U.K. urges postdoctoral fellows to take more responsibility for their career development. Most likely a combination of increased support and guidance by the institution and a more proactive role by the postdocs themselves will result in fellows that are more prepared for the ever-changing job climate.


How do postdoctoral trainees avoid becoming victim to the uncertain job market? In addition to taking full advantage of the career services at your institution as early as possible, a highly recommended first step is to join your associated scientific society, the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) and/or other associations. I especially recommend joining The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). (AAAS has a special deal right now where if you join AAAS or are already a member you can join the NPA for only $20). It’s an excellent way to stay abreast of the funding situations, changes in career trends/opportunities, and participate in funding advocacy. All scientific societies have a membership fee, however the fees are often lower for graduate students and postdocs. Also, some of the membership fees, such as NPA fees, are tax deductable. Furthermore, staying connected to their services is key. Therefore, I further recommend joining their LinkedIn group or following them on Twitter to maximize your exposure to their services and information. Joining these societies is a great starting point for those interested in the scientific community outside of their lab or institution and, better yet, their content can easily be explored at your computer while you are spinning your samples or treating your cells!

5 Ways to Make the Most Out of Your Grad School Experience

Welcome to grad school, you are on your way to adding 3 magical letters at the end of your name. As we'd like y'all to start well-informed and be prepared, our brilliant contributors share their wisdom and best advice on making the most our of your grad school (and beyond) experience!

That's our top 5:

  1. Run while you still can! Just kidding....
  2. Learn new things and learn all the time and it will all come together at the end, we promise!
  3. Take a careful look of the PI personality and lab's dynamics when choosing a lab.
  4. Keep it balanced, as in stay healthy!
  5. Diversify your experience at the bench and beyond it.

Now read on:Read more


Tara Burke

Bromodomain inhibitors show potential as a treatment for heart failure

Heart failure is the leading cause of hospitalizations, healthcare expenditures and death in America today. Heart failure occurs when the heart can no longer pump efficiently to accommodate the body’s needs. To date, most heart failure medications target hormonal signaling pathways, a process which initiates at the cell’s outer surface and eventually converges on specific transcription factors that control heart failure pathogenesis. These current treatments have improved patient survival but said treatments are far from optimal or ideal.  Although it is well established that chromatin and transcriptional changes drive heart failure pathogenesis in cardiomyocytes there is currently no treatment to directly block these detrimental nuclear changes and target damaging changes at their source. There are a number of transcription factors and epigenetic changes known to be important in heart failure pathogenesis but, as is the case for numerous other diseases, drug design for transcription factors and specific epigenetic marks proves difficult.Read more

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New Avenues in Cancer Drug Discovery

Tara Burke

The discovery of bromodomain inhibitors and super-enhancers lead scientists to new approaches in cancer drug discovery

Cancer researchers have published innumerous papers mapping the multiple genetic mutations that exist in all cancer types. From these discoveries, hope emerged that inhibiting the mutated proteins fueling the cancer cell, or driver mutations, would lead to targeted cancer drugs. However, finding small molecule inhibitors that are successful in the clinic has proven more difficult. Within the last decade, the discovery of chromatin modifiers and their important role in various cancers provided an exciting new avenue for cancer researchers to explore. Whole genome studies of a myriad of cancers revealed numerous epigenetic regulators as driver mutations for many cancers. Nonetheless, Read more