Nov 16 2022

Strategies to apply doctoral and post-doctoral positions

Translated by Huong Vu


In order to have a good strategy, you have to rely on good fundamentals. Depending on the situation, your position that using one or more rules to form different strategies. Follow me, the core of good strategies to find labs, scholarships and postdoctoral fellowships must be based on the following rules:


Rule 0: To assess yourself 

The assessment of your competitive level before every competition is the most important thing. In order to evaluate yourself well, you must know to compare yourself with others reasonably. This seems simple, but quite difficult, because of subjective prone. Objectively, you should ask some of your experienced friends /people for your level of competition.


Remember that when you apply to any lab, the more important thing (from good assessment of yourself) is that you must to know how to "show off your skills". Professors want to find skilled people [such as writing code, scripts using equipment, assembling, manufacturing tools], having the ability to study and present themselves well, communicate and exchange with colleagues and friends. The best proof for this is that you must have research experience (published in magazines or international conferences), and a cover letter from your instructor. Scores like GRE, Toefl, or something that is so important to the college accepted you; as for Professors, they pay much attention to the information that clearly shows your skills and ability to study well.


Rule 1: Thoroughly research labs before expressing your willingness to join

 Follow me, it should be very wrong if you think that the more you send application for labs, the higher your probability of success is. This is due to many factors such as impatience, anxiety to get a position, so almost everyone make this mistake at first. This mistake is so serious that you may be accepted to a very bad lab and it is very difficult to get a job later. So taking time to thoroughly research the colleges, departments, the professors will help you a lot of things:


(1) Reduce the number of colleges that you think they are competitive. As for me, I usually choose 4-5 colleges or labs at first. If that fails, try to apply for the next labs, don’t send application to a series of 20 or 50, even 100 labs, or companies.


With over 20 records you send, they will definitely give you a great sense of failure. Instead, send each small number (4-5) one or even send to each lab /college /company in each week. Normally, labs will reply you soon, and longer with colleges or companies.


 (2) Give you more time to complete elements such as Cover Letter, CV, Research Statements, etc., after a few disapprovals. If you continue to apply in the next few months with the number of 20 records which are all denied, then you should stop. Because there is something wrong in your profile. 

(3) Networking. As you learn more, you will find more friends, or find someone to ask, help you better evaluate the profile.

(4) Do not send the file as if only for sending purpose because this only gives you the feeling of more failure, more boredom only.

Rule 2:  Avoid to follow the crowd

If you understand Principle 1, you will also find out why you should not follow the crowd to file for a few new hiring labs. If you research the lab carefully and see that you are appropriate, you should file, then if you feel it is not appropriate, then STOP. “Following the crowd only gives you a sense of failure.

 Most professors do followings: It takes only 30 seconds to know if you are appropriate to the lab, 20 minutes to know how your skills are, and reduce to 3-5 candidates; take a few days to think, then decide to send email to the 1-3 people among the best ones. So if you send the application without careful preparation, but follow the crowd, the probability of failure is very high. 

Rule 3: Write the appropriate CV and quite good cover letter 

If you send your resume to North America, it must follow North American style. The CV must clarify your experience, skills, what your publication published in any magazine, or is in a peer-reviewed or writing situation. A cover letter must be written clearly for each lab, giving direct information about your results  and skills for the reader (normally Professor) so that he (she) can find if you are suitable for the lab or not. Letters should not be too long, so it's about 300-500 words.

If you find out carefully about the lab, it will be easier to write, because you have to prove that you are the right person for the lab, to ask for an interview (via Skype, or to be invited directly).

Rule 4: Be very nice and polite

In any situation, face-to-face or via email, you must know to use polite language. If you write to students or postdoc graduates in that lab, you also have to be polite, even asking for opinions of experienced people. I always invite coffee for someone who help me something. You should also try to show that you are a serious person when contacting or asking for ideas.

 Rule 5: Take the initiative to connect

If you participate in conferences, seminars, you should take the initiative to connect, write nice and polite email to ask to be met, ask for live interview. You should know many (very excellent) people who also must to do so, and many people are also accepted to Postdoc or PhD in good labs thanks to be met several times at that conference or seminar.

Rule 6: Make preparation and preparation

If you lack any skills such as writing a CV, Cover Letter, Research Statement, or research skills, you must spend enough time preparing for what you wrote before sending your resume. If the preparation time is 2 years, then spend two years before believing that you are competitive. Because once you prepare well, although it takes two years, it is enough for you with only one success, with a $ 20,000- $ 30,000 scholarship per year for PhD.

Or, in case of PhD, if you do not have the skills you need, you should stay one or two more years to learn more, and then graduate. Because if you try to graduate and do not have enough skills, then it will be difficult for you to get the next job immediately. Always prepare early to getting out the course, spend enough time, do not wait at the approach of graduation or expiration to begin.

Remember this: "Luck only goes with those who prepare it best."

Rule 7: Accept and understand failure

For me this is the most important principle in life in general. On the way we go, sometimes we will trip or be full of mistakes. Almost everyone used to fails for finding a way, a solution, a new life and a new career.

Those who do not fail will meet the difficulties to learn the lesson of failure:  it is humility, eagerness and persistence. Accepting and understanding failures will help us to be more successful, and to get last and most important results. The failure makes me understand the importance of these seven rules.

Steve Jobs said that "stay hungry, stay foolish" means we have to be eager to learn (because we are hungry for knowledge, not for food), to accept mistakes (because we do not know what makes us stupid at the beginning) to become wiser by learning the lessons of failure.


This post is translated and summarized from the post of Dr. Ngo Anh Van (postdoctoral researcher, University of Calgary, Canada).


Tags: Postdoc Experience,Strategies to apply doctoral and post-doctoral positions