Thoughts on trying to get a postdoc

How exactly does one get a postdoc?

  1. You could try and show that you’re the smartest researcher around. Well, if you’re in grad school, you’re probably smart. But the Harvard grad student with an Olympiad medal in high school and a 3.9 GPA from MIT is probably smarter, and definitely more conscientious. It is better for the department’s reputation to hire that person instead of you. And you all will be competing for the same positions.
  2. You could try and publish a paper in the very top journal in your field. But this too is a mixed blessing. Unless it’s a single author paper, the assumption will be that your advisor did most of the intellectual heavy lifting (which they probably did). Moreover, publishing a paper in top journals is hard.
  3. You could try and demonstrate that you can be a dependable collaborator. Collaborating in grad school itself with faculty that you want to do a postdoc with is the best way to do this. Most of the people I know who managed to get good postdocs did so by collaborating with faculty from Princeton, MIT, etc. Recommendation letters are also very important in demonstrating conscientiousness (and for conveying that you’re not completely unpleasant).
  4. You could try and fill a very specific role. Is there a postdoc that requires you to know differential geometry, Python, and some experience with Lean? Get credentials for each of those!

Way too many people focus on the first two points, and not enough on the last two.

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Graduate student

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