Tips for Landing a Postdoc Position: Insights from Hiring Faculty Members

The postdoc application process can be confusing to navigate for many PhD students. Deciding on what institution is the best fit, how you can set yourself apart from other candidates, and even identifying what postdoc positions are available can be tricky. To help you navigate this process, I decided to get some perspectives from the other side of the hiring process by asking some Sié Center faculty members about their thoughts and recommendations regarding the whole the process.

Finding the Right Fit

Before you start emailing faculty and  submitting applications, Sié Center director Dr. Avant recommends that along with salary and research support that each position will offer, applicants should consider the term, location, and job responsibilities for the position in which they’re interested. Where would you be willing to move for a short period of time? (Postdocs, at least in the social sciences, are generally for 1-2 years.) Are the responsibilities compatible with what you want to do? What does the position require? (Most postdocs require some writing and research; some also require participation in activities or research.) Specifically, at the Sié Center Dr. Avant states that the faculty are looking for high quality research, but also for research that reflects a broad view of global security issues and is directed toward contemporary problems: “We are specifically looking for students who want to engage with global politics as well as study it.”

According to Dr. Kaplan, who was a postdoc for two years at Stanford and Princeton, the nature of postdocs varies widely across different schools—some positions are with individual faculty, while some are with broader departments, and others are attached to research centers or projects. A benefit of being attached to a particular project or center is being more closely tied to a research community, which can be helpful since postdocs can fall through the cracks between grad students and faculty, and may have trouble connecting with an academic community. However, he states that a trade-off (if one can term it that) to that attachment is that the center- or project-based postdocs may spend more time on group projects relative to their own research; but this can also be mutually beneficial, since group projects offer postdocs the opportunity to learn new skills and methods, and develop substantive areas of expertise.

Conducting Your Job Search

You should be ready to apply for a desired position approximately six months to a year beforehand. Dr. Avant recommends that students also start looking at postdoc positions they might be interested in before that period so they are ready to apply when the time comes. “From a practical perspective, it might be a good idea to apply for postdocs and jobs at the same time in order to manage your time more efficiently.” Sié Center postdoc, Dr. Kelsey Norman, applied widely for postdocs and jobs. She recommends letting other academics (in your department or elsewhere) know that you’re on the job market. “This can help you discover jobs that aren’t circulated widely enough, as well as aid in your ability to learn about opportunities as new position announcement get released.”

C.V.s and Publications

When updating your resume/CV make sure that it’s clear and jargon free. Dr. Avant states that “applicants who communicate clearly and take the time to think about what their audience will want to know are highly advantaged.” Now, in regard to publications, Dr. Sisk’s advice is to “publish, publish, publish.” He advises potential postdocs to thoughtfully weigh the short-term monetary benefits of adjunct teaching (which universities will always have a need for) with the gains (such as getting hired and promoted) against longer term trajectories that come from a focus on publishing. He states that while he “would never have a blanket advice of ‘don’t make money,’ postdocs will likely have less time to take material to publication once the teaching, committee service, and other obligations of assistant professorship crowd in. ” Dr. Avant supports Dr. Sisk’s recommendation, asserting that more and more students are publishing in graduate school, making it increasingly important for interested applicants to have publications. However, she also says that “a very interesting project and strong recommendations from esteemed faculty about the worth of the project can sometimes outweigh the publication component.”

Hopefully this is helpful as you start your postdoc search. If you have any suggestions please feel free to add them in the comments section!

Dr. Yolande Bouka is investigating female freedom fighters in Namibia’s liberation struggle

Meet the Sié Center’s newest postdoc fellow, Dr. Yolande Bouka. Dr. Bouka is a highly accomplished scholar who not only conducted the first systematic investigation of the legal journey and reintegration of former prisoners of the genocide in Rwanda, but had two children during the process! Here at DU she is working on completing her book manuscript on transitional justice in Rwanda and continuing her study on female freedom fighters in Namibia’s liberation struggle. In this study she employs a feminist analytical lens to narratives of military participation to explore women’s agency. Enjoy reading more about her groundbreaking research and the advice she has for DU grad students.

Researcher: I received my PhD in International Relations from the School of International Service at American University. My MA was also in International Relations from Seton Hall University. At the Sié Center I am continuing my work on micro dynamics of violence by looking at women’s agency in non-state armed groups based on field research conducted with former female combatants who fought during Namibia’s war of independence.

Dissertation Research: My dissertation, “In the Shadow of Prison: Power, Identity, and Transitional Justice in Post-Genocide Rwanda,” investigates power relations in Rwanda’s transitional justice program. More specifically, I analyze how the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) manipulates the transitional justice program to legitimize its post-genocide rule. The project explores the legal journey of former prisoners accused of genocide crimes. This exposes the bearings of long years of socialization in post-genocide prisons on ordinary citizens and how one-sided criminal accountability challenges social repair. It also explores how released prisoners remember the multiple episodes of violence in Rwanda that took place during the 1990s. My research finds that incongruences between their memories and the official narrative on violence frame which violent acts the RPF regime chooses to criminalize or normalize for political purposes. My research finds that the legal framework forces Rwandans who journey through the judicial system to take on unitary identities that highlight their assumed criminality but eschew their victimhood at the hand of the state. I argue that the transitional justice program in Rwanda is one of the new battlegrounds of identity politics in a continuation of power struggle between political elites since the colonial era.

In my dissertation, I used a mixed-method approach that involved four months of ethnographic work in Northern Rwanda, where I conducted in depth semi-structured interviews with released prisoners. The project also entailed a critical discourse analysis of the official narrative on the legacy of violence in Rwanda to contextualize my ethnographic and interview data. My research is the first systematic investigation of the legal journey and reintegration of former prisoners of the genocide and offers a new investigative window into the role transitional justice can play in identity politics following mass violence.

Research at the Sié Center: I am working with Marie Berry on a project on women in politics in Kenya and Timothy Sisk on a project on innovations in peace building. During my time as a postdoc fellow I will complete my book manuscript on transitional justice in Rwanda. Aside from that, I will focus the bulk of my time on a new research project  “Gender and Security in African Wars: Learning from Female Combatants in Namibia’s Liberation.” This ongoing study investigates female freedom fighters in Namibia’s liberation struggle. As part of my recent Fulbright Scholar grant in Namibia, I used life history interviews and archival data to investigate the agency of female combatants in the country’s war of liberation. While contemporary analyses often look at women in non-state armed groups as a new and emerging phenomenon, they have in fact always been part of such groups in various capacities. Because scholarly studies of insurgencies in Africa are based primarily on analysis of masculine perspectives, I gender the narrative of the Namibian liberation by looking at women’s agency and how they navigated the rules and norms of the non-state armed group despite the limits to their participation. This ongoing project breaks new ground within the gender and security literature by applying feminist analytical lenses to narratives of military participation in episodes of political violence, which has not been applied to the case of Namibia to date. This research hopes be part of larger project on women’s agency in warfare in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Postdoc Job Search Steps: Because I have spent the past few years working in security policy, away from academia, it was important for me to focus my search on postdocs that would enable me to focus on academic publications. At the end of last summer, I started looking for postdoc through various sites, but my most fruitful finds were through word of mouth. Once I identified the fellowships I wanted to apply for, I familiarized myself with the faculty, the vision and mission of each program to tailor each application.

Biggest Challenge as a Doctoral Student: My biggest challenge was staying focused during the writing process while parenting young children. I had two children during the course of my doctoral studies. Luckily, I had a very supporting chair who encouraged me to stay focused and even came to my house once to discuss one of my chapters.

Advice for DU Doctoral Students: Publish before you finish your doctoral program and apply for research grant, even if you don’t necessarily feel the need for it. It will one of the key things committees will look for on your applications. Also, look for balance in your life. Mental health is a problem in academia.