Feature

While obtaining your doctorate is an exceptional first step on the road to being a psychologist, it may be beneficial to embrace additional opportunities for refining one’s skills, especially in specialty areas, says Lisa Kearney, PhD, secretary of the Association of Psychology Postdoctoral and Internship Centers board.

Enter the postdoc, the increasingly common period for scientists seeking top-tier jobs in academe and a typical step before licensure, according to Kearney. For practicing psychologists, postdoctoral positions provide mentorship and further training while allowing you to accrue more hours required for licensure. For research psychologists, a postdoc provides you with the opportunity to specialize and expand your skill set, while adding publications to your curriculum vitae — ultimately making you more competitive in the job market, says Christopher Peterson, PhD, a University of Michigan psychology professor. 

"These days, it’s unusual for people to go straight into faculty positions from graduate school unless they were very productive," he says.

A good postdoc position, however, can be hard to find. There's no national registry of psychology postdocs and many recent grads find they have to figure out the best training opportunity using several different resources. Knowing the kind of training necessary for your career goals is an important step in searching for the right postdoc, says Cynthia Belar, PhD, Executive Director of the Education Directorate at APA. For clinical psychology students, there are accredited postdoctoral fellowships focused on training and mentorship as well as informal postdoctoral-level positions during which you can accrue supervised hours to get a job as a clinician.

"There are so many different ways to find a postdoc," says Aerika Brittian, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher at Arizona State University. "There’s not just one avenue."

Here are some tips from experts and recent grads about how you can find the perfect postdoc:

Check your spam box

You'll find many postdoctoral opportunities through email lists — your department's as well as those of professional societies, says Daniel Choe, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher at University of Pittsburgh.

"Faculty circulate e-mails about postdoc opportunities — I always make it a point to save those," Choe says.

APPIC has a postdoc listserv for available clinical positions and you may also want to join one of APA's many listservs, says Wonjung Oh, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at University of Michigan who found her position via the Div. 7 (Developmental) listserv. "Once you get to the finishing stage, after candidacy, it’s really good to get on these listserve e-mail lists," Oh says. For students interested in clinical work and supervised therapy hours, Div. 12 is oriented toward clinical psychology and has several subsections specific to different populations. If you’re interested in rehab psychology, the Div. 22 listserv often posts postdoc opportunities, says Kim Gorgens, PhD, a clinical psychology professor at University of Denver.

Faculty often advertise for available positions via societies that they belong to, adds Daniel Weissman, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, who advertises on on the Cognitive Neuroscience Society website and on Neurojobs. The best way to narrow down your postdoc search is to join listservs related to your specific field of interest, he advises. That way, you’ll be able to pinpoint postdoc positions that will use and advance the skills you already have.

Use existing connections

Many postdocs are never formally advertised, so it's essential that you let your advisor and other professional contacts know what you're looking for, says Choe. "Professors know a lot of other people," he says.

If you’re looking for a research-focused postdoc, Weissman suggests asking your advisor or other professors who have similar research interests to yours whom they would recommend as a postdoctoral supervisor. They may have inside information about a colleague who just received grant and is gearing up for a new research project, he says.

That tactic worked for Hyunjin Song, PhD, a postdoctoral research associate at Yale University, who learned about her current position through her advisor. He gave a talk at Yale University that included her research. A prominent professor expressed interest in Song's work, and Song's advisor helped the two connect.

For clinical students in professional psychology, the internship is a crucial time to network for a postdoc, says Karl Stukenberg, PhD, psychology department chair at Xavier University. Because the internship placement process is already competitive, supervisors know that the students come highly qualified. You may find a postdoc opportunity via your internship supervisor or someone else working at the site, he says.

Christine Gould, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher at the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Palo Alto, Calif., landed her postdoc by impressing her supervisor and colleagues during her internship there.

Talking about potential supervisors with your advisor or other professors can also give you the opportunity to ask about possible personality conflicts, Weissman adds. To get good training, you want to work with someone you’ll get along with, he says.

Scour the Web

If your email isn't brimming with postdoc postings, search for them on the Web, says Oh. During her postdoc search, Oh applied to several positions she found on the Society for Research in Child Development webpage as well as APA's job listing site, PsycCareers, she says.

If you’re interested in clinical neuropsychology, The Association of Post-doctoral Programs in Clinical Neuropsychology matches applicants with available postdoctoral programs, says Doug Bodin, PhD, president of APPCN.

For professional psychology students, APPIC’s directory of postdoc opportunities is a good place to start since it can help you narrow your postdoc search down by both specialty and region, says Stukenberg. If geography is really important to you, it makes sense to do a postdoc where you eventually want to end up so you’re sure you’re filling the right state licensure requirements, he says.

The Web can also help students find informal positions. Google professors you'd enjoy working with and read up on their research, says Choe. Then email them directly or use social networking websites such as LinkedIn to get someone to introduce you. You can also use Academia.edu to connect with other people who work in research and higher education.

Network at conferences

Attending scientific meetings such as APA's annual convention is a great way to meet potential supervisors and get the word out that you're looking for a postdoc.

For clinical students who are looking to work with a new population, Kearney says it’s important to be connected with someone in the field who is knowledgeable about each specialty's nuances. Consider attending a practitioner-oriented conference, such as the American Psychoanalytic Association Meeting or the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies Convention, says Stukenberg. Conferences are also a great way to connect with university faculty members, says Gorgens.

Whether you're interested in making connections with practitioners or faculty members, don't be shy, Weissman says. "Seek out speakers on topics you’re interested in; show that you care about their research."

You can engage potential supervisors in conversation by asking interesting questions about their work. They’ll remember you — which could set you apart from another candidate who may have similar research interests, Weissman says.

Even if you’re not particularly well-versed about research or a particular clinic site, the willingness to put yourself out there to meet someone speaks volumes, Gorgens says.

"I know I love it, and my colleagues are the same. It’s a secret of the student universe."