I've always wondered if PIs look for a perfect fit for their projects. For instance, a post doc vacancy is advertised as follows:

  • Must have completed PhD with 3 peer reviewed journal articles.
  • Must have x,y and z skills.
  • Must have had some exposure to a,b and c skills.

Now what if the applicant has only 1 journal article and is working on a 2nd manuscript. Has x and z skills and has had exposure to a and b skills but not c but some other skills that might be useful?

So would this applicant want to apply for said post doc? If so does how does the hiring dynamic work? Would this dynamic be the same whether it is an engineering/science post doc or otherwise? Would the applicant be overlooked because he/she isn't a 100% fit?

I realize that each situation would need to be judged differently but there has got to be a general thumb rule.

3 Answers 3


Usually, I hire two types of postdocs.

The first one is the "zero expectation" postdoc, this is the postdoc that I hire when I already have the manpower to complete the project, and when the project is clearly on the good tracks. For this one, I just look at the research work he has done (I don't care about numbers/publications, only about the quality of the work) and make sure that he will be able to work alone (mmm, this means that I look for someone that should already be a faculty member somewhere, but which is not for various reasons).

But what is interesting you I guess is the second type. In any project the most important thing is to make sure that we will be able to complete it in time. If I hire a postdoc for that purpose and if the postdoc don't do the job, I will have to do it myself, I don't want this to happen. So, the only thing that interests me is the ability to complete the goals of the project. Publications? except if the goal of the project is to produce papers I don't care. Skills? this is what I am looking for, and more precisly I am looking for confirmed skills, not exposure (too risky).

  • 1
    But won't skills be "confirmed" only from publications produced? Also, I see that in my department, there are lots of "internally generated" post doc vacancies. They are never advertised.. Is that common? Thanks for your answer!!!! Any chance you'll hire me? Just kidding! :)
    – dearN
    Apr 8, 2012 at 13:55
  • Publications, but also softwares, patents, industrial contracts, etc. But when I use publications as a "proof of skill", no need of a lot of publications, one can be enough if the work is rock solid. Local postdocs are common in the case of software projects: you lower the risk if you keep the guy that develops a software from scratch. I am always looking for good candidates, but unfortunately not in you field (mechanical engineering if I remember from another question). Apr 8, 2012 at 17:44
  • Oh I was just kidding about being hired! What with visa regulations and all... But yes, I think your answer is complete. I'd love to have other researchers chip in with their input!
    – dearN
    Apr 8, 2012 at 18:03

Postdocs have an absolutely critical and unique role in a research group. They have more research potential than anyone else in academia, because they are both full time on research and yet experienced, not students. They are also very expensive and a rare luxury that comes only with heavy investment from a funder or university.

The first thing I look for therefore is demonstrated proof that the candidate will take good advantage of the expensive opportunity they are being offered. Forms of evidence:

  • existing publications
  • publications in prep.
  • letters of reference

These should show that the candidate has skills in what needs to be done, and the determination and internal motivation to be a successful academic.

The next thing I look for is evidence that the candidate is very likely to employ those skills in the area that I am funded for them to research. This is done through open and frank conversations with the candidate about their research and career goals, what I need, what they need, where they intend to go next, etc. A postdoc is at a critical time in their career, and everyone should know that they need to produce papers out of their PhD and that they may leave early if the right lifetime opportunity comes along. I try to negotiate in advance about what research I absolutely need them to complete, what further I'd like them to complete, and to discuss writing and research schedules such that they can meet both of our needs and wants, preferably through some synergy (e.g. of the possible outcomes of this project, which would best suit both of our goals?) I then try to agree a schedule about what research will be done when, what is the earliest date they'll start looking for their next position, when will they or we start writing the next grant or fellowship bid etc.

These negotiations give me not only a sense of how much I can expect us to accomplish if I make this hire, but also how well we can work together and how similarly we understand our responsibilities as academics.

Finally of course there is a luck element: if there is more than one viable candidate, the one who seems likely to be the best fit wins.

  • I would say Post-docs are "very expensive" anywhere that I know of (in STEM anyway), typically making a lot less (often half) of what they would make outside academia. It's rather that grad students are dirt-cheap, I would say.
    – einpoklum
    Nov 21, 2016 at 10:05

As Sylvain implies, the freedom in selecting a postdoc depends strongly on the nature of the project. If I have a position for which on-going funding is available (because it's part of a long-term center, for instance), the "must haves" or more like "would like to haves."

On the other hand, if I have a limited-term position (one funded through something like an NIH, NSF, or DFG grant which has a time-limit attached), then I need to be much more strict in selecting my candidates. Then I want one with as close a match as possible.

That said, however, if the clock is already running, then I can't necessarily wait for a postdoc who has all of the qualifications to come along. In that case, I will pick someone who satisfies most of the criteria, and do extra due diligence to make sure that the postdoc is teachable: that is, that she is willing to learn the extra skills that she needs to complete the project in a timely manner.

  • 1
    Thanks for the answer. It provides continued insight. So I am guessing, a doctoral degree holder who is multi-skilled/has worked in multiple disciplines would be a good choice for certain projects.
    – dearN
    Apr 8, 2012 at 18:05
  • 1
    Yes. The more skills a person has, the easier it will normally be to find a suitable project or job later on.
    – aeismail
    Apr 8, 2012 at 21:49

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