I'm applying for postdoc jobs right now (math). I was put on the short-list for one position and had an interview but the PI for that postdoc made the offer to someone else. I'm starting to get discouraged and wondering what I'm doing wrong. I showed my research statement to a few faculty members and they said it was fine. I also got a letter from one very well-known mathematician. Maybe I didn't make enough faculty contacts? Was I supposed to have a contact at each place I applied to? Maybe what I am doing is not trendy enough.

Question 1: What do I have to do to get noticed by the hiring committees?

Question 2: What are people getting postdocs doing that people who don't get postdocs aren't doing?

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    Some apply for 5 or more, others 10 or more, even others 100 or more, so why expect to get an offer from the first one or two? Applying for jobs can mean many applications and rejections... Grit your teeth and persevere...
    – Solar Mike
    Jan 22, 2019 at 14:06
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    You can ask the PI to give you some feedback. They might not answer but it's worth trying, and it's very helpful when they do.
    – Erwan
    Jan 22, 2019 at 14:32
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    @Monkia in some countries you have the right to ask for feedback and if you wish to ask then they have to respond...
    – Solar Mike
    Jan 22, 2019 at 16:32
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    @Monkia although it's human and sometimes hard to avoid, I think it's unhealthy to take negative feedback as a personal criticism. Ideally one should not feel bad about negative feedback, it's just an external evaluation of our actions; reflecting on it can can help us improve and do better next time.
    – Erwan
    Jan 22, 2019 at 16:33
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    @Monkia I have been asked for feedback by a rejected candidate and I have given it. It helped the former candidate to improve their performance and they have now a permanent position. There is nothing shameful about asking for feedback, although the interviewer may be wary of possible legal repercussions and may choose not to answer. Jan 22, 2019 at 17:08

6 Answers 6


There are two big issues: competition and potentially poor fit. Either can knock you out. In some fields, at some times, the competition is fierce. Be happy (a bit) that you made the short list.

On the other side of the coin, it is possible that a candidate is seen as a poor fit for the position. This is more likely to happen early in the process unless it comes down to personal issues - arrogance, or indifference, or ...

Your materials can be fine and you can be fine, but someone else is just seen to be a better fit at the moment. Soldier on.

You may not need the rest of the advice, below, since you seem to be able to reach the shortlist, but for others, note that your written materials have to be positive/strong enough to move you from the "all applicants" pile into the "we should look at this person" pile. The second pile is very short and if you don't get into it at a quick reading, you are done. Once you are in the shortlist it becomes more of a personal and less of an institutional "game". If you know you are a marginal fit for a position, don't bother applying except in exceptional circumstances.

  • You might think about stressing your "flexibility". Especially if you have explored various areas.
    – Buffy
    Jan 22, 2019 at 14:33
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    "If you know you are a marginal fit for a position, don't bother applying except in exceptional circumstances." - that's a bad advice. Usually it does not take much time and effort to apply for a postdoc position, so every position that looks good is worth it even if there are better candidates than yourself.
    – Alexey B.
    Jan 22, 2019 at 16:26
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    @AlexeyB., exceptional circumstances include being especially needy or a lack of candidates generally. Others, I suppose. But it is better to tailor your application that to just broadcast a general appeal.
    – Buffy
    Jan 22, 2019 at 16:32
  • @Gradstudent It does help a lot if people on the hiring side personally know your advisor, co-authors, or references, but that's not 100% necessary to score an interview.
    – Alexey B.
    Jan 22, 2019 at 16:33
  • @AlexeyB., I also worry about the situation in which you don't get a position this year and need to go back the next. It seems better if you haven't tried and failed earlier at that same place. Save your ammunition. Exceptional times - exceptional measures.
    – Buffy
    Jan 22, 2019 at 16:45

The job market for postdocs is such that most new PhDs will have to contact 50-odd people to get maybe 5 interviews and 2 offers. Unless you meet someone at a conference that you click with, job searches are the academic version of Tinder; it's just a numbers game. Your PhD advisor can set you up a bit, but unless they're some superstar it's mostly on you to keep swiping.

If you aren't even getting replies to emails, you should work on your approach - having your advisor email a rec letter at the same time as your initial email is something that I've seen work well. You should also not take being ignored personally - usually your email just falls off the first page of the inbox and is therefore gone forever. You can follow up after a couple days if you don't get a response.


If you got to the interview stage, you probably aren’t doing anything wrong. The reality of today’s job market is that employers have the advantage because there’s an oversupply of candidates; paring down a large list of applicants is difficult enough, discerning who should be a job in a final pool of 3 or 4 highly qualified applicant is a nightmare.

It’s always good to remember that people don’t hire CVs: they hire other people. This means there’s a human element that enters in the selection process, and at the end of the process this human element can rarely be controlled, lest you are obviously much more qualified than the competing candidates. Basically, it can come down to pure luck.

You might have been bested because the other candidate was a slightly better fit for that specific position, because the supervisor of this other candidate or a referee for this other candidate knows the person offering the position, because the person offering the position has historically had good candidates from the school of this other applicant, because this other candidate publishes in this or that journal that is favoured by the employer etc, i.e. a whole host of factors which have minimal weight until someone has to decide between two more or less equally qualified candidates. Maybe this other candidate had just one more citation than you did at the time of the decision.

You cannot change any of the above factors; it’s unlikely that people who get the positions do something really different. If it’s just bad luck then one can take solace in the fact that there usually is a very restricted number of candidates on the final shortlist, so that every time you make it to a shortlist you increase the chances of all these infinitesimal variations will go your way this one next time.


I think postdoc hiring is much like any other hiring process. As others have pointed out, there are too many qualified applicants for too few positions. This makes it easy to toss someone out of contention for soft reasons such as perceived lack of fit.

If you think of it from the hiring PI's point of view, they likely have restricted funds, meaning that the postdoc is a huge investment for them. Furthermore, even in a best case scenario it would likely take a new postdoc 6mo-1yr to get "up to speed" in a new environment, at which point it the PI has already has a sunk cost in case the postdoc is not performing to expectation. Therefore, this is a decision they quite literally can't afford to get wrong!

This leads to the old adage that it's not what you know, it's who you know. A prospective hiring PI is more likely to take someone from a department they're familiar with, or from a group they already know quite well. In that sense, probably the best thing you can do (if you're not already doing it) is to talk with your PhD advisor, or other members of your current department that you're friendly with. Do they know any of the people you'd like to work with? Could they send an e-mail or make a phone call on your behalf?

In my experience, while this wouldn't guarantee a job, it would almost certainly put you on the shortlist.


I think your low publications (none other than your thesis, see your question of January 31th 2019) is hurting you.

This answer is not meant to be cutting. But to be analytical. You ask why. I see this as a big factor.

I have a stack of resumes to review. Some have publications. Some don't. Not hard to understand that I (or many other people) will apply a filter and cut the ones with no publications.

We don't live in an ideal world where every individual will get infinite time spent on analyzing his case or will always find a spot. People will apply common sense filters. I hire a postdoc, I want someone who can produce and do so relatively independently. This is demonstrated by his publication count. I want to see some papers coming out (or at least in review) from someone in the second half of their doctorate. This is an indicator of their productivity that I will use to judge if they will be productive as a postdoc.


In my experience the biggest issue is eligibility to work in the UK. If you are (currently) a non eu citizen and any of the other candidates is appointable then we can not hire you, even if you are the best candidate. The situation is the same in the USA.

  • 1
    This is incorrect. First of all, a preference may be given to UK/EU but surely not any other candidate. Secondly, it is for PI, not HR, to rank the candidates and draw the line. Jan 24, 2019 at 20:00
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    @DmitrySavostyanov I could not find any information that UK universities are exempt from resident labour market test (neither are phd level researchers in the shortage occupation list), so they may have to consider UK/EEA applicants first. This raises the bar for being hired from being slightly better than other applicants to not having any competition from the whole EEA. Obviously, this will be different in other countries.
    – Alexey B.
    Jan 24, 2019 at 21:17
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    If a UK/EEA candidate is appointable then they must be appointed before a non-EU candidate. And yes HR can and do override the PI. This is why you will see very strange and detailed lists of job requirements in adverts to make sure the prefered candidate is appointable,
    – Ian Turton
    Jan 25, 2019 at 9:43

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