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Should postdocs compete or cooperate? Jen Heemstra offers her two cents

Here’s how to get the best of both worlds

by Jen Heemstra
September 9, 2019 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 97, Issue 35


Illustration of competitive cooperation.
Credit: C&EN/Shutterstock
Joining forces can be the secret to success.

The Boston Marathon is arguably one of the most prestigious and exclusive distance races in the US. To qualify, runners must complete another marathon with a finish time below a specific cutoff. And making the cutoff does not guarantee the opportunity to run in Boston; competitors who qualify must still wait and hope that they don’t get bumped out by someone with an even faster time. So what does this have to do with being a postdoc? The power of competing cooperatively on the job market.

Qualifying for Boston is one of my personal goals, and as an amateur runner I must run my best race to have a chance of finishing under the qualifying time. As you might expect, several runners at any given marathon share the same goal and know that they too will have to perform at their best to succeed. What may be surprising is that many of these runners—myself included—choose to race together in pace groups. These groups are made up of people who are all aiming for a specific finish time and cooperate to stay on track and encourage one another along the way. This might seem counterintuitive, as we’re all in theory competing against each other for a spot at Boston. However, we also recognize that we’re competing against thousands of other runners at every marathon across the country and that working together can help everyone in our small pace group achieve our goal—and have more fun in the process!

Even if you never try to qualify for the Boston Marathon, as a postdoc you will be venturing into the job market and thinking about ambitious goals of your own. And you may be acutely aware that several people around you are competing for those same jobs. When the choice arises whether to compete alone or cooperate with those around you, what do you choose? While the answer to this is personal, it’s important to recognize that although you may be competing against the people closest to you, you are also competing against a much larger group of people at universities around the world. And, similar to the runners who work together to keep pace and encourage each other, postdocs have much to gain from working together with a small group of people who have the same career goals and ambition level. After all, there will be more than one winner in the competition for jobs, so you and the colleagues in your group have plenty of room to all be successful.

What does this look like on a practical level? That depends largely on where you are and what types of jobs you are aiming for. You may be surrounded by other postdocs who have similar career aspirations, or you may need to look outside your current institution to find your cohort. You may have a formal group in your department to help bring you together, or you may have to take the lead to organize. You might even want to be a part of more than one group. Most important, you get to decide what type of resources and help you want to share. Identify the key challenges you are likely to face in your job search, and discuss how you can work together to tackle those challenges. In the case of an academic job search, a key challenge may be understanding what your job application should look like. Sure, the job ad tells you that you need a cover letter, CV, proposals, and teaching and diversity statements. But what do you need to show to set yourself apart? If you can work together with friends to offer constructive feedback on one another’s applications, you’re more likely to recall things you’ve done that really make you shine. In the case of publishing or another career away from the bench, a key challenge may be the lack of central repositories for job ads. Working together could involve setting up a group email list to share job postings that you find. While your group is likely to start out focused on practical support, as you work together, you may also find yourselves benefiting from mutual encouragement and emotional support as you share stories from your job search process.

Hopefully I’ve convinced you that competing cooperatively can give you the best shot at success as you venture from postdoc into the job market. And you can apply this concept at all stages of your career. Whether you are a graduate student trying to make it through your qualifying exams or a midcareer faculty member thinking about how to take your research program to the next level, there is little to be lost and much to be gained from joining forces with a group of people who share your goals. The friendships and collaborations that you build now might just continue to provide collective success and professional satisfaction throughout your careers.

Jen Heemstra is an associate professor of chemistry at Emory University who shares her advice on Twitter @jenheemstra. Find all her columns for C&EN and ask her questions at

Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.



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