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After Your PhD: Postdoctoral Advice for International Students

Tuesday | October 22, 2019 | by Trishnee Bhurosy


Dr. Trishnee Bhurosy is originally from Mauritius, but completed her PhD in Health Behavior at Indiana University-Bloomington. After earning her doctorate as an international student, she needed to find sponsored work to stay in the U.S.

Now, she is a postdoctoral fellow at the Cancer Institute of New Jersey. She is also a WES Ambassador, and she would like to share her story with you!

Below, Dr. Bhurosy shares advice for other international students who are facing the intimidating transition from a doctoral program to postdoctoral life.

Transitions are hard, especially in academia.

For example, I recently completed my PhD in Health Behavior and started a Postdoctoral Research Fellowship. It has been a whirlwind. My postdoctoral life began almost immediately after my dissertation defense.

Now, I realize how important it could be for other graduate students to learn from my experience.

Planning for Life After Your PhD

First, you need to think about what you want your life to look like after your PhD. This can be the hardest part of the process, especially when you are still in the midst of your graduate program.

It is known that academic jobs are scarce in the United States. Finding job security in academia is more difficult than ever before. Therefore, I was shocked to encounter several graduate students who did not have any idea how to apply for a job after obtaining their PhDs—let alone tenure-track teaching positions!

What I have learned is that preparation is key. If you are in the “dissertating” phase of your PhD, it is important to start applying for jobs. Your search should begin approximately one year before you expect to complete your program.

Connect with your advisor, alumni who successfully secured jobs, local career centers, and colleagues. Get as much feedback as you can on job application materials, including cover letters, résumés, research statements, teaching statements, and diversity statements. Additionally, seek advice on the dos and don’ts in your field.

You can also conduct independent research—just as you would if you were trying to succeed with a project at school. For example, one book that helped me to frame myself as a researcher and teacher was Dr. Karen Kelsky’s “The Professor Is In.” Additionally, the Center for Teaching at my school helped me prepare my written statements.

While I don’t know much about going directly to work in an industry setting, I did receive important advice while attending a career workshop. There, they told me to network with employees at the specific company where I wanted to work. This could be excellent advice for you, as well. Networking is an essential part of obtaining recommendations and securing interviews in the U.S.

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Navigating the Job Market

During my first year exploring the job market, I had difficult choices to make.

For instance, I was offered a tenure-track position at a teaching-focused institution, but I decided not to go for it. That’s because I was in the process of sorting out student visa issues. Plus, I needed more research experience.

It’s also important to know what you want. That way, you will feel confident about accepting the right opportunity when you come across it. Instead of taking the first offer that came my way, I completed several on-campus interviews—and that process was eye-opening.

Here are a few of the items from my personal checklist:

  • As an international scholar, I specifically sought out a workplace that valued diversity.
  • Additionally, my future employer must be willing to sponsor a work permit.
  • I was seeking reasonable teaching loads, along with grant-writing resources and support.

As a bonus, I looked for locations that offered good opportunities to hike and be outdoors. Having lived in one of the nation’s most beautiful college towns—Bloomington, Indiana—I was biased!

It is important to emphasize the fact that I started my job search early. This gave me enough time to go on a lot of interviews and find the right fit.

Interviewing as an International Student

Rejections are common when applying for jobs. I got many of those!

However, I took the chance to ask search committee chairs why I was not their candidate of choice. That is something you can do! It’s true that some chose not to reply to me. Others remained evasive. But some search committee chairs did reply to me with constructive feedback.

The most helpful advice I got was: “Get your PhD in hand, and have at least some months of postdoctoral experience.”

I took that advice seriously. I decided to apply for postdoctoral positions in the spring, after I defended my dissertation. One common drawback—which you might also face—is that some positions are only open to permanent residents or citizens. You will have to sort through open positions to find the ones for which you qualify.

Out of four postdoctoral applications that I completed that spring, I got three more interviews. And the first one offered me a position! It ticked all of the boxes on my list, and I accepted.

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Starting Over After Your PhD

It was tough moving away from the town I loved, where I had done my PhD, to an unknown job in a big city.

However, I believe that this decision will help me in the long-term. At the time of writing this, I have spent about three months in this new position. I can firmly say that I have achieved a lot in a short period. I have already applied for a competitive, state-level grant and completed two research papers.

It is really important for postdocs to achieve tangible goals while they are in this transition period. Someone wise once told me: “Do work that will add a meaningful line to your CV.” I think that is probably one of the best pieces of advice that I have received throughout this process, and it has really stayed with me!

At this stage, unlike when you are still in school, there is not really someone to tell you what to do anymore. Hence, it is crucial that postdocs take proactive steps early in their career to be productive.

Transitioning to Postdoctoral Life

As important as it is to hit the ground running as a postdoc, it is equally important to make sure that you are surrounded by a good system of support and do things that give you a real mental break.

The activities that keep me sane are playing tennis regularly, hiking on weekends, knitting, and playing with my cat. Work-life balance can be an abstract concept in academia, but it is possible to achieve. I know it can be hard, but you must know when to stop working. Keep your goals in check, and make time for the things and people you love.

It is also important to keep a healthy perspective. I half-jokingly remind myself that if my academic career does not work, I will open a Mauritian food truck—just because I love cooking!

I truly hope that my advice will be helpful to any international students who find themselves in my shoes. There is life after your PhD. If I can successfully transition to a postdoctoral fellowship, you can, too.

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Dr. Trishnee Bhurosy holds a PhD in Health Behavior from Indiana University-Bloomington and is now a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Cancer Institute of New Jersey. She is also a WES Ambassador.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of World Education Services (WES).