Finding research jobs in renewable energy and/or circular economy
My story of a long, arduous journey of landing a postdoctoral position in Canada, after applying for more than 30 positions worldwide.
Even before submitting my PhD, and much earlier than the final defense, I began applying for postdoctoral positions in sustainability with a focus on renewable energy and circular economy related areas. While the target geography was the entire world, I mostly restricted to the positions available in North America and certain European region (Nordic, Scandinavian, and a few others). Also, based on my experience, most sustainability related positions are advertised in these countries, so limiting the search to a handful of countries seemed an optimal starting point.
With a publication record of 3–4 papers in good quality journals, which is acceptable, if not decent for someone about to finish a PhD, on a variety of circular economy related fields, I believed my chances of at least getting interview calls wouldn’t be so bad. However, the reality turn out to be quite different pretty quickly. This blog post describes a roller coaster journey of finding a postdoctoral position in North America, after applying for more than 30 positions and receiving five interview calls (I responded to five calls and one that I had to decline as it was after accepting the current offer). Along the way, I also share some of the important resources and practices that may be useful for other people interested in similar jobs.
The purpose of this blog is to neither condemn the hiring process or disrespect any institutions/lab/professor, so I will mostly anonymize any details to hide certain details pertaining to specific job applications.
When to apply
Not sure about when to start applying, I sifted through online forums. While there were no definitive answers, many people had indicated that it was better to apply immediately after submitting PhD. Because the entire employment process usually takes months, some even suggested searching or contacting people/professors 5–6 months before the expected date of PhD submission, let alone the final defense. I had been expecting to submit my PhD in June 2020, which meant an ideal time would have been Dec 2019 or early 2020. So, my journey began.
The following is a list of resources that I gradually became aware of and where people frequently posted research (mostly PhDs and postdoctoral) vacancies related to circular economy. The list is not comprehensive and only serves a good starting point. Please remember that many of these websites also require you to search jobs with desired keywords, such as (postdoc/phd) in sustainability, circular economy, renewable energy, etc.
- Jobs board of International Society of Industrial Ecology
- For Norway, most, if not all, postings are listed on its national website
- Jobs page of International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)
- Academic Gates website
- Life cycle assessment (LCA) community website; you may have to register first, but this is the most accurate and resourceful place to find potential all openings on LCA related work.
- Many positions within European region are posted on a centralized portal called Euraxess.
- The positions in the UK are available on a central jobs portal.
- Academic Transfer is another good website that contains numerous job openings.
- National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) website has many job openings on renewable energy.
- Nature publishing has its own career portal.
Sometimes you may also find that a single job advertisement is available on multiple sources. While there are several other websites, I found most of them are organization or university specific. Therefore, the best way of searching positions not posted here is to google with keywords or go to the specific university’s website in which you are interested in pursuing further research.
Some positions specifically mentioned who qualified for applying: some allowed applicants with submitted dissertation while others required an awarded PhD, i.e., after the public defense. However, except for a few, none clearly indicated what ‘counted’ as PhD. Also, a handful of job descriptions indicated that proficiency in the local language was mandatory or that local candidates would be preferred. For some positions no deadline was indicated and it was hard to tell whether they were still accepting applications. Also, my background has been quite interdisciplinary — core engineering for bachelors, inter-disciplinary engineering for masters, and multi-disciplinary for PhD. Further, after a few years into the PhD program, I converted it into a part-time PhD and started working full-time in a renewable energy industry — almost entire different from my PhD work — which made me interested in renewable energy field for further research. It seemed that so many jobs correlated with my passion, but I only partially met the requirements of most, if not all jobs, thereby creating even more confusion relating to whether I should apply. So, I started with positions that did not require a completed PhD as a prerequisite and had no mandatory local language (except English) expectations. Whenever I had any confusion, I asked for more information.
For example, many times I emailed the professor or the HR person inquired if the position was still open. In a few cases, the position had already been filled, which was bit disappointing as the advertisement was still up. I also mentioned about my interdisciplinary background and the PhD submission timelines (Jun 2020) and asked whether I would qualify. Many responded affirmatively and some politely refused or further explained what exactly they were looking for, which helped me decide whether the vacancy was suitable for me. Those who refused even said that they would only consider candidates who had at least defended their work and making final corrections. Nonetheless, over 90% positions, irrespective of how they defined PhD completion, allowed international candidates with no knowledge of the local language to apply.
Learning experience 1: it never hurts to ask or seek clarification. If you are not qualified and you know that at the onset, you save certain time and energy of customizing your resume and cover letter and frustration that follows a rejection letter (or a total silence/no response as often the case when you are excluded in the first round). You would not want to miss a potential opportunity that you have been waiting because you are not sure whether you meet the eligibility criteria (only when it is not explicitly mentioned).
Even though there were many positions, I chose to go for only those positions for which I felt confident about meeting or even exceeding the eligibility criteria. In fact, for many positions, my profile seemed perfect match. As a good practice, I customized my application according to each job description. While resume/CV did not require much changes, writing cover letter and explaining why I was a good (or the best) fit was an exhaustive process. But it also improved my own understanding of my strengths and weakness and helped me refine my research interests.
Nonetheless, rejections began to flow in, if there was any communication at all. In most cases, I had to inquire about the update, which were never positive. The snapshot shows the date and the employer and/or a job-title keyword to avoid disclosing any specifics of the application.
Though disappointed, I continued to apply as the positions became available while ensuring that the PhD worked got completed on time. While COVID and movement restrictions might have affected the success rate, I think its impact on many postdoc openings and the evaluation process was rather limited. Because of the ample time that suddenly became available following the COVID lockdowns, the thesis writing progressed quickly and I finally submitted in July 2021 as originally planned, which definitely improved my chances and made me eligible to seek more opportunities.
Luckily, I got a couple of interview calls in July 2021, both from European countries (I applied for these positions before submitted my thesis, so the submission itself had no influence).
For first interview, they told me that they invited 10 candidates (5 for each of the two positions) out of 100 applications. The interview went okay, in my opinion, since it was the first ever postdoc interview. After the interview, I realized a couple of mistakes and emailed them with some clarifications along with a thank you note. Nevertheless, I got the rejection email two days later. In fact, I was in the second interview when the email popped up on my screen — an excellent way to ruin the second interview.
The second interview had two rounds, but the experience and the overall communication with the professor exceeds all expectations one has from a potential employer. The first round went quite well and I was invited for the second round, which also went well. I was told that they were only two candidates that they were considering for the position. After the second round, my two academic and one professional referees — whom I had already informed that I was applying for several positions worldwide and they might receive such an email whenever I get shortlisted — received an email from the professor immediately after the second round. The email sought a formal recommendation from them before the professor could make a final call.
I came to know this from my boss, who was covid positive and in hospital at the time and asked me how urgent that was. Notwithstanding the context, I was ecstatic and believed that I certainly got the job. I told my manager that the health was priority and that he requested for more time from the professor. Nonetheless, the academic referees sent the recommendation within a day or two. Only I came to know about this when I asked them about it about two weeks later. After the second round, it shouldn’t have take so much time to make a decision between two candidates.
Being cautious about not sending too many emails, I waited for another week before requesting an update. The professor immediately replied and explained his predicament. The other candidate was an internal candidate, who had been working with the professor for quite some time, but certain HR/admin related hurdles were preventing his/her hiring. The professor apologized for the delay and told me to wait for some more time. All my hoped dried up since it is nearly impossible to compete against an internal candidate. Nevertheless, since I had no other option or interview, waiting seemed the only choice.
Another four weeks passed and I asked again whether I was still being considered. The professor promptly responded with the bad news: he said there were extremely slim chances since the funding agency already accepted the internal candidate and they were waiting for final internal approval. The final rejection email came 2–3 weeks later. When I asked about certain feedback, the professor again apologized for all delays in the hiring process and gladly provided a quick evaluation summary. He assured me that it wasn’t any weakness in my profile, but rather the timeline/logistics of the project completion within 9–12 months that made the difference. They were less inclined to hire a new person to minimize the training/adaption period.
Third interview experience was disappointing. I received an email for an interview and we scheduled a time on a few days later at, say 11 am, but I never received the link. I inquired about the meeting link and waited until 10.59 am for receiving the link. Expecting that nothing would happen now, I went to for a quick break (about 8 mins) and when I returned the professor already two emails — one at 11.02 with the meeting link and was frustrated with my delay and sent an email at 11.05 about cancelling the interview altogether.
I immediately joined and profusely apologized (I still feel it wasn’t entirely my fault). There weren’t any specific questions asked in the interview. The professor said my profiled perfectly aligned with their needs, but they were waiting for final funding approval, which might come after two months. But the professor sought my commitment to the position. This part seemed unfair because they were asked me to formally commit to a position without offering a formal offer. It was like we may (but cannot guarantee) offer you a position after two months for which you have to commit now and should not say no. Nonetheless, I was transparent and told that I was being interviewed (the second interview above) elsewhere and I would say yes to the first offer. The professor told me that I was the top candidate on their list and would hear an update soon. Nothing happened after 2.5 months (during Nov 2020) and when I inquired, they told me that the position was cancelled weeks ago because of COVID delays. This was quite frustrating and disappointing. I expected an email on about as professional courtesy.
The flow of rejections continued until Feb 2021. The fourth (for a European university) and the fifth (for a Canadian university) interviews happened two days apart and were nearly on the similar research profiles. Both interviews went well and interviewers were polite and professional. While I was thoroughly prepared, they were also prepared with what were trying to do to ensure that I understood the project objectives. After a week, I got the offer from the Canadian position two days before the European offer, which I politely refused as I had already accepted the Canadian one. Also, one of the positions I was rejected for in January 2021 invited me for an interview in Mar 2021 (possibly because their selected choices went elsewhere), which of course I had to deny it.
Reasons for rejections
Competitiveness: It is definitely the prime reason for rejections. While most did not revealed the number of applications, some recruiters voluntarily disclosed when sending the rejection letter. For example, for two positions in a lab, there were 100 applications, out which they called 10 people for the first round (I was one of them, but was rejected). Another professor wrote that they received over 500 applications for one position. For one vacancy, there were only 16 applications because the research work was methodologically specific, rather than generic/multi-disciplinary. The position I eventually got had probably 20 applicants.
Poor fit: For one job (which received 100 applications), I was interviewed and rejected for the next round, they couldn’t find any suitable candidates. Being curious to help me improve myself, I checked their lab page again after a few months to see who they eventually hired and what skills the person possessed. However, as per the information, they only selected only one (postdoc) candidate and re-advertised for the position I applied. Nonetheless, the position seemed to have been cancelled as no other was added to the lab when I visited the website again months later, so they apparently did not find a suitable person even during the second hiring process.
For another position that I was being among the two final candidates, the hiring committee went ahead with an internal candidate because (s)he was with them for long and intimately knew the project details. The given the tight project timeline, they were reluctant to spend a few months at the starting for me to learn and train ( the hiring professor later told me when I asked for the feedback).
As turned out, the major strength as well as the main drawback of my academic and professional achievement was the interdisciplinary background and experience — I was qualified for many positions but was not good enough to get one.
Learning experience: It has already been said million times and everyone knows about it — do not give up and keep trying. However, practicing it in real life is equally challenging and mentally straining, and we all know nothing can be done about it.
The time to receive the negative update varied substantially — from a few weeks after the deadline to a few months. In face, for a position in the USA, I got the rejection update nearly a year after the initial application. However, I heard back within 2–14 days following the deadline for each of the cases I was interviewed, except for the cases when the deadline fell around the summer or winter vacation period. In those cases, the interview call, as happened at two occasion, was received within two weeks of the reopening after vacation. However, there was one case when I received the formal rejection after resume screening step, but after a couple of months, the committee reached out again and asked if I would be interested in the interview. Since I had already accepted my current position, I had to decline the offer.
Learning experience: In most cases, if you are qualified or meet the requirements, you should hear back pretty quickly. However, if you weeks have been passed, and it is not a vacation period, the chances of receiving an interview call are slim.
Best and bad experiences
Best: of course, this section covers only the unsuccessful ones and excludes the experience of job I finally got, which was naturally the best experience. A position in a Nordic country— exchanged 10 emails and the professor was extremely polite and professional. It is the same position for which they went ahead with the internal candidate.
Bad experiences: a few months after the application deadline for a vacancy in a popular lab in the North America, I received the refusal email. After a couple of weeks, I searched on LinkedIn and accidentally found the person who was hired for the position. Being curious about the interview experience and learning for future, I reached out. The person was really warm and welcoming. To my surprise, (S)he explained the entire hiring process and informed me that the hiring was completed a month before the deadline mentioned on the advertisement. In fact (s)he joined even before I applied for the position; The same vacancy was again advertised after a month and I asked whether I could apply again; within a two days of my email, the post was taken down — what kind of HR process is that?
Similarly, for one position in North America the professor informed me that I was the top candidate and they would keep me updated as they were waiting for the funding to go through. But the project was dropped and I was never updated.
It is often said that asking never hurts and the worst could happen is you never get any response. So, I implemented the strategy and asked for many positions for which I thought I was really qualified. I learned that only no one gives the feedback after on the applications rejected based only on the cover letter/resume, some are willing to share the evaluation of your profile. I got only a few responses (10%) — mostly from Europe and no one from the North American responded to my feedback request. This might be because the European countries — as I heard or read somewhere — are required by law to share the evaluation report (or its key points) if the applicants ask. Nonetheless, in my case the feedback was mostly generic (you are good but the other guy is better) and did not help much. No one responded to my request of suggesting how I could improve my profile, understandable because of saving time and staying out of trouble.
Learning experience: It may be obvious, but you can never truly know what you are missing. While you colleagues and friends may improve the presentation of your resume/cover letter, unless they are experts in your field, they cannot genuinely say what you must do to further enhance your profile. Also, unlike other fields, research publications often require more than 12 months from beginning of the research project to the final publication, so any feedback could hardly make a difference in the short-term.
Final thoughts and a few takeaways
First, keep trying. To be honest, this is the only thing you can do other than keep publishing more. Customizing the resume and cover letter for each position is repetitive, time consuming and frustrating, but it is essential to ensuring that you are presenting the best version of yourself to the evaluation committee. Many applicants have all the skills necessary for the position, yet it may not be obvious from your resume and publication records. I cannot honestly say whether this works in real life, but you cannot be lazy and take any chances when your future could be on the line.
Second, seeking clarification never hurts. If you are in doubt, write an email for more information. In over 90% of the cases, I received a response to all my queries that helped me decide whether to go ahead with the application. Nonetheless, requesting feedback, however crucial that might be, is unlikely to be productive. While many reply to your first email, only few respond to the queries about the decisions or the feedback. And when they do, they never provide comments that are equivalent to a ‘performance improvement plan’ (e.g., more publications or lack of XYZ skill), which could really help you to further improve my skills. Therefore, it becomes quite difficult to exactly know your weaknesses unless you have colleagues or acquaintances that are expert in your fields and who are willing to offer useful advice.
Lastly, be ready and willing to adapt. My visa was constantly being delayed following the second wave in India, so the Canadian professor as well as I were open to make some temporary arrangement. I continued to work on the project remotely (a few hours every week) while continued working full-time on my Indian job; the professor had some funding from elsewhere to support my initial research. It worked because everyone was okay with the arrangement — me, the professor, and the funding agency. This may seem an obvious and easy choice, but it required making sincere commitments on my side too. Because of the timezone differences, I often had to work late night hours (postdoc work) as well as during days (regular job). While it may not work in every case, willingness to adjust and compromise in short-term is additional flexibility and skill that might be useful in the long-term.