When it comes to postdocs, one thing you can count on is that no two positions are exactly the same.

"Postdoctoral training is the most heterogeneous entity," says Wayne Siegel, PhD, training director at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center and postdoctoral workgroup chair for the Association of Psychology Postdoctoral and Internship Centers (APPIC). "There are so many different kinds of positions, all with a different focus, it's almost impossible to compare them."

This medley of programs can make finding and choosing a postdoc a daunting task for newly minted doctoral degree recipients. Unlike APPIC's Internship Match, there is no formal structure to the postdoctoral selection process in health service psychology. This inconsistency has led to confusion—and ultimately postdoctoral positions left unfilled.

"Historically, what would happen is applicants would often get an offer early and couldn't hold it while waiting to hear back from the other places they'd applied, so they'd sometimes take their fourth choice because they felt pressure and didn't want to end up with nothing," Siegel says. "Both applicants and programs were losing out on their top choices."

Recognizing the problem, last year APPIC, with support from APA, brought together training directors and trainees to discuss developing a more formal health service psychology postdoctoral selection process, Siegel says. While their work is still in progress, they offer this advice for helping trainees succeed in securing the best postdoc to fit their needs:

Create a plan. The first step is to determine your career goals and understand why postdocs are so essential to your training. If you want to be a licensed practitioner, for example, most jurisdictions require at least one year of supervised postdoctoral experience, which provides highly specialized training that increases your marketability. For those seeking research jobs, postdoctoral research or fellowship experience is helpful—if not required—and postdoctoral teaching appointments can enhance your competencies as a faculty member.

"Postdoctoral training should be the time to develop expertise in a particular area—and that could be with a certain population, or it could be with research," says Catherine Grus, PhD, deputy director of APA's Education Directorate.

To help students and early career psychologists map out their career pathways, APA offers a five-step individual development plan that guides trainees through self-assessment, career exploration and goal setting, to help them customize their own plan of action and find the job that fits them best (see www.apa.org/education/grad/individual-development-plan.aspx).

Start early. Planning your postdoc may be the last thing on your mind a month after you start your internship, but the reality is that most application deadlines are in December and January. That means trainees need to start their search in the fall, Grus says. She recommends making sure your CV is up to date and reflecting on your internship and other doctoral work to date to figure out what kind of postdoc will be right for you, she says.

Postdoc interviews typically occur in late January and February, and while not all programs will adhere to the APPIC suggested guidelines, the date programs are asked to make offers to candidates is Feb. 27. This can vary for research positions, however, depending on the source of funding, Siegel says.

Know where to look. Many applicants are unaware of the full landscape of postdoctoral experiences that are available to psychologists, says Allison Aosved, PhD, a member of the APPIC Board and the Postdoctoral Workgroup. To address that problem, APPIC has developed a universal health service psychology postdoctoral directory—known as the UPPD—that lists the majority of postdoctoral programs in one place (www.appic.org/About-APPIC/Universal-Psychology-Postdoctoral-Directory).

Understand how to apply. While there is a standardized application process for all internships through APPIC, the postdoc application process is not there yet. Starting with the 2015–16 selection season, APPIC developed an online application tool and guidelines for postdoc applications known as the APPA CAS, or APPIC Psychology Postdoctoral Application. It asks applicants to provide basic demographic, internship and previous postdoctoral position information, and letters of recommendation, and allows individual programs to ask for additional information. Still, each program is free to handle the application and selection process however it prefers, Siegel says.

Don't panic. Even if you don't receive an offer on selection day, the numbers are still in your favor since each year there are more postdoc positions than applicants, says Aosved. In addition, the time frame for advertising postdoc positions is much more variable than with internships, and new positions arise often, she says. After selection day at the end of February, the UPPD allows programs to indicate unfilled positions, and allows applicants to then search for open positions. Many positions get filled after the suggested date.

"Unless you're someone who has a very restricted geographic location and therefore not as many options, the chances are high that you'll end up in a position that's a good fit for you," she says. 

More resources

APA's Resource for Individual Development Plans

All of these resources can be found at www.appic.org: