How to pick a postdoc

I thought a lot about what lab to choose for my postdoc. I considered the labs of people I knew in my field and I read papers from other related fields to find interesting science. I took a list of potential labs to my PI and discussed the pros and cons of each.

Despite what I thought was significant effort on my part, thinking back, I don’t believe that I had any idea what I was doing. I had such a great grad school experience that I didn’t know the pitfalls to look for. I am sure that there is good advice out there and I probably should have read some of it. Now, with some perspective, I will add to it.

While it is important to choose science that you’re excited about, it is also important to pick a supportive mentor and good environment. I knew going in that my postdoc mentor was going to be tough on my science. I looked at this as a good thing. Criticism is a big part of science and I thought that by facing it regularly I would get better at dealing with it. Maybe that is true and maybe it isn’t.  Regardless, I have learned that having someone at my back is really important for me. You will always get criticism in science. Having the person who is training you help you work through it rather than be the source of it I think would build much better coping skills.

Beyond that, there are PIs that can be very critical of science while at the same time supportive of people. I believe that science is benefitted most by these PIs. It can be hard to differentiate from the outside, though. Adding to this difficulty is the fact that some PIs treat different people in their labs differently. You need to talk to everyone, not just the person that happens to take you out to dinner.

Another tip is to look closely at the publication and employment record for the lab. Sure, I looked to make sure papers were coming out, but I didn’t really consider the frequency in relation to the number of people in lab or the distribution amongst the people in lab.

In a related note, how many authors per paper per lab can be informative. If each person is publishing by themselves, perhaps people do not spend much time working together in lab. However, you can also get a situation where postdocs become support staff for other postdocs instead of getting their own publications. A way to differentiate might be to talk to the second or third author.

One can also look at publications per project to determine continuity of projects. Is a project pursued across multiple publications or is it abandoned after the lab moves on to bigger and better things? Maybe you like variety and one publication per project sounds great to you. You might instead find that you would like to dig your claws in and continue to follow a project where it leads you. Perhaps this might allow you to develop your own line of research to carry into your own independent lab.

Another thing to consider is, what aspects of science do you love? What gets you excited to go to lab? You (like my grad student self) may not have thought about this because your interests mesh well with the culture in your current lab. However, it turns out there is variety in this and if what is driving you is not the same thing driving your PI or your colleagues you may find yourself less enthused.

My final suggestion for today is consider how the PI interacts with other PIs in the field you’re interested in ending up in. This person may not be in the same exact field that you want to conduct your lab. They may have more or less interaction with the scientists in that field. Science is simultaneously an individual endeavor and a social endeavor. A supportive scientific community that spans universities can be a boon to your enthusiasm, your creativity, and all of the other things that go along with networking. Is your potential PI part of a community like this? Do they go to conferences? Will they include you in this community only have interest in talking to other PIs?

How about you? Any tips for postdoc seekers? Any success or horror stories?

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One Response to How to pick a postdoc

  1. fmd says:

    Thank you for this post!!! I’m about 6 months into my first postdoc and wish I had had some of this advice when I was picking a lab. Not sure it would have changed my decision, but I might have been more prepared for the struggles a new environment can bring. I too had a really positive grad school experience with a supportive PI and lab community, all of whom were pretty much “on the same page” scientifically (experimental approaches, what makes an interesting project, etc). Like you, I chose a postdoc PI with a reputation for VERY high standards and expectations because I thought it would make me a better scientist. I still think it will, it’s just harder to deal with than I expected and hard to not take the scientific criticism personally (maybe I’m just soft, but I think my PI tries to make it personal sometimes). On the bright side, I have a supportive lab community and my PI has already shown that she’s happy to introduce me (with praise) to her many connections in the field.

    It’s so hard to judge a lab environment from the outside, but I agree that talking to as many people as possible is a very good idea. If you talk to one or two, it’s easy to ignore warning signs (thinking “it’ll be different for me”). If you hear the SAME troubling things from everyone in the lab, you should probably take it very seriously!


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