Sunday, June 12, 2016

Tips For Getting The Optimal Postdoc

So you've been in grad school for a while, you've published some cool papers, and you are ready to graduate with your PhD and take the next step in your career. For many, this means pursuing a postdoc. But how do you get started, and what should you be thinking about? Since I was in this position only a short time ago, I felt I would share my thoughts on the process, hoping that it helps any readers getting ready for that same next step.

Before I go any further though, I want to get everyone on the same page (this is not just a blog for grad students). A postdoc (short for postdoctoral research fellow) is someone who has graduated with their PhD and is conducting supervised research but in a more independent capacity than during their thesis.

One of the first steps in preparing to embark on a postdoctoral research fellowship is figuring out which labs you should be considering, and then finally choosing one. But how are you supposed to decide? And even after you interview, how are you supposed to choose between the many excellent labs out there? Here are some points I considered during the process.

Define Your Next Step

Before you do anything, be sure you have a very clear idea of what you want out of your postdoc. Do you ultimately want an academic position? Are you aiming for an industry position? Are you unsure and want to keep your options open? All of these are wonderful choices, but each impacts the process in a different way. Without a clear idea of where you are going, you are going to have a difficult time deciding on the best option. I suggest actually writing out what you want your post-postdoc step to be, and then figure out which next step best prepares you for that.

Look For a Great Mentor

One of the most important aspects of a postdoc, and scientific training in general, is taking a position under an excellent mentor. I see a great mentor as someone who advocates for you, challenges you to do better, and supports your career goals. I could go on, but defining a great mentor warrants its own dedicated blog post. As you start the process of looking for labs, write down some qualities that your ideal mentor would have. When you start considering labs, think about whether the PI and other leadership meet that criteria. And be careful of the "prestige pitfall". I have seen many people take positions with unideal mentors (based on their individual criteria) because they are "famous" or "prestigious". Maybe that can work for you, but I have seen many people enter difficult situations in this way, so at least be aware of it.

Look For a Lab With Great Resources

Chances are that you want to ramp up your research once you start your postdoc. Chances are that you want some confidence in your ability to stay in the lab as well. Both of these come with solid lab resources. Having a well funded PI means you are more likely to have your position next year. It also means that you can ramp up your research program, get data and papers, and be more competitive in grant applications. You can certainly be successful without a lot of lab money and other resources, but being in a well funded lab means that is one less (big) limiting factor that you are going to have to worry about.

Location, location, location!

Look For a Lab in a Great Location

You are a scientist AND a human being. That means you likely want to be happy in your life and enjoy your environment. To this end, I encourage you to think about the location of each lab you are considering. For example, if you love skiing, Florida might be a less ideal fit for you. Conversely, if you absolutely hate the snow, Minnesota would be a poor fit.

Look At The Lab Track Record

Talk is cheap. Don't just ask if a lab is good, but look at whether they are producing (or capable of producing) the type of scientist you want to be. If you want to get into industry, you might want to take a second look at that lab who had a few members go onto industry positions. Of course this is more difficult for newer labs who simply don't have any track record, but I still believe this is an important process to go through.

Make The Most Of The Interview

Once you have narrowed your list down to a few labs, you are going to travel to the lab and interview. Remember that this is as much about you interviewing them, as it is them interviewing you. Be sure to prepare for the interview with a list of questions to ask, and a set of goals you want to achieve. And actually write it out! This includes questions to ask the PI, as well as the other lab and department members. This is the best time to get a feel for the lab and figure out if it is a good fit.

Go With Your Gut

You have been around a lot of labs at this point, so you have a good idea of what you are looking for. Even if you have a hard time articulating the exact feeling you have for different lab, you probably have a good "gut feeling" for what will work best for you. Trust your instincts.

Choose A Lab

The final and most difficult step of the process is choosing a lab. This is especially hard because you have already narrowed down your options to great labs, and they are honestly all probably good choices (I know they were in my experience). In the end you have to talk to your loved ones, go for a walk to think, and go with your gut on what option you want to commit to. It's a near impossible decision to make for most people, but take comfort in knowing that all of the choices are probably great.

Final Thoughts

So there you have it. Some general thoughts I have on the whole postdoc hunting process. Of course these are just my opinions and musings, and the process is different for each person. But hopefully this will be a good starting place for thinking about finding that perfect postdoc position. And if you are non-professional scientist and reading this, I hope this gave you some insight into what we think about in our scientific careers. Additionally, high-five for making it to the end of a very long post!

Do you have any thoughts about the postdoc search process? Did I miss any crucial pointers? Do you have questions as you start the process? Feel free to let me know in the comments below, in an email, or on Twitter. I always love it when people reach out.

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