Thursday, July 19, 2007

How to Choose a Postdoc Lab

My cousin has just "defended" his thesis and I was talking to him about what he was planning to do postdoc-wise. It brought back memories of the my own postdoc job search early last year. I was trying to draw on my experiences and be helpful, but as I thought about it more and more, I became less and less coherent. So I decided to put down what I thought here, and see if any of you who have searched for postdoc jobs have any further insight.

There are many things that are good to keep in mind while job hunting and I'm going to the list the things that I think are key, the most important thing to remember is that the job that meets all your criteria does not exist. Period. I would try and identify a few things that would make you most happy and try and have those. The rest, well, deal.

So in no particular order:
1. The two-body problem: This is probably the hardest problem for most; if you are a couple, each invested in their career, you have to move together. You have to align expectations for two different people, possibly at different stages in their career, even two different fields or industries. That said, this is probably the career stage at which the two-body problem is easiest solved since postdoc positions are more frequently available than any other.

2. The place: This is something that mattered a lot to me personally. I went to an undergrad college is the veriest village, and as a result am a total city junkie. Whichever way you go, city, village, out in the country, this is important because if you don't like where you are, life will automatically be more difficult. Also, your milieu is directly related to where you live, whether you meet like-minded people or constantly feel like you have to be circumspect in your interactions with people.

3. The projects: The biggest question, will you have a separate clearly defined project of your own. I cannot emphasize how important this is. Its all very well to agrre with the PI that you will take over X person's project-what if they haven't left by the time you have arrived? Academia is very flexible, and sometimes people prolong their career transitions for long periods of time. So if you don't have a clearly different project, well hone your thumb-twiddling skills. Also, determine before you accept a position which portion of a project is clearly yours. Territorialism is a rampant trait of scientists, protect yourself. What's the point if you have your heart set on a project and join a lab only to find that it has been given away? Discuss this.

4. The P.I.: This is obvious, but anyway. Make sure you can talk to your boss. They do not have to be your friend, and very likely will not take as much care of you as a good Ph.D. mentor, but they should still be respectful and willing to listen to you. Also, different people have different preferences for a boss, but in general my feeling is that a micromanager would be a bad postdoc boss because the whole point of a postdoc is that you become independent. Micromanagers rarely like to set you free.

5. The Lab: Anyone who has ever read a blog knows how much this impacts our lives. Seriously, find at least two people you can get along with, who are going to overlap with you for at least some time. Its hard to be friends with all 15 members of a lab, but all you need is a couple of people you are glad to see everyday. Nature papers are all very well, misery sucks. It really does and working everyday in a lab where you and others are miserable is almost impossibly hard.

6. The Department: There are some really great labs that are one-off labs in their departments. These labs do great work, but you may end up somewhat isolated in your department. The departmental seminars will not deal with your work, you will not be able to network with people in your field, which you absolutely need to do if you want to stay in academia. On a more day-to-day basis, you won't have any one but your lab to talk to about your work. And that may not always work out well.

7. The prospects for funding independent of the boss: Funding sets you free. Postdoctoral fellowships are a boon, as soon as you have one, your life improves in so many ways. Your boss will be thrilled not to pay your salary (the single biggest expense in most Biology labs), you demonstrate that you can write fund-able proposals , you feel good about yourself , and most fellowships pay above average postdoc salaries.

8. The Nature of the Actual Work: For example, brain cancer research sounds so cool. But, how would you feel about dissecting out mouse brains on a daily basis? Injecting things into a mouse's skull? Evaluating mouse health based on how much pain they are in? Or else, would you be dreadfully bored pipetting 30 96-well plates a day for real time PCR or screening X or Y? Think about it. Lab work is icky, is it beyond your ick threshold?

9. The Portability of the research: Would your future boss be willing to give away part of your project to you should you want to leave and start your own group? Most bosses should be aware of this possibility and be open to it, what you should do is communicate! I cannot emphasize that too much.

10. The salary and benefits: She surely jests, you must be thinking. Well, partly, but there are actually places where postdocs get both competitive pay and decent benefits. If you have children or loans or are sick of being on the lower end of the pay scale, think about it and look for places that pay better.

11. The Language: Seriously, even in the USA as a native English speaker, cconsider what is the native language of the lab. Why make yourself an outsider?

12. Children or not? If you're considering having them, sound out your future boss and talk to current lab members about their child-bearing related experiences.

13. The Weather? If this is a big criterion, re-consider you career choice carefully.

14. The Prospects for alternative careers: Not all postdocs become faculty, anyone can try to do the math. Many of us who embark on a postdoc do so in the full expectation (hope?) of succeeding and becoming PIs. Doesn't always happen. So be prepared. I'm not saying one should anticipate failure, but on case you decide to change career tracks, you should be in an environment that lets you. Teaching opportunities, writing editing and publishing, the biotech industry, these are all things you should try to get exposure to.

This has turned into an incredibly long post, so I'm going to stop here. There are a lot of things that go into making a career decision, and these are some of the things that I think are important to think about while deciding where to postdoc. Ph.D to postdoc is the easiest career transition one can make, everyone wants postdocs, they are cheap, smart and young. Its important to spend some energy on this choice because it impacts where you end up next, not to mention your general mental health.

In the end though, a job is a job is a job (next post), and wherever you end up, if you don't work at the job for whatever reason, it won't go very well. So good luck, congratulations on graduating and welcome to mad wonderful world of postdocs.


reader said...

now thats some useful info...

Anonymous said...

A very practical and well-thought out blog. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Very useful stuff indeed. thanks for posting. would you recommend doing a postdoc in a new faculty ie an assistant professor?

Anonymous said...

That was really helpful! How would you start going about looking for a post doc in the first place? do you recommend searching the literature based on your interests? searching through lists of faculty at various institutions? something else?

Leo said...

I am currently finishing up my PhD right now and contemplating some of the very things you mentioned in your blog. I have a pretty good idea that I do not want to become a PI (I'm not sure I'm cut out for it), and was aiming instead of working in the pharmaceutical industry. However, having started to look, most positions in the pharma business want "experience, i.e. a post-doc, and industry post-docs I gather is a rare occurrence.

I recently was notified of a potential possibility for a post-doc position that would do research in an area I am familiar with (a protein in a different family), but growing up in Toronto and even having done my PhD in a smaller city (town-like, which I love), I'm not sure I want to take a position in a more rural area in the States...though I have nothing against the states. Location was an important factor for choosing my undergrad and grad schools, and my initial reaction to this potential possibility, is that I probably wouldn't like the location.

Other than the topic being somewhat related to my PhD research, which I find would be great for being able to pick things up in their lab quicker, the big caveat with me is that I have yet to publish a first-author paper. It's probably going to be done from pulling out a couple chapters in my my resume is lacking and by the time I get that in order, it may be half a year from now...

Do you think half a year is worth waiting to look for a position that really jumps out at me? The research at this other place has potential, but it doesn't GRAB my I expecting too much?


Ruby May said...

very useful entry!

Leo said...

I'm done my PhD in molecular biology now and looking full-out for a dream industry job or post-doc...