Applying for a postdoc

Yesterday, lost amongst a large number of tweets, @SciTriGrrl  said “Okay! I am officially starting to look for a post-doc. Best strategies? Red flags? Advice please!”. Much  good stuff followed, including (and apologies if I didn’t find it all, it wasn’t tagged):

from @braziliancakes If they interview, make sure you listen to the opinion of the current people in lab. Even if you chose not to take their advice.

from @McLNeuro My first two post docs I got by emailing labs I liked about students graduating. Good luck!

These are both good bits of advice. Also, listen to talks of mentors & folks in their lab (or posters) and figure out what really interests you.

First  what kind of lab do you want to be in? Big, Glamour pub chasing? Even if you don’t want to take the route, such a postdoc can be very productive, valuable and while high intensity give you lots of stuff to get going on the other side. It can also steal your soul. The PI from a good big lab, even run by a BSD should say “here is contact info for other students/PD’s – contact them”. If you ask for that info and are turned down, be careful, and try and get a second opinion on your own.

A smaller, newer lab can also be a good place – you will get more attention. A junior faculty who is just figuring out what they own may be a bit more micro-managing, but also highly motivated to help you get papers out, since it will be important to them. They may not have trainees with which you can speak, but you may be able to track down other colleagues and get a sense of who they are.

One piece of advice given to me (a long time ago) about hiring postdocs was to come up with a list of standard questions and ask them to each candidate. When I realized that this was just applying the scientific method to life, I had a mini-epiphany (this was in the days well before the internet). Do the same thing for your interviews of mentors/labs. Find a set of questions – not exhaustive – and make sure you ask them of each mentor/lab so that you can make valid comparisons.

Some q’s to ask: How are your trainees supported? How many write their own grants whilst in your lab? How is co-authorship determined in your lab? What are your research goals? This is only a start – but you also need to make sure that its not 10 pags of q’s – but perhaps 5 critical q’s and 5 important and 5 if there are time for them.

Do every interview that you can, at least at the start. It will give you experience in speaking, a chance to see places, and practice your interview skills.

I think more on types of mentors coming in the next post. This hardly touches the surface, but should give you something to thing about.

Anybody else want to chime in and disagree??? Revise??

There is lots of good advice in many other places, but two books I have liked (old, but useful) are:

The Woman’s Guide to Navigating the Ph.D. in Engineering & Science. 51uoj60erYL

It is old, and somewhat out of date, but it has lots of advice for even the after stages.

Also At the Helm which is in a 2nd edition.



10 thoughts on “Applying for a postdoc

  1. The question that netted me the most revealing answers was: Tell me about your philosophy for mentoring a postdoc? Also inquire about how long trainees usually stay in their lab & be wary of fast cycling through 1st & 2nd year postdocs or an abundance of 7 year students (this may be field dependent though). And the best piece of advice I have based on my postdoc search is: don’t use your energy trying chase down PIs who are nonresponsive. If they don’t show enthusiasm about you during the search/interview process when you’re new and shiny and putting your best face forward, they probably aren’t going to be an enthusiastic mentor, either.

  2. your point about not chasing down PI’s is excellent. If they really want a postdoc, they will be working towards at least educating you about their lab, if not out and out courting you.

  3. all excellent points. I also think that checking where the past students and postdocs are is a good score of a mentor. If none are doing science–they are in marketing, stocks, copywriting–there is something wrong with the mentoring. If most or at least some are publishing and hold good postitions, then the mentoring was probably pretty good. One thing I found out unfortunately the hard way is that mentoring can make or break you. And given how hard science is as a career you need to stack the deck in your favor.

    • what past trainees are doing may not be a totally accurate reflection, given today’s market. But all other things equal (which they seldom are) this is a good point.

  4. i would ask if there are ever two PDs working on the same project or question. if there are, walk the other way, and fast.

  5. @JB–right??? I have seen this–what a disaster. If the mentor doesn’t let you talk with the lab people separately from them–this is also a red flag. Understanding of course that no one has a lab full of extremely happy people all the time, but during an interview you should be able to go to lunch or have a meeting alone with the lab people.

  6. I disagree on the comment about two PDs working on the same project. I’ve worked on shared projects, dividing the work based on skill with the needed techniques. Ended up with a shared first-author relatively good pub pipetted together in relatively little time. Nothing wrong with sharing a project – as long as you are working together and not competing 🙂

  7. Pingback: Potnia Theron is my spirit animal | Fumbling Towards Tenure Track

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