I’ve gotten several requests to dole out some advice about choosing a postdoc. I’ve been thinking about how best to do this and can’t make up my mind. We’re all in different positions personally so you have to weigh many, many issues. Rather than give some general advice, I’m just gonna tell my story. Here goes…
I started thinking about this and talking with my mentors about it very early, more or less after the first committee meeting (2 years into grad school). This gave me more or less 2 years of time get my act together. I needed every second of that time. I had several priorities:
1) I wanted to stay in the same subfield but I wanted to do something completely different, technically and conceptually.
2) I wanted to work with a BigName but not in a BigLab. I wanted this potential mentor to have a quality reputation for the science and to be someone viewed as a theoretical leader in the field. I also wanted to work with someone with a reputation for being a good mentor (people from their lab have gone on to do good things) and for being highly critical.
3) I did not want to work with someone directly connected to my PhD mentors (I had two). This was not due to any animosity, I just wanted to be able to demonstrate a clear distinction between my PhD and postdoc days.
4) I wanted to be able to continue my little side project (more on this later) but not as my primary area of research.
5) I wanted to get out of the US for the postdoc.
This may seem like an impossible list of qualifications to meet, but, with a bit of work, it wasn’t at all (the exception was #4). It did require me to do a good deal of behind the scenes work talking with people in many corners of the world (the series of tubes makes this easy) especially tracking down former trainees from some of the labs I wanted to work with. I found most of these contacts to be very open about talking about their experience and also to be very honest about their former mentors.
Please note that there are a number of problems anyone thinking about working outside the US must carefully consider. First, moving to another country is a pain in the ass and requires you to plan far ahead to get visas etc., in order. This is not as easy for Americans to do as it once was. Second, it can create a significant problem when it comes time to come back to the US (if you choose to). Plane tickets for interviews are more expensive and some interviewers will be less apt to invite you (or so they say). The more important issue is that you will be cut out of the loop of NIH funding issues for awhile — at least people may have that impression. You can combat this by not letting it happen. Keep up with what is going on, if you are a US citizen apply for Fellowships (you can still get an NRSA in a foreign country — I did) and make it clear to potential interviewers that you are up to date on NIH opportunities and format early and often.
Alright back to the story… After a few months of research I narrowed it down to a few labs and started making contacts. We did interviews at Society for Neuroscience meetings (more planning ahead) and eventually I reached an agreement to work with someone who I was very comfortable with. I was ready to head off to a Spanish speaking part of Europe (Mr and Mrs JuniorProf speak us some Spanish).
Grinding halt… Dr PostDoc Mentor decided to leave Europe and head to Canada. This was still cool with me since it was Montreal and Mr and Mrs JuniorProf had time to go check it out and Mrs JuniorProf had time to learn some French (more planning ahead here — noticing a theme?). We went to visit and loved it. Moreover, this turned into a happy coincidence for me because one of the largest groups of researchers in the world for pain research is in Montreal and I would get a chance to be part of this very large group but still be in a smallish lab. I wanted to be in a smallish lab to assure that I would get plenty of face time with the mentor. Some PIs with big labs can pull this off but it was not a risk I was willing to take. Big labs, of course, have other advantages but none of those were on my list.
Now, onto the hard part. The side project. You see, I started this little side project when I was a PhD student (my idea and completely unrelated to my dissertation). Work on this was done on nights and weekend. The PhD mentors knew about it and supported it and I actually made a good deal of headway on the project while doing my PhD. It was very important to me to continue this work and I had to make sure I could keep it going on the side. This required me to explain what the project was all about and be able to assure the potential mentor that I could do their project and this one at the same time. This may sound trivial but not all PIs will agree to such a situation. Dr PostDoc Mentor found it interesting but was quite concerned about my ability to focus. This took a bit of back and forth but eventually we worked it out with an agreement we were both quite pleased with. Crazy things happen, of course, and when I finally got there and the little side project took off (about a year and a half later) that was the majority of what I did. That little side project is now the focus of my independent lab (and it got me my job).
So, for those of you still awake after all this, here is a bit of advice in finding the right postdoc mentor:
1) Start early and work hard on making your decision. This might just be the most important choice you will ever make as a trainee.
2) Do something different and change locations. Life happens and this is not possible for everyone but don’t limit yourself due to artificial constraints (like being comfortable in a certain spot).
3) Make a list of what you want to get out of the experience and try to match it all up. If you can’t get the right match consider your priorities very carefully.
4) Leaving the US isn’t for everyone (sorry to be so US-centric for you worldly ones but I get the impression most of my readers are in the US) but give it some consideration. There are obstacles associated with this but my opinion is that the tradeoff is worthwhile. The operation of getting funded and running a lab is different in other countries and being exposed to these different systems can be very valuable as you develop scientifically.
Enough for now. Later I will explain how Dr PostDoc Mentor was able to advocate for me in such an effective manner as it came time to move forward in my career.