How I chose my postdoc

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. 

17 responses to “How I chose my postdoc

  1. Thanks so much for the info…I’m currently in the process of applying/interviewing for post-doc positions and I have a very similar list to yours although I’m definitely not as well-organized. I’m so glad that you started a blog! I’ve been a lurker at DrugMonkey & PhysioProf for several months now and found you through them. I’m looking forward to your blog posts in the future.

  2. I made a similar list too (though I am still a postdoc). The one bit of advice that you mention, but don’t stress is getting an advisor with a BigName. More than a grad advisor, this is the main advocate for getting a faculty job. The more people who recognize the name, the better the advocate.

  3. I started my first post-doc 3 months ago and like you I decided to get out of my comfort zone and have chosen a lab where english is not the first language. I am happy with my decision as the project is very exciting and I’m enjoying the experience of living in a new place but it is not without its challenges. While my collegues can all speak english, they only do so when they are specifically speaking to me, hence I’m quite out of the loop with the everyday chit-chat that goes on. I didn´t appreciate just how many ideas and inspirations are generated from the casual conversations I had in my previous lab. Obviously this is a big motivation for tackling the local language (complete with regional dialect!), however this is not going to happen overnight and it is pretty isolating. Any advice for how to cope in the meantime?

  4. Essjay, That sounds like a tough one! I worked in a lab that spoke my language but there were lots of Francophone labs around in Montreal. Not sure how I would have handled that… I guess you need to meet some people that speak your language while you’re still learning the local language. Hopefully you have the support of the lab in your efforts to acquire the language skills you need.

  5. Juniorprof-

    I second your advice about leaving the US- in the sense of exploring what else is out there. It’s so easy to stay within one’s comfort zone, but the payoff to exploring a new place, or a new subject even, can be enormous.

    Also- while you are all young, and generally without kids- go, see the world, explore as much as you can. It gets a bit more tricky when there are little ones around!

  6. juniorprof,

    I love the blog, but you’re missing a contact e-mail address for off-the-record comments and questions. Do you have juniorprof e-mail account that I missed somewhere?

  7. Anon, its juniorprofblog at gmail dot com. It should show up on the about page.

  8. Any thoughts on picking a model system in neuroscience for postdoc-ing, and more generally? Drosophila, mouse, zebrafish, C. elegans, etc…

    Also, (and I realize you’ll be biased here) pros and cons of joining a new lab v. a more established/famous lab?

    Finally, how common do you think it is for people to change the focus/model system of their research between their postdoc and setting up their own lab?

  9. Thanks for writing about your experience. Heading into post-doc land, my want list is quite similar, except I’m not organized enough to make a list…now I don’t have to. But I must say I’m a hell of a lot more confused about how much of a change in research topic I should/can get away with when moving on to the post-doc.

  10. Anon2, To answer your questions:
    1) Model systems are to be used for answering biological or biomedical questions. I suggest you focus on your questions and not the model organism. Focusing too much on a particular model organism and not on a relevant and impactful biomedical question can set you up for serious problems in terms of finding funding.

    2) Either one is a good way to go, I think, I wanted established because I wanted to get more career development and I figured that going with an established person would be the best way to go. It worked out for me but I am no longer so sure that I couldn’t have gotten the same result with a junior person.

    3) I don’t think that is common at all. It would be very hard to have any data to support your hypotheses in an interview or chalk-talk if you were going to change research fields between postdoc and PIdom. Honestly, I can’t think of a single situation where that would be a good idea.

    Why so much focus on choosing a model system in these responses?

  11. Bayman,
    My strong impression is that if you are inclined to switch research areas (e.g. from cancer to cardiovascular or from bioinformatics to neuroscience) do it for your postdoc. Chances to do this later on in the career become smaller and smaller. If you really want to jump into something else, now is our big chance!

  12. If you really want to jump into something else, now is our big chance!

    I tend to agree with you and mostly see a post-doc as a huge opportunity to have a different experience – whether it’s new science, culture, lifestyle, whatever. But when it comes to the science it seems the downside of trying something new is that if doesn’t pan out, you’ve thrown away the most critical years of your career (especially if your PhD field was a decent one to begin with).

    Packing it up to another country/continent for a couple years for your one shot at making it big in a field you may or not be suited for seems a bit like Russian roulette to me.

    Ah well, good science involves risk I suppose. Maybe it’s best to put your money on the table and just make it happen…

  13. I suggest you focus on your questions and not the model organism. Focusing too much on a particular model organism and not on a relevant and impactful biomedical question can set you up for serious problems in terms of finding funding.
    Why so much focus on choosing a model system in these responses?

    tricker than it sounds. true, being a model-driven one-trick pony can be very limiting scientifically. one can get locked into some cart driving the horse scenarios as well.

    with that said, the advantage of focus on a particular model or system in the context of a particular “biomedical question” can be very good for establishing your reputation. one of the things that promotions and review committees like to see, IME, is that you are “one of the top international experts in X”. the more easily and obviously “X” is to people who know you, the better. models have a way of providing some of the at ease-of-identification.

  14. Chances to do this later on in the career become smaller and smaller.

    yes and no. one of the good things about being a few years into PIdom is that your vistas for what is possible start to open up again.

    for example you’ve been in a few collaborations outside your primary interests by this point and have either acquired new stuff or at least can imply that you have in grant applications. you’ve acquired the basics to at least supervise that new postdoc you’re going to hire to do something you don’t do already. you have (hopefully) the type of grant support (and staff) “slack” that you can sneak in some highly exploratory and developmental stuff in new directions.

    with respect to the grant stuff specifically, I’ve put out a couple of things which use some new models for me. not rocket science or whizz-bang sure. but this is the sort of thing if a newly minted PI tried to propose there would be the old StockCritique of “no evidence the PI can actually do these experiments in her/his own lab”. I was somewhat astonished to find that there was not one question whatsoever on my proposals despite the fact that I’ve not one single pub with the models proposed. i was indeed scratching my head…

  15. DM, you are of course, correct about opportunities to switch it up once you are in PIdom. I have also recently put in a grant with a large change of direction from my previous work with a new “model” and no prelim data. I hope I have a similar experience in avoiding the StockCritique.

    My comment was more aimed at changing fields all together (see the examples I listed). I know several people who have done this from PhD time to postdoc days with a great deal of success. In fact, their fresh insight has catapulted a few of them to astonishing heights.

  16. what are your thoughts on doing one vs. two postdocs? and how did you get around doing two postdocs? Are there specific things to look for in a postdoc mentor if you’d like to try to only do one postdoc (i.e. I’m dying to get to PIdom and work on my own big ideas instead of someone elses…I have a slight “lack of focus” which is seemingly more desirable in PIs and less desirable at the grad student/postdoc level)?

  17. what are your thoughts on doing one vs. two postdocs? and how did you get around doing two postdocs?

    Well, technically I did two postdocs. While Dr Postdoc Mentor was moving I had to stall. I stuck around at the PhD school for a year and worked on a continuation of my PhD work and on the side project. I think that you need to do what is necessary to demonstrate independence in order to be competitive for a PI job. Many paths can be taken to achieve this goal.

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