Ask Us Anything: choosing a postdoc

A while back we invited you to ask us anything. Here are our answers to our next question. One is from Marine Molecular Ecologist: what are the important considerations when choosing your first postdoc? Vero Zepeda asked the same question, and also wants to know what’s the purpose of a postdoc?

Brian: I’m glad both questions were asked as they are clearly related. If you take a historical perspective, a postdoc is just a recent innovation to help kill time while waiting for a faculty job. Thirty years or so ago, most PhDs went straight to a faculty job. The postdoc evolved only because we overtrained the number of PhDs.

But that’s depressing .The truth is that a postdoc is a great opportunity and I think both the individual and academia are better off for postdocs. Some key benefits:

  1. Lets you separate the craziness of finishing a dissertation from the craziness of searching for a job (yes you still have to search for a postdoc while you finish your dissertation but that is better than searching for a tenure track job).
  2. Lets you get your dissertation chapters actually published and start new lines of research. You need to develop new lines of research as a tenure track faculty member, so this is a great chance.
  3. Gives you the one time in your career where you simultaneously know how to do research/get published and have the time to focus on only research (plus job search). Most people have very fond memories of their postdoc times.

Really the only downside of a postdoc in my opinion is it is one more move.

So as far what to look for in a postdoc position, I would say the keys are:

  1. A mentor who will mentor and be a good fit to you – you heard this advice about your PhD but you probably didn’t understand it and may have ignored it. But now you understand. Find somebody who actively mentors. And within that space, somebody whose style (more hands on or hands off, lab size, etc) matches you.
  2. This is maybe a variant of #1, but you want a postdoc adviser who gets the fact you will be finishing up publishing your PhD and looking for a tenure track job. If they are expecting you to run their field site 100% of the time, it is not going to be good for your career. A rough rule of thumb I use is that I want to see a prospective postdoc do about 50% new research with me (with the other 50% being finishing and searching). Of course you it is not wise for you to belabor this point during your interview for a postdoc. A great mentor will offer this up themselves. Otherwise, you can ask something fairly open ended like “how much time do you anticipate I will have to wrap up old work”?
  3. Learn/do something new – you learned a lot during your PhD. But the list of things an academic should know is long (stats, molecular, field, multiple organismal systems, theory, programming). So look for a postdoc (and mentor) who will help you really add something new and different to your toolkit. Which something depends of course on you. But make sure you will add a new dimension to your research.

And as far as what to do during your postdoc, it boils down to a few words: publish, research, get a job. You are going to be looking for a job where publications is your main credential and you now have the time and know how to do it. Crank out your dissertation and any side projects. Realistically, it can be hard to do a new project that makes it all the way to a published paper in a 2 year postdoc window. But if you get a lot of good new research threads, they will all come to fruition in your early tenure track job which is exactly what you want! Getting a job is self explanatory. Anything other than publish, research, get a job is pretty superfluous as a postdoc. (There are some teaching postdocs out there which make sense if teaching is the primary focus of your post-postdoc years).

Jeremy:

I’ll emphasize and expand on one of Brian’s points, re: learning something new. I suggest using a postdoc to learn either a new technique or a new system, but not both at once. You don’t ordinarily want to use your postdoc to start doing something that’s completely unrelated to your PhD research. It doesn’t have to be, and shouldn’t be, an incremental continuation of your PhD research. But there should be some common thread. By the time you’ve finished your PhD, you should have a good idea of who you are as a scientist–what are the big questions you’re interested in, and how do you go about answering them? In retrospect, I took a serious risk by not branching out more during my postdoc. But you don’t want to totally change directions either.

I’d also emphasize Brian’s #2: you want a postdoc that will allow you significant independence. My postdoc was 100% independent. As a consequence it was crystal-clear from my cv (and not just my reference letters) that I could be an independent investigator and run my own research program. After all, I was already doing it! Now, postdocs that allow 100% independence like mine did are fairly rare. But any good postdoc will allow you significant independence.

Brian mentioned that part of having independence is not having a postdoc adviser who expects you to run their research program. You also don’t want a postdoc adviser who expects you to run their lab or do their grad student mentoring for them. There are some big “pyramid” labs in which the PI mentors the postdocs and the postdocs mentor the grad students. Personally, I’d avoid that sort of lab.

Meghan:

I got the advice Jeremy gave (in almost exactly the same words!): use a postdoc to learn a new technique or a new system but not both. I think that’s good advice. Brian’s suggestion about finding a mentor who is a good fit for you (recognizing that not every mentor is a good fit for every mentee) is also really important. Related to that: if someone seems like an amazing fit research-wise but you have concerns about their mentoring style, the department atmosphere, or something else along those lines, keep looking. When I was a senior grad student, most of the advice I got related to looking for postdocs focused only on finding the right research fit. I will be eternally grateful to one mentor who made it clear that considering things like lab climate was really important, too.

9 thoughts on “Ask Us Anything: choosing a postdoc

  1. Great advice. Elaborating on the “learn/do something new” recommendation: Most applications for faculty positions require a research statement (plus a teaching statement, cover letter, and CV). The research statement is huge, and will be assessed with an eye towards “can this individual secure sufficient funding to launch and sustain a research program?” If you’re a PhD interested in a faculty position, do a mock draft of your research statement and share with your adviser or other sympathetic faculty. These often include 3 lines of research: more and you might be seen as unfocused and all over the map, less and you might be seen as too shallow (at least in competition with others applying for the position). If you could add one new thing to the 1-2 major foci from your dissertation research, what would it be? Seek a post-doc opportunity that helps you add that third element to your research statement (while getting your dissertation research published, and maybe being PI or co-PI on a research grant).

  2. Great replies. I particularly appreciate Brian’s comment that puts an number on the split between job search/finishing PhD pubs and new research, and personally I’d agree with his ballpark of 50-50 split. But I would very much like to hear the thoughts of others on this number (which is just as relevant to expectations of us on the flip side!) For instance, I’ve also heard 20% job search & wrapping up), 80% new research as the suggested split; which may be reasonable in some cases but I suspect Brian’s number is more often preferable.

    • FWIW I’ve heard the 50% number from multiple peers who are highly productive, and have had a lot of postdocs and are decent human beings. Not totally independent of my own opinion of course.

      I’ll be honest that 20% search & wrapping up sounds to me the same as saying you’re mostly going to be doing those things on evenings and weekends. Search is easily 20% by itself (in emotional energy even if not actual hours punched on the clock).

      Like Carl I would be interested to hear other opinions.

  3. I’ll also add that it is good to consider how the postdoc position may improve your professional network. All else being equal (and given that your personal situation allows it) there are big benefits to making a geographic move.

  4. A comment I’ve heard from recent postdocs is: unless there are HUGE extenuating circumstances, try not to take a one year only postdoc, especially if it involves three huge gearings-up (big move, new system, new approach). Because if most positions start in September, that’s the time you have to start applying for your next post-doc or TT positions. If a 1-year job is what is offered and there are good reasons for taking it, managing your time is going to be one of your biggest challenges. PI’s: have compassion, it’s good for you as well, try to offer post-doc positions that last longer than 12 months!

    • Truly one year postdocs have all the limitations you mention. Not to mention they are usually the result of somebody else having left their postdoc early. This might be a good reflection on the PI (hired a great person who got a job early, probably with help from the postdoc PI), but it could also be a bad reflection on the PI.

      But it is important to point out that a lot of postdocs are advertised as “one year with possibility of renewal”. In almost all cases this translates as “I have multiple years of funding but won’t commit until you show up and work out”. This is an extremely common approach (and sometimes is required by the university hiring departments). And they almost always turn into 2-3 year postdocs (PIs don’t want to have one year postdocs either – this caution is just for when things truly go abysmally badly – and I know of almost no cases where they didn’t get extended). Such scenarios are definitely well worth pursuing without the caveats you raise about one year postdocs. Indeed you would greatly limit your choices if you didn’t pursue these.

    • I agree with this. I’d only ask, how common are 1 year postdocs? I have no idea, but I rarely see them advertised. I guess it would only happen when a PI has a postdoc leave after x-1 years of an x year grant, and advertises for a short-term postdoc to take the final year of the funding?

      Even 2 years can be a bit short, depending on the study system. Here at my uni there’s something called the Killam postdoc, for which I’ve supported applicants in the past. It pays the postdoc to do independent research, under a faculty sponsor. But it’s only a 2-year postdoc, and so I’ve always talked with prospective applicants about tentative research plans that seem likely to pay off within that timeframe. Which for me has usually meant supporting applicants proposing mathematical modeling and/or protist microcosm work. I suppose it could work for someone who’d be continuing existing field research. But it’s a bit hard to imagine someone starting up a new field project and having it pay off in 2 years, at least in most field systems.

  5. Pingback: Thanks Dynamic Ecology! « Nothing in Biology Makes Sense!

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