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:
- 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).
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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”?
- 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).
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.
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.