After all that hard work, you finally have your PhD. Now what? If your career choice is academic research, your first post-doc position beckons. The choice of where, and with whom, to take up a post-doc position is a very important one as it is at the post-doc stage where publications are required to move to the next level (tenure-track) and where your research direction is determined. Whether you will publish or perish is drastically affected by your choice. How do you make sure you choose wisely? Here is some advice I wish someone had given me when I was making the decision.
1) Publications- who, what, where, when, and how many. Let’s face it. As an academic scientist, publishing is everything. Whether you want to be teaching at a small liberal arts college or leading a group in a top university, we are judged by our publications. So your first question should be: What are my chances of publishing in this lab? Before writing to the principle investigator (PI) and applying for their open position, check out their reference list, look at some papers and ask the following questions
- How often is the lab publishing?
- Who is the first author. the PI or the grad students or post-docs? (The PI is always the first author? Red flag! why aren’t the post-docs or grad students first author?)
- How many have the PI as a middle author? (Is the actual lab publishing or the PI collaborating with a lot of other people?)
In general, there should be a good mix of papers where the PI is typically last author and on occasion first author and the journals can be a mix of small, focused journals and larger, more cited journals. Typically, the younger the PI in their career, the more likely they are the first author and the tenured professors will have mostly last author papers.
2) Is the PI a slave driver? If you are ambitious, it’s not necessarily a bad thing if the PI is a workaholic and expects you to be a workaholic too. The post-doc stage is the time in your life where you put in the most hours – you are building your career, after all. Where the PI is in the tenure cycle can be a good indicator of how hard you will be expected to work.
If the PI is a new assistant professor, they will be the most focused and dedicated to the lab. They have a short span of time to get papers and grant funding to secure their future. This type of lab will be the best bet for cranking out publications, but, they will also expect you to work like a slave (the boss is also working like a slave too, so you won’t be alone late at night and on weekends in the lab).
Make sure you really like your boss if you work for an assistant professor because you will be spending a lot of time together.
Full professors can fall into two categories. If they are highly successful and well-funded, they will have a large team of people. This can be a good sign as typically the better the environment for growth and accomplishment, the bigger the lab. The other side of the coin is when a PI is resting on their past accomplishments and not as concerned about their tenure or publishing as they once were. Their publications over the last few years will reflect this trend. Be wary of this second type of lab because you may not be supported in your own career goals.
3) The choice of PI is more important than the project. You want to choose a lab working in a field that is exciting to you, but more important are the qualities of the person heading the lab and how well your personalities match. You don’t have to do a post-doc in a lab that works exactly on what you want to work on.
A great boss will empower you to explore and investigate your own ideas and allow you the freedom to develop a research program you can take with you. Serious problems will arise if you have clear and obvious differences in your philosophies of science, and what you think is important to accomplish for your career. The only way to really tell if you are a good match is to make sure to meet the person in an interview. I can’t stress enough how important it is that you and the boss see eye to eye on how you approach science!
4) Meet the Lab (duh!) This might sound like common sense, but I didn’t do this. Yes – I actually took a post-doc position without interviewing first. Why? Because I was really excited by the area of cancer research the lab was studying and thought I would be able to build my own career with the projects I could develop. However, it wasn’t until I met the PI and my future lab-mates that I realized this wouldn’t be an environment where I could flourish. This may have been the single biggest career move mistake I ever made.
5) Ask the tough questions. When you schedule the interview, make sure time is planned to meet the lab and talk one-on-one. Ask them what it’s like to work for the boss, how do they run lab meeting (is everyone petrified when it’s their turn?), what scientific conferences do the students and post-docs attend (you should be presenting at least once a year to build your CV and network), and what are the best and worst qualities of the boss? If the students are afraid to talk to you, or are nervous about speaking about the boss, something is definitely wrong.
6) Check references. You are interviewing them for a job just like they are interviewing you. Find out what the past post-docs and grad students are doing now. Have they moved on to successful careers? Contact their former post-docs and ask how it was to work for this boss. They will give you truthful answers- especially if the people in the lab were not forthright because they were nervous that anything they said would get back to the boss. If the PI is great, you’ll have that confirmation and you’ll know you are making a good choice.
7) Will the PI support your career goals? Have an idea of what of what you want for a career and ask about the opportunities to develop the skills you need. For example, if you want to eventually teach at a small college and do science with undergraduates, will the PI provide opportunities for you to teach some of their classes or allow you to pick up some undergraduate biology classes to teach, even though it may take time away from the lab? If your plan is to have a large NIH-funded lab, will they support you applying for your own post-doctoral grants? Does the PI see you as a future competitor?
The ideal situation is that you and the person you post-doc with become life long friends and colleagues. A good PI will be a tremendous asset in helping you to be hired for a coveted assistant professor position or as a senior scientist in an industrial lab. Working with a PI who you respect and who respects you cannot be underestimated.
Choosing a post-doctoral position is so critical to your future that it makes sense to spend the time to really make sure it’s the right one for you and that it’s an environment where you can flourish and excel. I hope these pointers will help some people to make a smart choice and to stay on the path of your true calling.
However, if you do stray from the research path, do not worry, because there is always a need for scientists for marketing in biotech… but I’ll save that for a later article!
Photo: Mr 7