How to Pick a Great Postdoc Position
Are you finishing up your PhD and starting to think about the next step? It can be overwhelming to consider all of the personal and professional aspects involved in deciding and beginning this next stage of your career journey. With personal perspective from someone who has been there, here are some tips on how you can make the right choice for your postdoc position and what to do when you get the offer.
Think About the Science
This is probably the easiest one for you to think about because it is what focused on your whole graduate career. What kind of science do you love? What interests you and what excites you? Other aspects of the science include:
- Will you study a similar or different topic from your graduate work? Recommendations vary, but I have seen people be successful doing either.
- Does the research area have good funding? This does not have to affect your choice of topics but it will affect your life.
- Is your research area highly competitive? Highly competitive may correlate with well funded, but it comes with its own challenges. You should think about whether such a competitive environment fits with your personality and your goals.
Find a Mentor
While it is important to choose science that you’re excited about, it is also important to pick a supportive mentor and good environment. Having the person who is training you care about your career is critical. This isn’t just mushy emotional support (which is important, by the way). Your mentor will have an impact on when you publish, who you connect with, and what science you get to do. I have known postdocs with PIs who did not prioritize them, which resulted in delayed papers and difficulty finding jobs.
Some PIs are critical of science and critical of people, while others are critical of science while at the same time supportive of people. You want one of the latter PIs to benefit your career. It’s hard to differentiate from the outside, though. Your best bet at getting the full story is to talk to everyone, not just the person that happens to take you out to dinner. Everyone has a different perspective.
Consider the Skills
Beyond the general research topic, each lab has a collection of skills that you gain by working there. Your goals dictate the specific set of skills you want to gain.
- There are the soft skills, like writing, grantsmanship, and collaboration. I have seen a wide variety in how much of each of these postdocs get to do and how much support they get in doing them.
- There are the technical skills. If you want to start your own lab, you will likely need to do the experiments for your first grant. That will be a stressful time, so you won’t want to also be learning new techniques at that point. If you are planning to go into industry or government labs, look at what job listings are out there and what skills they expect you to have.
- Don’t forget the wide range of other skills you may want to acquire, potentially including computer skills, people management, software proficiency, and money management.
Do Your Research — Publications
Everyone knows that publications are important. Here are some specific publication-related metrics to take a look at.
- Consider the frequency of publications in relation to the number of people in lab and the distribution among the people in lab. Is there a lab favorite who gets all of the papers or is everyone publishing?
- What is the number of authors per paper? If each person is publishing alone, perhaps people do not spend much time working together in lab. However, you can also get a situation in which postdocs become support staff for other postdocs instead of getting their own publications. A way to differentiate might be to talk to the second or third author on some recent papers.
- What is the number of publications per project? This can help you determine the continuity of projects. Is a project pursued across multiple publications or is it abandoned after the lab moves on to bigger and better things? Maybe you like variety and one publication per project sounds great to you. You might instead find that you would like to dig in and continue to follow a project where it leads you. This might also allow you to develop your own line of research to carry into your own independent lab.
Look at Location
You may be more concerned about the science than the place, but location is important too. Things to consider for a postdoc position:
- Cost of living. You may get a salary boost to live somewhere like NYC or SF, but it is not likely to cover the full increase in what you’ll be paying for rent and food. This can be a price worth paying for the right lab, but it should figure in to your calculations
- Proximity to jobs. You’ll want to think about this whether or not you are planning on staying in academia. Your feelings about your career path may change and if you’re somewhere with no jobs it will be a lot harder to leave the ivory tower. If you already know you want to leave academia after your postdoc position, remember that networking is the key to many jobs. Living somewhere with lots of jobs nearby will make it a lot easier for you in the long run.
- In grad school I had a 5-minute bike ride to work. Now I have an hour of commuting on each end of work (granted, this includes child drop-off). This changes how much time I can feasibly put in at work and also how hard/easy it is to drop in on the weekend. This is due in part to my choice of housing location, but there are university locations that make it harder or easier to get close-by affordable housing. The university where I went to grad school had on campus housing for postdocs, which is another perk to keep an eye out for.
Feel Out the Politics
My final postdoc position search suggestion is consider how the PI interacts with other PIs in your target field. Are they in the same exact field that you want to conduct your lab, an overlapping field, or no relation? Science is simultaneously an individual endeavor and a social endeavor. A supportive scientific community that spans universities can be a boon to your enthusiasm, your creativity, and your career prospects. Is your potential PI part of a community like this? Do they go to conferences? Will they include you in this community or ignore you in favor of talking solely to other PIs?
Prepare to Negotiate for Your Postdoc Position
My biggest tip here is simply to know that negotiation is worth engaging in. Not every postdoc offer is the same and you should know what you deserve and how that stacks up to what you are offered. Make sure you do your research about what people in comparable positions are getting. Things you should discuss are:
- Starting salary. Not everyone gets the same starting salary. You should at least be on the NIH pay scale, but that may not be what you are offered. You can ask for more than the pay scale, and probably should if you will be living in a high cost area.
- Annual raises. These are built in to the NIH pay scale, but again, not every institution and not every PI adhere to this.
- Other miscellaneous things, like moving costs, supplies (read: computer), conference travel, etc.
How about you? Any tips for postdoc position seekers? Any success or horror stories?
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Super helpful!! You mentioned a lot of things I hadn’t necessarily thought of before like tracking publications per project and authorship. Thanks!! 🙂