11 things you should look for in a postdoc position

26 Nov

If you were a successful PhD student in biology (meaning you finished in reasonable time with at least one first-author publication), you should be able to find a postdoc position without too much trouble. If you have a hard time finding a postdoc position I think there is likely something wrong with how you search, rather than your qualifications. The reason is simply that there are many postdoc positions out there. This also means that if you want to get into a great university, your best chances are to do so as a postdoc. And if you are applying for a fellowship (HFSP, German Science Foundation etc.) you’re chances will be higher if you apply to a very well-known university.

How to choose

OK, so if things are going well, you may have the choice between several postdoc positions. How to choose?

I think you need to evaluate a possible postdoc position seriously and on many different dimensions. Someone may tell you that all you need is a project you’re excited about, but I think that is not true. A great project is important, but it is not everything. I decided to make a list of eleven things that I think are important. Ideally, your postdoc position will score high on all dimensions. But at least, it shouldn’t score very low on any of these dimensions.

So here’s my list:

  1. You need to work on a topic that excites you. In some cases, you may have a precise project in mind when you start your postdoc, but in other cases, you may just know that the lab you’re going to work in works on exciting things. If the topic you work on doesn’t excite you, your postdoc will be boring. It will be tough in many other ways, you don’t need boring in the mix.
  2. You need an advisor who can and will support you. She/he should be influential, in the right field and willing to support her/his postdocs. Did her/his previous postdocs land good jobs at places that would be interesting for you? If you want to work with someone who is very junior, consider being co-advised by someone more senior.
  3. You need an advisor you get along with and whose science you love. Spend enough time with her/him to make sure that you like the person and the scientist before you decide to join the lab. Ask if you can sit in on a lab meeting, so that you can see how the people in the lab interact with your potential advisor.
  4. You need to be in a lab that is central to the field that you want to be part of. If you tell people “I am in so-and-so’s lab,” they should know who you are talking about. This will help you to become known, to get your papers published, to get your talks accepted and to get a faculty position later. Avoid being a “scientific orphan”[1] by switching fields to often or too drastically (although being an orphan is better than being in the wrong field for the rest of your career!). (At the same time, you should try to carve out a niche for yourself that is different from what your advisor does, but I think you can start thinking about that when you’re two years into your postdoc.)
  5. You need a lab that is fun to work in. Find out by talking to people who are or were in the lab and ask them what they like and don’t like about the group. Do lab members collaborate or help each other? Are there lab meetings? Is the group too small or too large for your taste? Do the lab members have lunch together? Or go out for drinks together?
  6. There needs to be the possibility to publish multiple papers (although in some fields, the only thing that counts is to have one big paper in Cell, Nature or Science). What have the other postdocs in the lab published in previous years? If they didn’t publish much, it will be hard for you to publish a lot. Can you collaborate on ongoing projects that are likely to lead to papers? Does your project include certainly publishable parts?
  7. You need secure finances. You need a salary, money for experiments, and money for travel to conferences. It’s hard to be creative if you have worries about money. Ask your potential advisor and ask other people in the lab. Did anyone in recent years have to leave the lab because there was no money left? Try to bring your own fellowship, this will buy you freedom.
  8. Freedom. You need to be free to have your own projects, by yourself or with other people. You need to be free to decide whether to work in the weekends or not. You need to be free to decide which conference is of interest to you. You need to be free to decide when your paper is ready to submit. Ask others in the lab whether they have enough freedom.
  9. You should go to a well-known university. This will look good on your CV, and it will help you find collaborators both inside the university (because there will be some great scientists at this well-known university) and outside the university (because people will more likely want to collaborate with you if you are at a well-known university). The name of the university is especially important if you consider leaving academia at some point.
  10. You need to be in a nice place to live. If you hate the city, don’t go to New York. If you dream of living in New York, there is no better time to do it than now. You’ll most likely be spending several years in your postdoc.
  11. This was going to be a list of 10 things until someone reminded me that you also need to be in a place that has the equipment you need. You should not have to spend your time fighting for space in the greenhouse or nodes on a cluster.

Is there anything that should be on this list that I forgot about? I’d love to hear about your ideas.
I hope you’ll find a great postdoc position and enjoy your postdoc years!

Oh, one more thing:

Leave if you need to

If you’re already in a postdoc position and you find out that you’re in the wrong place, know that you can quit. I know several people who quit a postdoc position after a short time and found a much better one afterwards.

Thanks to Nadine Vastenhouw and Oana Carja for comments on an earlier version of this post!

[1] The term “scientific orphan” was taken from a talk by Sheri Simmons (Woods Hole)

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11 Responses to “11 things you should look for in a postdoc position”

  1. pleunipennings November 28, 2013 at 9:12 am #

    Yesterday I read an interesting post entitled: “Should you do another postdoc.” If you are unsure whether you want your future to be in academia, I highly recommend reading that post. http://zinemin.wordpress.com/2013/11/23/should-you-do-another-postdoc/
    [by the way, I fall in the category “If you think about what being a professor is like in real life […] you start smiling.”]

  2. Charl December 22, 2013 at 5:08 pm #

    Some nice points but 4 & 9 are likely to be a little unrealistic. While they are nice if you can meet them the reality is that there are a lot more possible postdocs than there are positions that meet those criteria.

    • pleunipennings December 22, 2013 at 5:57 pm #

      Hi Charl, thanks for your comment. My goal with the post was not to suggest that everyone should (be able to) find the perfect postdoc position. Rather I wanted to encourage people to think about the many things that make a good postdoc position so that you can compare an actual position (or multiple) with the list of criteria.

      Two other things: First, I recently read on Twitter that it is not so easy anymore these days to find a postdoc position, so if that’s true, compromises are of course needed.
      Second, Malcolm Gladwell in his recent book David and Goliath argues that undergrad and grad students are often better off at less prestigious universities. Maybe this is true for postdocs too. If so, my point 9 may not hold for everyone.

      Pleuni

  3. pleunipennings December 23, 2013 at 8:47 am #

    @aloraine205 recommended this guide “A PhD is not enough”: http://t.co/123HjjmiZ9
    It is written by a physicist, but, judging from the first few pages and the table of contents, it seems relevant also for people in the other sciences.

  4. pleunipennings December 27, 2013 at 1:35 pm #

    Here is some useful info on getting a good postdoc position: https://www.asbmb.org/CareersAndEducation.aspx?id=198

  5. John Jeffers February 15, 2016 at 4:25 pm #

    I agree with much of what you said, though I do think that #6 should be closer to: there should be the possibility to publish multiple high impact papers – i.e., postdocs within the lab should have a track record of regularly doing so.

    I think your opening sentence is more worrisome: If you were a successful PhD student in biology (meaning you finished in reasonable time with at least one first-author publication), you should be able to find a postdoc position without too much trouble.

    Given single digit NIH/NSF/DOE funding rates, one should think very hard about whether a postdoc is desirable, independent of whether it’s easy to land. If you love science and you were either the best or one of the two best graduate students in your program, then think about a postdoc. Otherwise, think about getting out of academia before the postdoc – many many folks end up deferring the decision by doing a 5 year postdoc. Transitioning to a new field at 35 isn’t pretty; worse still at 40 after a second postdoc.

    The number of biological sciences PhD’s doing postdocs should be much, much lower.

    • pleunipennings February 15, 2016 at 4:35 pm #

      Thanks for your comment, John. I agree that doing a postdoc should not be automatic and one should realize that getting an academic job and getting funded is very hard these days. In addition, academic salaries are shitty.

  6. ZSL July 27, 2016 at 4:27 am #

    I thought I knew all of these when I started my postdoc, however the reality is unexpected. What I want to say is that, in today’s tough time, there are so many unknowns, that you just should not read too much into the “rules”. You can not success by “follow” others. You need to be a fighter, be brave, get beaten to the ground and stand up!

    At the beginning it looked perfect. I was the best dissertation winner of my program; my PhD advsior in the US is a well-respect and successful senior scientist; my postdoc advsior is very supportive and are in world-class insititute in UK, and I fund myself through a prestigious fellowship for the first two years, and the lab is core-funded. The most important is that, I want to do a specfic subfield and this fellowship and insititute allows me to do so. – Both the bless and the curse, it turns out.

    After just a year, what no one has expected happened. The insititute that I worked for decided to gradually withering down the funding for our program, and my boss are less senior. He is among the first to leave. Even he could not believe it and fight to keep the lab open longer. He realized that he did not have the funding to support me beyond my fellowship, unfortunately, just 5 month before my fellowship ends. And my project just start to show good results. It was a huge psychological stress and I kept the experiment going while attending conference to look for new jobs. Surpringly, every 2-3 months, my PI came up some funding to keep the lab running. On the bright side, I evenually finished the planned work on continous short-term contracts; on the dark side, I was frustrated, confused, applying grants to try to fund my project, and did not do enough on searching for new job. Reading about articles about how little future postdocs have certainly did not help.

    It is only when my contract ends and my boss left academia, I finally cooled down and knew with what I have accomplished in my first postdoc, I have something to show for my second postdoc interviews. And life will continue. However, that has been 9 months after my PI informed me the situation. In this process, I felt helpless and confused; I was so disappointed and more or less paralysized by the changes that totally disrailed my “perfect” plan for the first postdoc.

    My advise to you is that, focusing on doing what you love, focusing living a fulfilled life, no matter your position is a postodc, staff scientist, lab manager, or non-research jobs. Do what you love. We think so much – 35 years old, last paper could have get into Cell, fhow great are other people’s career… The fact is that there is no linear path in life, and getting a PI position is no more stable. There is always things that do damage to you and you can not control. Facing the world of uncertainty, talk yourself up, not down!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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    […] Pennings has a post of things you should look for in a postdoc position. And, in the comments, she links to another post that is entitled “Should you do another […]

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    […] and here you really have to be strategic. My friend and colleague Pleuni Pennings gives some advice here on how to choose your postdoc, and I agree with all of them. I would strongly emphasize joining a […]

  3. Friday links: does Gaad exist, stories behind classic ecology papers, evolution of chess, and more | Dynamic Ecology - May 30, 2014

    […] “old posts from Pleuni Pennings that I failed to notice until just now,” here are her 11 things to look for when choosing a postdoc. One quibble: she suggests you should start trying to carve out your own “niche” a […]

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