Choosing a postdoc lab

How to choose a postdoc lab? There are a lot of guides on the web to advise you. I’ve written this one from the perspective of getting your NEXT job.

1. Never think that you don’t have a choice and that “maybe this is the best I can get”. As a freshly-minted PhD you will never be more appealing to a PI than you are now. You’re cheap, and if you’re continuing with research training after finishing your PhD then you’re still enthusiastic. Postdocs are getting longer and transitions between postdoc positions happen, but are more difficult as money gets tighter.  You could be in your postdoc for as long, or longer than you were in your PhD lab. Cast your net broadly and choose wisely. If something doesn’t feel right, don’t worry, you will get other offers.

2. Choose a big name lab with a secure PI. This is purely observational, but every person I know who has gone on to start independent labs at the Assistant/Associate Professor level all come from big name labs. As yet I know of no-one who has come from a mid-level or small PI who has gone on to independence in a top-tier academic institution. If anyone knows of anyone who has done this then I’d love to hear about it.

Also, having a well-established PI means that they’re more likely to suggest that you apply for that dinky little pilot project foundation grant in your name since it will bolster your resume but is almost pointless for them. In short, you want to be assisted by your PI and not competing with them for the small stuff.

3. Get trained in a hot and sexy technique. You need to be a couple of years ahead of the curve here. On the occasions when institutions actually advertise faculty positions they more often ask for someone with a particular technique rather than a particular area of interest. You can see this in the ads for junior faculty on the job websites. Departments are always looking for people to do the things that their current faculty can’t, you will find it much easier to get a job at the end of your postdoc if you are that person.

4. Get your own grant and choose a very well-funded lab. Postdocs have little to no job security, you need to be in a place where you aren’t constantly in fear of losing your job. It is difficult to push for the non-bench related aspects of training anyway, it’s even harder when you feel as though you’re constantly just hanging on to your place in the lab.

5. Choose a lab with some hard money. Hard money pays for equipment, technicians and travel. You can have the best postdoc grant in the world but your research will be so much more productive if you’re in an environment with a good infrastructure.

6. Choose a lab in a department where the PIs have overlapping interests. Your
research will become tedious and stale if you’re not presenting and receiving useful feedback on a regular basis. If you’re in a department with disparate research interests then it’s likely that people aren’t going to be interested enough in what you’re doing to really listen and respond. A dynamic environment, even if competitive, is also more motivating than one where no-one has much interest in what anyone else is doing.

Clearly, this isn’t an exhaustive list. There’s also other things to consider that apply to evaluating any job. What’s the atmosphere like? Does the boss play favorites? What is the work ethos of the people around me? Can I survive on this salary? However, I hope that this list may have introduced some things to consider in the context of your longer-term career prospects.

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