The hunt: finding a postdoc

This is the first in a series of posts about my hunt for the tenure-track. Since I have no idea how much my decisions, persistence, and luck played into my fortune, it is not purposed as a guide for how to secure a tenure-track position.  Rather, the series will highlight the steps I took, starting with my postdoc search. I’ll leave it to others (as well as my future, tenured self) to clarify what it was that I did right.

The site of a young scientist’s postdoctoral work says a lot about their training and potential. Thus choosing the *right* postdoc may be the most important step you’ll take in obtaining a faculty position. However, a good pedigree indicates much more than a big-wig PI and multiple glamor mag publications. Pedigree is dependent on a number of training environment characteristics. When starting my own postdoc search, grad mentor had me consider the following questions about prospective labs:

  1. What is the publication trend of the lab?
  2. Where are the lab’s former postocs?
  3. What is the reputation of the lab and PI?
  4. Does the PI provide opportunities for training away from the bench?

I started my search by making a list of PIs whose science I enjoyed reading about, then took a closer look at the publication history of these PIs, examining the rate, impact level of the journals, and authorship on each paper. Because I wanted to pursue the TT, I needed to find a lab where I could take the lead on and eventually take away my own project. Thus, I narrowed my list down to labs with solid publication records and at least a few papers with only 2 or 3 authors. This latter characteristic indicated (to me and grad mentor) that lab members were given more autonomy over their projects.

I next took a look at the labs’ previous postdocs, since this can indicate how *good* a mentor is at advancing his/her trainees into a specific career. Since my chosen field was academia, I whittled my list down to PIs who had turned out at least a few TT and tenured profs. My grad mentor additionally advised against some of the junior profs I originally included, since an unproven track record in this arena could have complicated my TT prospects.

Next, I talked to my mentor and others in my grad department about the names on my list. What did they think of their science? What did they think of their trainees? What did they think of the person? This was probably the MOST enlightening aspect of my decision-making process, and it possibly saved me from a hellish postdoc with a jerk difficult mentor. However, I wouldn’t take one person’s negative comment to heart, especially if I was really in love with the lab’s science. I suggest checking things out for yourself (if you score an interview), and keep your antennas up for anything that seems off.

After preparing and researching my list of prospects, I was ready to send out my applications. I excessively proof-read then snail-mailed hard copies of my cover letter and CV to each of the PIs on my final list. Simultaneously, my mentor mailed a recommendation letter to each of the PIs. In my cover letter, I included a short reminder of who I was (if I had previously met them) and a summary of my research, inquired about specific projects I was interested in working on, and provided an expected graduation date.

A few months later, I was on interviews. I took advantage of my one-on-one time with each of the PIs to find out what they had to say about training opportunities away from the bench (teaching, grant-writing, meetings, etc), and inquire if they were willing to let me take a project with me when I left. If it was clear what I would be working on, I specifically asked about the portability of the project. When away from the PI*, I felt out the personalities of the lab members. How much did they work? How much did they enjoy their work? Did they appear to have social lives? Or could they only talk about science? Most importantly, I observed how the lab got along with each other, how they interacted with their mentor, and how comfortable I felt talking with them and the PI.

Luckily, I was offered a job during my interview with the PI who was my top choice before, during and after the visit. I felt comfortable with the PI, enjoyed hanging out with the lab members, and fell in love with Postdoc Town. Within months of joining the lab, I took control of the project I had been reading about for several years prior. I published, established myself as the department expert in Field X and Technique A, secured my own funding, and initiated my own collaborations. It wasn’t the perfect postdoc, and I had plenty of frustrations along the way. But it was as good as (and maybe even better than) I needed it to be.

*Not given time away from the PI? This is a HUGE red flag. Run, don’t walk, away.

Next up in the series: putting together my TT application package.

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8 thoughts on “The hunt: finding a postdoc

  1. Oh, I’m so excited about this series (even though I’m not doing the academic thing). I love hearing how people ended up where they are.

    You really put a lot of thought and effort into choosing your post-doc, and that obviously helped to get you working with a PI/lab that matched with your wants and needs. I think too many people just take the first post-doc they’re offered because they’re afraid of not getting anything better (and then wonder why they’re having an awful time). Such an important lesson!

  2. This is all really excellent advice! You were 10,000x more organized than I was when I was looking for a post-doc position. I sent an email to one of the bigwigs in my field that basically said, “Dear Famous Dude, I want to do my post-doc in your lab, OK?” He brought me in for an interview, I gave a talk, and that was pretty much it. I was extremely lucky that everything worked out, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that approach.

    Can’t wait for your TT package post so I can add it to the aggregator!

  3. Pingback: Link love « Grumpy rumblings of the untenured

  4. Much of your advice is excellent, but some of it is bullshit.

    Thus, I narrowed my list down to labs with solid publication records and at least a few papers with only 2 or 3 authors. This latter characteristic indicated (to me and grad mentor) that lab members were given more autonomy over their projects.

    This is bullshit. The number of authors on manuscripts has absolutely nothing to do with how much autonomy lab members have over their projects, and only relates to how complex or large-scale are the methodological approaches typically used in the lab. What is relevant about authorship practice is what percentage of post-docs in the lab end up with first-author papers, not how many middle authors there are (many of whom won’t even be members of that lab).

    Since my chosen field was academia, I whittled my list down to PIs who had turned out at least a few TT and tenured profs. My grad mentor additionally advised against some of the junior profs I originally included, since an unproven track record in this arena could have complicated my TT prospects.

    This is egregious bullshit. Joining the lab of a junior PI *and being extremely productive and creative* is even more impressive to faculty search committees than doing the same thing in the lab of a well-established PI. It also gives you much greater autonomy to choose your own research directions and to exploit the most interesting and exciting ideas of the PI.

    A more general point that those looking to orient themselves towards an eventual tenure-track faculty jobs would do well to consider is that those who have recently obtained such jobs are not well-positioned to understand how and why they succeeded. Rather, you need advice from people who have served on junior faculty search committees and seen how a wide range of applicants are viewed.

  5. Thanks for the feedback, CPP; I hope you’ll stop by after I post on my TT application experience.

    I’d like to add (remind?) that I’m not offering any of these points as hard and fast rules. As stated in the intro, this series is meant to tell others what I did. I won’t know for years (if ever) what I exactly did right or wrong, but I seemingly haven’t done anything fatal. In fact, I’d be wiling to put my bloggy ass on the line and say there are several *right* ways to yourself on the TT.

  6. Sure, I’ll return. BTW, this is absolutely correct advice:

    Not given time away from the PI? This is a HUGE red flag. Run, don’t walk, away.

    When post-doc candidates visit my lab, they always spend a significant amount of time meeting with lab peeps in my absence. I want them to get the real deal about how my lab works, so that they make an informed decision. Also, I value the feedback of my lab peeps about candidates, and they get a more genuine view in my absence, when the candidate is more relaxed.

  7. Pingback: The hunt: preparing my tenure-track application | The Tightrope

  8. Pingback: Advice for the Tenure Track Professorship Search – The Motherload « Chemtips

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