How to pick a postdoc

In the biological and biomedical fields, a postdoc is a huge commitment that can play a decisive role in a scientist’s career path. We asked a diverse group of current and former postdocs to weigh in on finding the right placement and spoke with a principal investigator to get a supervisor’s perspective on this all-important search. The opinions they expressed do not represent those of their current employers.

Here are the six points that emerged.

Know yourself

Gutierrez

Danielle Gutierrez did her postdoc in mass spectrometry analysis at the National Institutes of Health intramural program and at Texas A&M University. She says graduate students should get clear on their core values before embarking on a postdoc quest.

“If you know what you want to do, your time as a postdoc has the potential to be much more fruitful. You can focus your efforts on obtaining that goal, not only through your efforts in the lab, but also through networking conferences, seminar attendance  — for any opportunity that comes along, you can ask yourself- will this help me obtain my goal?” she says.

Banerjee

Antara Banerjee, a scientist at Takeda California, did her industry postdoc at Schering–Plough Biopharma. She knew definitively that she did not want to be in academia.

“I wanted to get into industry as fast as I could, so my first option was an industrial postdoc. The few academic institutions that I contacted were focused on labs with applied projects with industrial applications,” she says.

Geographic location

Having a regional preference, or a family or avocation that will be affected by a move, can make geography a major concern.

Ramaswami Sitharam Ramaswami, a postdoc in dermatology at Columbia University, says, “I loved New York and didn’t want to leave my interests in the local organizations that I volunteer with.

Since there are plenty of well-known science and research institutes here, I started looking into research labs that work on immunology and cancer research primarily focusing on New York City.”

But Michael Redmond, who heads the lab for Retinal Cell and Molecular Biology at the NIH, cautions that geography should not override other considerations.

“It should not be the only consideration. If you are limited to one geographic area due to insurmountable considerations, do not be afraid to cast your net wide in that area so that you can make the best choice. Likewise, when your postdoc training is complete, it is ideal that you be open to look beyond where you are: i.e., be ready to move to where a job might be and not expect to find it in your backyard!”

Redmond

Institution

Apart from understanding a lab’s research projects, applicants should ask about pay, leave benefits, mentoring and training opportunities, and exposure to career options. Some institutions might encourage postdocs to teach at local colleges, take courses offered in other departments or make time for summer internships.

According to Gutierrez, “For postdocs applying for training grants through NIH funding and looking to become professors, they will need to show that their mentor and facilities will provide the best training and opportunities. Additionally, the institution’s reputation for training in a particular field can open job opportunities."

Lab culture

A new lab may offer experience setting up a research team and building infrastructure, skills that are critical for starting a lab in the future. But an established lab can provide a head start on experiments, with access to protocols and projects that have been developed over the years. The latter might also have a large alumni base for networking. Either way, it’s crucial to understand a lab’s dynamics.

Ramaswami is on his second postdoc. He says, “My earlier postdoc was in a large lab with an established (principal investigator). The lab culture was very set in its ways, and the guidance I required for my project was hard to come by. Having a mentor who was extremely accessible was critical to me, so I picked a smaller lab with a new investigator where I interact with my supervisor multiple times a day. I look forward to steady publications in good journals rather than waiting for the next big Cell or Science paper.”

Research mentor

An investigator who prioritizes postdoc success is crucial to a future career. For those pursuing an academic track, it is important to have conversations about taking your projects with you when you leave.

Gutierrez says, “It can be helpful to know the expectations and personality of your PI before starting. Some PIs may have very specific requirements about hours worked, number of publications, number of projects, etc., and others may be more hands-off. Placing yourself in a situation where you know you can perform well and work with your PI is advantageous. I’ve been blessed to have talented mentors who provided great examples as successful scientists and committed parents and spouses.”

A flexible mentor who can adjust if things do not go as planned is also key, says Redmond. “Given the current state of science funding, getting that first faculty position and/or R01 takes longer and longer, and there is increasing competition, so alternate paths may be necessary or desirable. Is the mentor amenable to allow you to consider this?”

Scientific topic

Katpally

Whether the postdoc research will be an extension of Ph.D. work or a branching out into other areas, applicants should pick topics that pique their curiosity.

Umesh Katpally, now a business analyst at Novartis, did his postdoc and Ph.D. in the same virology lab at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis.

“The most important element is to work on increasing your skill set and being productive, by actively publishing and forging new collaborations. My Ph.D. work resulted in a patent, and we started collaboration with industry. I was more than happy to continue to see the work to fruition. I did not see any reason to move,” he says.

Banerjee, alternatively, decided to diversify. “I wanted to do something very different than what I had done during graduate school to increase my perspective and experience. I was always interested in antibodies. But in order to do that I needed to have a strong foundation in immunology and infectious diseases, and so I found a lab that supports both,” she says.
Preethi Chander Preethi Chander did her Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology and her postdoctoral work in eye and vision research. She is interested in science policy and communications.