postdoctoral research experience

You have your PhD, now what?

Recently, I have been asked by a number of my younger (in terms of degree, not necessarily age) friends and colleagues about how to find a postdoc, what to look for, and what questions to ask.  As I am currently in my third postdoc, I feel I am somewhat an expert on how to find a mentor and what makes for a good postdoc experience, and I am honored that people think enough of me and my career to ask.  So, the following are some tips based on my experiences…

Decisions, decisions, decisions.

Before you do anything else, decide if a postdoc is really for you.  Sure, a postdoc seems like the next logical step.  Maybe your current PI is not supportive of a career outside academia or you have dreamed your entire life of running your own lab.  Whatever your circumstances are, make sure that your heart is in it.  The current world economic status does not make life easy for an academic scientist.  Grants are hard to come by.  Faculty positions are elusive.  There are plenty of hurdles that you have to jump over.  It is possible to be a successful academic, but if you aren’t committed, maybe you should think about an alternative career.  There are several options…medical science liaison, entrepreneur, policy, scientific writer, clinical research associate, industry, patent lawyer (with a law degree)…many of which pay more than being an academic researcher and have better hours.

 A new program designed by Science Careers called My Individual Development Plan is a great resource for scientists looking to pursue alternative career paths.   You can learn more about it here.

Start looking early! 

It is never too early to start making connections, thinking about how you would like your research career to evolve, and what you are willing to sacrifice (location?) to get what you really want (the ideal mentor?  a specific research project?).  This is especially important if you will be moving to a different country (you will need time to apply for the correct visas and other documents).  I suggest coming up with a short list of people you would like to work for or the type of research you would like to pursue (be as specific as possible) about a year in advance, if possible.  Start asking your current PI, your committee members, and other connections if they know the person or anyone at the university.  Get on LinkedIn and see if you know anyone that could make an introduction.  Make a point to introduce yourself at a conference and talk to their current and past students and postdocs.  These are the people that will give you an honest interpretation of the laboratory environment that you’re looking to enter.  Or better yet, visit to see if they have been reviewed or to search for PIs with good reviews at specific universities or by location.  The more information you have the better. 

Apply for your own funding.

If you have an idea for the research that you would like to do, apply for your own funding (most grants/awards have border restrictions, so be sure to check).  There are several avenues to obtain funding, not just federal.  Think outside the box.  You are much more appealing to PIs if your salary and/or research is already covered.  This might be the only way to work for your ideal PI since funding a post doctoral research takes a large chunk of funding from already tight budgets. 

Get everything in writing.

You are about to graduate or have recently received your degree.  You have a postdoc lined up.  Things are great!  Hopefully everything goes as planned, but be prepared for some bumps.  Before completely committing to a postdoc (or any position, for that matter) get a signed (by you and the PI and even another authority at the university if possible/appropriate) offer letter detailing anything and everything.  It should include your salary/year, the hours/week you are expected to work, the project you will be working on, the length of the commitment, the amount of paid vacation and sick days, where your funding will come from, and anything else you think might be important.  It should detail what is expected of you and what is expected of your supervisor.  This is not only for your benefit (you don’t want to pack up and move to another country only to realize that your new supervisor does not have the funds to support you…and I speak from experience on this one), but also for your new PIs benefit (the standards that you will be held to are spelled out).  I cannot stress the importance of this enough.

Think ahead.

I personally think that experiencing a postdoc in another country is a wonderful idea.  It puts you outside your comfort zone, you get to look at your research from another point of view, you can start making worldwide collaborations, and you get a chance to travel and grow both personally and professionally.  However, if you decide to do this, the day you start your new position, is the day you should be thinking about your next.  Will this postdoc only last a year or two and then you will do another one?  Maybe you plan on staying there longer and then go straight into a faculty/professor/research position?  Whatever the case, know what will be expected of you to make the next transition.  Did you know that it can be harder to obtain funding from your country of citizenship if you do not currently reside/work there, even if you are planning on returning?  Even if you have a great research plan, you may need to be associated with a university in that country before you can get funded.  This could mean doing another postdoc before you get funded so that you can have a strong application for that faculty position.

There you have it.  That is my first round advice for researchers that will graduate soon or have recently received their PhD.  Please help others by leaving your comments and let me know if there are some other questions you want answered.

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“Required” International Collaboration?

I recently read an article in Sky Magazine about the Executive MBA that highlighted how more and more EMBA programs are requiring international experiences during their programs. Some required only a week abroad for a 12 month program, while others incorporated various international stays for 5 out of 17 months. Other programs that have mainly foreign students, their time in the US constituted their international experience. Reading about these EMBA programs got me thinking…is there a place for similar training during scientific grad school and would it be beneficial? Could we somehow incorporate a semester or even a year of research abroad?

I think that this would have the greatest chance of success during the third or fourth year when you have a sound understanding of your thesis and what experiments are needed to support your hypothesis. By your fourth year you should be fairly independent, but could also benefit greatly from learning a new technique to address your central hypothesis and have input from someone with a different background (both scientific and nationality). As a senior grad student you would have the communication and experimental design skills necessary to plan out experiments in advance so you could hit the ground running in your new laboratory. Having the opportunity to do research abroad during grad school would also help you network and prepare for the next stage of your career while supporting international scientific collaboration.

In a way, some people already do this by going to grad school in another country. Still others have taken opportunities to obtain grant funding that pays for you to visit another lab to learn a new technique, such as the Michael Smith Foreign Supplement Award from NSERC offered to Canadian graduate students who have CIHR, SSHRC, or NSERC funding. There are also programs, such as the NIH OxCam program where you can obtain your degree through NIH that will send you to another lab to learn a new technique, or obtaining a grant from the International Research Fellowship Program (currently not offered) that funds postdoctoral studies abroad. I personally know several people who have obtained these funds and no one was disappointed with their experience, so why not incorporate it into the PhD program?

Do you think that training in a foreign country should be required for the PhD? Please share your experiences?

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2012 Postdoc Experience Survey

The results of the Science Careers biennial postdoctoral survey were released this past week.  In case you’re unfamiliar with this survey, Science Careers sent emails to 38,000 current and recent PhD’s worldwide asking them to rate and discuss criteria essential to a successful postdoctoral experience. 

What’s the take home message of this year’s survey?  Answer: the struggling economy is the driving force behind the results.  Ten percent of respondents were unemployed at the time of answering this survey.  Similar to the unemployment rate in the EU and slightly higher than the current 8.3% unemployment rate in the US.  This is probably the major reason why “advancement opportunities / career options” was selected as the most important factor, with  “funding / grants”,  “employer / situation”, “networking”,  and “mentoring” rounding out this year’s top five attributes to a successful postdoctoral research experience.   

One can easily make the case that any of these factors are integral to career success.  But I did notice a common theme; the importance of having a principal investigator able and willing to enhance these factors.  A PI to introduce you to network contacts for career advancement.  A PI that can teach you the ropes of successfully obtaining grant funding.  A PI that creates a comfortable work environment and helps you further your scientific career.   After all, isn’t that part of the responsibility of being in a tenure-track position; to nurture the growth of future scientists?

Principal investigators willing to train the next generation of scientists do exist.  This is evident in the success stories of several survey respondents interviewed for this article.   The difficult part is finding them and convincing them to take the time, energy, resources and money to train a young scientist even when the career choice is outside of academia.  But, what do you do when your PI is less than helpful?  That’s when you need to be proactive and create your own network of collaborators.  And today social media has made it easier than ever to keep in contact with collaborators and colleagues.  They can help you get a foot in the door for a potential job opportunity. 

Remember, it’s your career…take control of it.

The article can be found here, and it’s great reading for every scientist looking to further their careers.  If you have any other ideas for networking or what makes for a successful postdoc experience, please leave your comments below.

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