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 RateMyPI.com 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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About Erin Hascup

Erin graduated with her B.S. in Biochemistry from Hobart and William Smith Colleges in 2001 and went on to conduct research at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Erin returned to school and obtained a PhD in Anatomy and Neurobiology from the University of Kentucky in 2007. She completed postdocs at the Karolinska Institute and McGill University. Erin currently works at Southern Illinois School of Medicine and is co-founder of RateMyPI.com. Follow Erin on Twitter @RuthiePhD.
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7 Responses to You have your PhD, now what?

  1. Kate says:

    I don’t mean to be a stinker, but I am assuming something went wrong in your first two postdoc positions that led you to move to a third position. Can you share some of the reasons? Did you initially chose poorly or was this all part of your plan?

    • Erin Hascup says:

      Hi Kate,
      Valid question and I will attempt to be candid. No, I did not set out to do 3 postdocs and yes, something did go wrong, but not in all of them.
      In one of my postdocs, promises were made that were not kept. I thought that I had done the right thing, set the postdoc up well in advance of my anticipated graduation date. I had visited the lab and had several conference calls to get everything lined up so that I could hit the ground running when I arrived. However, shortly after I got there I realized that things were not as they seemed. It turned out that not only did the PI not have money to do research, they also did not have money to pay my salary. This is one of the reasons RateMyPI.com was founded. I feel that having information about the PI you will be doing a postdoc with (or be a grad student for) from other postdocs and grad students with firsthand knowledge is vital to a successful experience. So I encourage everyone to review other researchers (PIs, collaborators, committee members, etc.), both good and bad, so that people can have all the tools necessary to make good career decisions.
      My other postdoc was much better, minimal complaints. There are a couple of reason why I am doing a third postdoc. One is that my husband was offered an opportunity in another city (actually another country…bank in the USA). The second reason is that I did not do all my homework before I decided to do 2 postdocs outside the US (I am a US citizen). I thought that doing postdocs in some of the most prestigious universities in the world doing cutting edge research with well respected PIs would be a great asset and give me great scientific depth, which it did. But what I did not realize was that it is extremely difficult to obtain funding as a US citizen not doing research in the US. Most funding in my research area (neuroscience) requires you to be associated with a US institution to receive funding. And, as I am sure that you know, it is not easy to get a faculty position without having funding. Since I was not ready to give up my dream of having my own lab, this was a problem and I am now in my third postdoc…back in the US.
      I hope that this information helped.
      Erin

  2. Haitao Guo says:

    Hi Erin

    Thanks so much for your suggestions. I am currently a postdoc in UNC. I have been there for two years and it is my first postdoc position. The projects I am doing are really not interesting to me and I plan to leave this lab and try to find another one I really interested. Because I have a 3 year appointment which has almost one year left, I do not know should I tell my PI first before I start to find new position. Looks like I have to tell him first since I have to put him into my reference list, but I really afraid he will not be happy to give me a unbiased recommendation letter. What is your suggestion? Thanks a lot.

    • Erin Hascup says:

      Hello Haitao,
      This is a tough one. You will probably need a reference from your current PI and it is important to continue to work hard in your current postdoc. Depending on your relationship with your current PI, they could be instrumental in helping you to find your next postdoc, or they could just be upset that you are leaving and take it personally. Perhaps it would be good to speak with your current PI, let them know that you think you have learned a lot from working with them, but you think that you want to take your research a different direction, and ask if they can suggest someone to do your next postdoc with. Leave it open to future collaboration. Hopefully they will be understanding.
      Best of luck.
      Erin

  3. Sean Halle says:

    Thanks for the advice!
    For myself, my main block has been finding post-doc positions.. do I infer correctly that you recommend identifying PI’s in your field, then contacting them directly to establish a relationship, then create a post-doc position together with the PI?

    I was also curious about the comment on applying for funding. Could you talk about sources of funding we can apply for that don’t require already having a PI? The grants I have seen are all geared towards the applicant being a PI with a faculty position at an institution.

    Thanks for the great help, and congratulations on your successes,

    Sean

    • Erin Hascup says:

      Great questions Sean! I absolutely recommend identifying a PI you would like to work with and contacting them directly. Better yet, if you know someone that also knows the PI that you would like to work with, have them pass on your CV before you call or email. It won’t work every time, but it has worked for me. If you already have your own funding that will certainly increase your chances. Or if you have a little bit more time you can say that you would like to apply for postdoc funding (NRSA, etc.) to work with them and ask them if they will be your sponsoring PI.
      It is harder to find funding without having a PI, but it is out there. I suggest contacting organizations in your field (or check out their websites). For example, if your research is focused on Parkinson’s disease, you might want to contact the Michael J. Fox Foundation. Cancer? Try the Susan G. Komen for the Cure or Livestrong. Some pharmaceutical companies occasionally offer grants. I know that this might not directly apply to you, but women can apply for funding from the American Association of University Women (AAUW). The National Postdoctoral Association might have more information on alternative funding. There are plenty out there, you just have to search.
      RateMyPI.com does not currently offer research funding. However, we are planning on funding a travel award in 2013.

  4. George says:

    Hi Erin,

    Thanks for the great tips. Although you are echoing some that I have heard before, hearing them again can only help. I recently graduated and I am still trying to find a postdoc/position that would work for me. Good luck with your future plans.

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