Finding the Perfect Postdoc

May 13, 2013

Are you starting to think about finding the perfect postdoc position?

First, you need to decide whether you need to do a postdoc at all.  Depending on your career aspirations, a postdoc may only serve to delay your entry into your desired career or even hinder your ability to get started doing what you really want to do.  However, that is another post for another time.

You have decided that a postdoc is the next step, so here are some key elements to consider:

Advisor:  Many people think that the advisor’s reputation is the only thing to consider but we argue that to have a good postdoc experience you need to make sure that you and your advisor are compatible.  Here are some things to look for:

  • Mentoring style: We all say we want autonomy as a postdoc, but the level of autonomy really can differ.  Some advisors you may never see and getting their attention to discuss data is difficult. Others are more hands on and stop by multiple times a day to discuss experiments, techniques, data, etc.  Determine your preference in this spectrum.
  • Record: Understand where they publish.  How stable is their funding?  You should also know if they have expectation that you will write for your own funding or not. Consider the pros and cons of both tenured and tenure-track investigators (feel free to discuss this is the comment section).
  • Your Career: Pick an advisor that will support your career, no matter what you want to do next.  A good sign is if they know where former trainees work and are still in contact.  Do they have a strong network that you can tap into as you look for your next position?

Project:  You will want to know the project(s) you will be working on and how much you get to define it.  Is it really your project, or your boss’s project where you are doing the work?  Also, does the project have built-in skills development for you to learn new techniques and write grants? Is it interesting to you?

Labmates:  Do you like small labs that feel like family, or large labs with lots of people with differing expertise?  You will want to ask the current lab members about the work culture, work-life balance and the average length of a postdoc in the lab and where past members have gone after leaving.  These are the people you will spend a large portion of your time with, so getting the right fit is key to your overall happiness.

Institution:  Does the institution where the lab is based have career support in the form of a postdoc office or association?  You will also want to know the standard pay scale and benefits for postdocs and whether that is negotiable.  Also, don’t forget about your science and determine if the institution has facilities, such as core groups, that will support your research.

Location:  Yes, it does matter.  For some, being in a big city is the only way to truly live. For others, all that noise and commotion is too much to handle.  If you have a family (or are hoping to start one), their needs are important to consider as well.  Also, remember that your income needs to be considered with in the context of the cost of living for that area.

These are just a few key elements to consider.  Feel free to add a comment discussing other considerations when choosing the perfect postdoc.



The Postdoc Journey: A Developmental Approach to Independence

September 23, 2010

In continued recognition of Postdoc Appreciation Week, I share a developmental model I crafted for a presentation to the National Academies some years ago. My argument is that postdocs move through four developmental stages as they progress toward independence, both scientifically and professionally.

These stages are fluid, and postdocs may move back and forth among stages throughout their tenure as trainees. Below is my model, subsequently published in Bridges to Independence: Fostering the Independence of New Investigators in Biomedical Research, with programs offered at the NIH inserted as examples of developmental opportunities.

Developmental Model


A postdoctoral scholar typically moves through the following four stages: (1) adjustment (year 1); (2) skill enhancement (years 2 and 3); (3) search for positions (years 4 and 5); (4) and transition to independence (by year 5). Again, these stages are fluid, and the amount of time actually spent in each stage depends on the individual’s specific skills, discipline, work environment, and mentor.

Stage 1:

During the first stage, postdocs need to develop healthy patterns of behavior that will continue to serve them throughout their tenure. In order to adjust to the training period, postdocs should attend orientation sessions offered through OITE and any offered through their IC. Below are other programs offered to assist postdocs with adjusting effectively:

Stage 2:

During the second stage, postdocs might attend workshops and seminars such as those below to build skills as independent researchers, teachers, and mentors. They might also consider seeking individual grant reviews through PIs or senior staff at OITE.

Stage 3:

Stage 3 focuses on the development of job search related skills, such as writing effective resumes and CVs, interviewing, negotiating, and so on. OITE offers many programs and services in a variety of formats designed to meet the needs of trainees regardless of the type of career they are pursuing:

Stage 4:

Finally, postdocs in the 4th or transition stage should be preparing to move into their chosen career. OITE offers informative programs for all postdocs in leading teams effectively, resolving conflict, and more:

When applied during my tenure at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, this model proved successful in that UNC saw job success in its postdoctoral population and positive outcomes in terms of skill development through its program evaluations.

Take advantage of the myriad opportunities available to you through OITE and the NIH. Enjoy the journey!