I grew up in New England about an hour outside of Boston. But an aversion to cold dreary winters and other life events led me to explore new parts of the country for my undergraduate and graduate work, eventually leading me to attend the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center for my PhD in cell biology. I loved my experience in Oklahoma. The bioscience sphere there is small enough that everyone knows each other, and friendly collaborations between labs are a way of life. The pace of life was laid-back, except around deadlines, and the relationship with my mentor in our sometimes 4-person lab was close. Similarly, the department I was a part of felt really friendly and supportive.
When it came time to look at postdoctoral positions, I knew I wanted to head back home to Boston to be closer to family. I also knew Boston was the land of opportunity for biologists–lots of great institutions, labs, colleges, and biotech. So I exclusively began looking at labs in the Boston area for my next career stop.
This gave me much anxiety. Some Oklahoma PIs who had spent time in Boston talked about how different the culture was: how many hours people worked, how cut-throat it could be, and how postdocs were sometimes pitted against each other on the same project in a sort of “survival of the fittest.” With this in mind, I began looking into labs that I thought looked friendly and congenial. I did this based on evidence I found on the lab websites and word-of-mouth advice from members of the lab, former members, or those who had worked nearby. Coming from a small lab, I didn’t want to join a lab of 50 people only to be lost in the trenches and never see my PI, but I also wanted to join a lab that would allow me the greatest opportunities for my future career.
Through my search, I feel like I’ve picked up some wisdom, some of which came from advice I was given (and chose to follow). If I could go back in time and share this wisdom with myself, this is the advice I’d recommend for those looking to make the jump from a small institution to a larger one:
If you don’t believe in yourself, who else will? Aim high or go home.
This was the frame of mind I had to adopt to battle the “imposter syndrome” I often felt when applying to big-name labs at well-recognized institutions. I had to stop second-guessing myself, my publications, and my experience, and just trust that I was clever enough and hard-working enough to succeed at a larger institution. Similarly, don’t be afraid to apply to influential and noteworthy labs. The worst they can say is no. And sometimes their response can provide encouragement even if there is no funding to offer you a position at the moment.
Start looking at labs early, and really scour the literature (and lab websites) of the ones you like most.
I had been advised to start contacting labs for my postdoc early: six months to one year out. Although it can be difficult to think about future projects while you’re still trying to finish your dissertation, it is to your benefit to start contacting labs about nine months before you plan to start working. Keep grant application deadlines in mind as well when scheduling your defense. If the lab you’ll apply to requires or encourages you to apply for your own funding, knowing how your graduation date affects your eligibility for certain grants can be crucial, especially if you’d like the flexibility of re-applying for a grant should they choose not to accept you in your first round. It’s also important see where alums of the lab are working now (and not just the success stories). Many PIs will list their alums, but for some, you’ll have to do some sleuthing by tracking author names on past papers. In addition, some PIs want to hear what you propose to be working on in their lab, so be prepared to pitch some thoughtful ideas even if they don’t pan out in the long term.
Network, network, network to find out who is worth working for.
In my professional career, I have found that networking has made the impossible, possible. It has helped me land technician jobs, my graduate lab position, and my postdoctoral position. For my postdoc search, I networked to find out which PIs were the good ones by asking how smoothly the lab was run and how friendly the lab culture was. In this way, I had confidence that the labs I was applying to were worth my time and effort. I trusted the opinions of the experienced PIs in my network and balanced this by talking to people who were working or who had worked in the labs of interest. It’s important to get a range of opinions from multiple sources to get a balanced sense of the lab environment. Almost every lab will have someone in it that isn’t completely happy, but you’d prefer to avoid the labs where everyone is miserable. Likewise, it helped me to feel more confident if people offered up specifics of what they liked about a PI and their lab but struggled to come up with critiques.
Apply to work with younger PIs whose careers are just taking off.
This was some of the less conventional advice that I found was the most valuable. Everyone knows the PIs who have won the big prizes and who have made headlines, but sometimes these PIs have already reached the peak. Instead, aim to find PIs and labs that are just taking off. Being the postdoc whose work helps make a PI famous will help your career more than just having your name associated with someone who made the headlines 15 years ago. Also, this will likely reduce the competition you might have for a position since more people apply to the labs of history-making scientists. But this advice comes with a caveat: newly hired PIs can be inexperienced in managing a lab, mentoring postdoc and writing grants. Seek out PIs who have moved beyond the cusp of “brand new” and have just started to makes names for themselves.
Apply to your favorite labs first, but have back-ups in mind.
You will apply to more labs than you will receive offers. That’s just the reality of science funding. No matter how good an applicant you are, if you’re applying to good labs, there will be times they have no room or funding to take on an additional scientist. Expect to get no response from about half of the labs you apply to, and a “thank you, but no” response from another quarter. If you are a stronger applicant, you might get better results. With some labs, I had to be a bit more persistent by sending follow-up emails with additional details as to why I was particularly interested in their lab. After applying to another lab, I took advantage of a common network contact to get my application noticed. Persistence is something I have found pays off in a city with lots of important labs. People in Boston have become accustomed to ignoring emails, so sometimes a more forward approach works in your favor and shows the PI you have what it takes to survive the culture of a competitive lab.
Lead with a professional foot.
Don’t underestimate this tip. When I applied to labs, I kept the email itself brief, but attached a formal cover letter, CV, and a copy of my most recently submitted manuscript. Even if you are the most laid-back person and you know the PI has a similar personality, it helps to lead with a professional foot. In your first correspondences, use the title “Dr.” when addressing the PI, even if some of the formalities get dropped in your follow-up emails.
With these basic tips, I was able to get good responses from the labs that were the most valuable to me, and I felt like I avoided applying to labs where I wouldn’t be happy. Conveying confidence went a long way as well, even if I felt unsure of myself in the beginning. In the end, I found a place in an up-and-coming lab at Harvard Medical School under a supportive PI, and I couldn’t be happier to be closer to home in Boston, MA.