“Oh, the places you will go” – Tips for choosing a postdoc lab

Photo by Jeremy Price.

Photo by Jeremy Price.

*This is part one of a four-part series on the transition from PhD student to postdoctoral fellow.Here are parts two and three.*

Deciding on my postdoctoral field of interest was one of the most exciting moments toward the end of my PhD studies. At the end of my fourth year of graduate school I realized that I didn’t want to stay directly in that scientific field of interest (although I still love reading papers related to that field) and I needed to find a good scientific problem that I wanted to study for the rest of my life. However, there was not a lot of information available in terms of how to change fields or change model organisms, both of which I did. Below are some tips that I utilized, which may be beneficial to choosing a postdoctoral lab that would best fit your scientific interests.

  1. Mentally commit to the idea of a postdoc. The decision to pursue a postdoctoral fellowship should not be taken lightly or as a means to delay the process of finding a “real” job. Some newly minted PhDs will enter a postdoctoral fellowship because they want to eventually establish their own laboratory at an academic or research institution. Others seek out a postdoc position to gain new technical skills before applying for an industry or alternative career path. Some choose to enter a postdoc position to learn about a new field or utilize a different model organism. Regardless of your reason, make sure to keep the goals of your postdoctoral fellowship a priority during your search for a postdoc position.
  1. Decide if you want to stay in the same field as your PhD. Although I didn’t stay in the same scientific field, many people choose to do so. There are both advantages and disadvantages for staying in the same field in which you obtained your doctoral degree. Some of the advantages are that you are intimate with the topic and the history of the field, you have a head start and vast knowledge of the literature, and you are familiar with the top labs that seek answers to the remaining “big questions.” The main disadvantage that comes with staying in your field is that funding agencies may be less likely to fund you due to the “lack of training potential.” However, if this is the path you take, there are many ways to display scientific growth. Here are a few tips:
  • Talk to your advisor. It is imperative that you talk to your graduate advisor regarding your field of interest and whether he/she sees it flourishing in the next 25 years. Ask about the unanswered questions left in the field and whether you could establish your own lab and be successful in this field. In addition, you should discuss your research interests in the field and assure your advisor that you will not be a competitor in the future.
  • Establish collaborators. Collaboration with other labs at different institutions is not only exciting, but is also a way to learn new techniques. If you’re serious about staying in the same field, it will be important to be open to new ways to answer questions.
  • Consider changing model organisms. If your graduate work heavily depended on one system, a change could signal that you’re open to using the best organism to answer your specific question. Each organism has its advantages and disadvantages, so it will be important to compare and contrast when deciding on a postdoc lab (discussed further below).
  1. Read reviews and utilize other resources. My personal favorite review journal is Annual Reviews; however, a simple Google search with “review” in the search bar along with your topic of interest will bring up reviews and editorials from additional journals (e.g. Nature Reviews, Cell, Science). In addition, all online journals have electronic Table of Contents (eToCs) that you can sign up for. When you sign up for eToCs, the journal allows you to put in your preferences for how often you would like to receive them. This allows exposure to many fields, which is informative if you decide to change your scientific field of study. Another tip is to sign up for Pubmed email alerts on topics that you are interested in. Furthermore, Cell provides Snapshots, which are condensed reviews in a picture format. If you’ve decided to enter a new field, reading reviews is a good way to absorb the history and major findings. Reviews provide many references to the primary literature and may help identify potential postdoc labs that are focused on answering the big questions in that field.
  1. Go to seminars and conferences. As this should be an integral part of PhD student life, exposure to new scientific fields and techniques is important regardless of whether you decide to stay in your PhD field or venture into a new one. Go to seminars at your university and surrounding universities. In addition, attend talks and posters at conferences outside of your current field of study. If anything, this is a way to determine which fields of study you’re interested in. Enhancing your breadth of scientific knowledge can improve your critical thinking skills and may give you an idea or “light bulb moment” later in your career.
  1. Decide on a model organism. There are many model organisms/systems to choose from such as cell culture, human tissue, Drosophila, mice, Xenopus, C. elegans, zebrafish, and yeast, as well as many non-traditional models with their own unique uses. Each model organism has its advantages and disadvantages; however, knowing these aspects can open multiple avenues to questions you may wish to answer during your postdoc. When considering which model organism to use for your postdoctoral work, determine the types of questions you want to address, consider the tools and resources available for that organism/system, consider the generation time for experiments, and determine the financial advantages and disadvantages for using and maintaining them should you choose to use this organism for your own independent research studies. 
  1. Talk to people in the field. In addition to your graduate advisor, you should also seek advice from others in the field and your department. If you have narrowed down your postdoctoral field of interest, talk to other faculty members who may be experts at your university about their opinions on the field and how they view the research in the labs that you are considering. In addition, they may be able to recommend labs that you had not previously considered.
  1. Decide on labs to apply to. Once you’ve decided on your field of interest the next step is to decide which labs you’re going to apply to. Below are a few ways to prioritize the labs that you are interested in.
  • Environment can be an important factor in ensuring high productivity. For example, if lengthy periods of cold weather and snow make you depressed, a postdoctoral fellowship in Alaska may not be the best place to pursue your postdoc. In addition, consider your postdoc salary and the cost of living in the city you will relocate to. Many institutions and universities supply salary information for potential candidates. A quick search online regarding apartment costs and general costs of living can provide insight to your financial status for the next four to five years.
  • Institution and department. Not only is choosing the lab important, but the institution and department the lab is located in can make or break a postdoc. Most institutions have postdoctoral associations or unions that ensure that postdocs receive the best training and living opportunities available; however, some schools do not. In addition, it is imperative to choose an institution that will train and allow you to accomplish your future career goals. You can talk to your potential postdoctoral mentor about these things during your interview.
  • Publication history. If you’re determined to be in a lab that only publishes in high impact journals, this may be a high criterion for you. However, it will be important to determine how long it takes to get that high impact paper published. For example, if you are trying to obtain an academic position, publishing one high impact paper for your whole postdoctoral career may not be a sufficient publication history. Another aspect of the lab’s publication history is to look at how often the lab publishes, the types of journals, and how often those papers are cited. Having multiple research papers in journals with a slightly lower impact factor that are carefully performed, give solid results, and are highly cited may be more beneficial in the future.In fact, many scientists now question the value of impact factors in assessing science or scientists and stress that the work itself is more important than where it is published (see www.ascb.orghttps://sfdora.org//).
  • Lab size and trainee success rates. One final aspect in narrowing down potential labs is to determine what type of lab environment you would like to work in. Some people work well in large labs where postdocs are the majority. These types of labs often have many different personalities and can provide a rich and fast-paced environment. However, small labs can provide an intimate and collaborative setting. In addition, you should not only look at where postdoctoral trainees from the lab end up, but also see the career paths PhD students in that lab pursued. Usually this information can be obtained from the alumni section of the lab’s website if they have one. In addition, resources such as LinkedIn or ResearchGate can provide insight to this question. Recently, NIGMS published a letter with useful links to institutions that supply this information. If you’re interested in going into industry after your postdoc, it may be nice to see former postdoctoral fellows from the lab in industry positions. Alternatively, if you’re interested in pursing an academic career and only one of twenty postdocs obtained a faculty position, this lab may not be the best choice for you.

Hopefully these tips are helpful in choosing the lab in which you’d like to pursue your postdoctoral career. Choosing a postdoctoral lab is one of the biggest decisions you can make for your career. Although it can be stressful, it was an exciting time in my career.

Do you have tips for choosing a good postdoc lab? Please leave them below in the comments section!


About the Author:

Lesley Weaver is interested in understanding how multiple cells within a tissue communicate with each other to regulate cell proliferation and differentiation. Her doctoral studies were performed in the laboratory of Claire Walczak at Indiana University-Bloomington where she studied how mitotic kinesins are regulated to influence spindle morphology. She is currently a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Daniela Drummond-Barbosa at The Johns Hopkins University where they utilize the Drosophila ovary to understand how inter-organ and systemic signals influence oogenesis. Email: lweave11@jhu.edu