“Put Your Best Foot Forward” – Tips for the Postdoc Interview and Choosing a Lab

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

 

Photo by Jes

Photo by Jes

The postdoc interview is an exciting time at the end of a graduate student’s career. Not only does it signify that you’re almost finished with graduate school and are taking the next step in your career, but it is also an opportunity to present yourself as an expert in your scientific field of interest. The time in your career that you choose to apply and interview for postdoctoral positions is variable. Some students apply six months to a year before their anticipated graduation date, which allows plenty of time to ensure a position and gives your postdoc advisor time to secure funding if needed. However, there are plenty of success stories in securing a postdoctoral fellowship after defending and graduating from the PhD program. Deciding on when to apply for postdoctoral positions should be discussed with your thesis advisor and additional faculty mentors. It should also be noted that although you are being interviewed to determine if you would be a beneficial member to the lab, you are interviewing the lab as well. Below are some tips to help prepare you for the interview as well as deciding on the lab that is the best fit for you.

 

  1. Prepare your talk. During your interview, you will be expected to present a talk on the research you are currently undertaking in your graduate laboratory. These talks generally last an hour or more; therefore, preparing a 45-minute presentation should be sufficient to cover all of the material as well as leave time for questions. Make sure you tailor your talk according to your audience. For example, if you are interviewing in a new field, more background information may be required. Make sure to practice your talk multiple times with your graduate lab as well as others in the department. Below are some tips for preparing your talk.
  • Make an outline for your talk. This will allow you to organize your thoughts and make sure that the story flows well. Your talk can be divided into three sections—the introduction, main data section, and final models and conclusions. In the introduction, make sure to put the biological problem in perspective and give the audience the information they need to understand the data. When presenting your data, make sure your audience knows what you did, why you did it, and what it means. At the end of the talk, it is important to bring the data together in order to create the big picture. Include what you are doing next to wrap things up and the implications your data have for the field.
  • Prepare your slides. Your slides should be carefully made and checked for errors in spelling. Taking the time to beautify your presentation is worth the effort, as this will give a nice impression to your future lab and may indicate that you pay attention to detail.
  • Practice your talk. Not only should you practice your talk to yourself, but also with your labmates as well as others outside of your field. Your talk should be rehearsed, but try to avoid sounding robotic. You will most likely be interrupted during your talk for questions, and knowing how to transition back into your talk after a question will be important. In addition, you can video or voice record your mock talks to understand the parts of your presentation you are least comfortable with, as well as ensure you don’t miss any comments from your peers on your talk. Make sure that you leave enough time after your practice talk to make changes so that you will be able to practice in front of an audience again before your interview.
  1. Read the papers from the lab. Once you have scheduled a date for your interview with the lab, the PI usually sends an itinerary for your visit. Included in this itinerary is a list of the people in the lab whom you will be meeting with. Take time in the weeks before your interview to make sure you are familiar with the projects that any current lab members have published. This will allow you to ask insightful questions about those projects when you meet them. Also keep in mind that papers recently published are about six months to a year behind what the lab is currently working on. During the time after a PI publishes a paper, it is also possible that the lab may have taken a slightly different direction in research focus.
  1. Prepare questions to ask the PI and lab members. Besides your talk, this is probably one of the most important parts of the interview. Make sure you have noted all of the questions that you want to ask the PI and the members of the lab to ensure you know what is expected of you as a postdoc and what the lab dynamic will be like. When meeting with the PI, keep in mind the goals and training you would like to achieve as a postdoc. It is also important to be as honest as possible with the PI during your interview. If you have a desire to enter industry after your postdoc, make sure to mention that and see how the PI reacts. Below are a list of some questions you can ask PIs when you meet them individually and at lunch with lab members.

Questions to ask PIs:

  • What is their philosophy of a postdoc? What are their expectations of their postdocs?
  • What is the general training plan for postdocs in their lab? Do they meet regularly with their postdocs?
  • What is the average length of time postdocs stay in the lab? Are the postdocs able to find faculty positions after leaving or do they usually do another postdoc?
  • Do any of the postdocs enter industry, policy, patent, or government positions afterward?
  • Do they encourage postdocs to apply for fellowships? If a fellowship is not obtained, will they be able to fund you for the length of your postdoc?
  • Do they allow lab members to write their own papers? Will they give you the opportunity to peer review papers with them?
  • How often does the lab have group meetings? Are there combined group meetings or journal clubs with other labs?
  • How often does the lab attend conferences? Are lab members given the opportunity to give talks in addition to posters?
  • Are there teaching opportunities for postdocs and is the PI supportive of postdocs enhancing their teaching skills?
  • Are postdocs allowed to take projects and reagents generated with them to start their own lab? Will the PI plan on competing with postdocs who leave their lab?
  • Would you be able to speak with those who have left the lab?

Questions to ask lab members:

  • What is it like working with the PI? Are they available for help and questions?
  • What is the lab dynamic like?
  • What advice would they give a new person joining the lab that they wish they’d known before starting?

 

  1. Choose your lab. Once you have returned from your interview, send a thank-you note or email to the PI. Then you should write a note to yourself about your first impression of the lab. After completing all of the interviews, it will be important to compare and contrast all of the labs you met with. One way to do this is to fill out a chart similar to the one below and rank the labs to help make your decision.

 

Lab #1 Lab #2 Lab #3
Location/Environment
Publication History
Lab Atmosphere/Size
Availability/Mentor Style
Funding
Overall Ranking

 

Most labs will send an offer a few weeks after the interview if they didn’t outright offer the position to you. If you decide that you would like to join a lab and have yet to receive an offer, contact the PI and note that you enjoyed your interview, why you would like to join their lab, and that you would like to work for them if the position is still available.

 

The most important part of the interview process is to try and enjoy yourself. Of course, it will be stressful as you are trying to put forth your best face and make an impression. However, this is also a time to learn about the exciting research in different laboratories, as well as an opportunity to assert yourself as an expert in your current field to show your academic growth.

 

Do you have additional tips for preparing for a postdoc interview or choosing a lab? Let us know in the comments!

 

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

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