Postdoc’s guide to choosing the right lab
After completing my PhD in 2014 at Duke University in Durham, NC, I stayed an additional year to complete a paper and seek a postdoctoral position. The first step in my process was deciding what I wanted to do with my career, so I could find a lab that would help me get there. It can be difficult to answer this question because you really need to know yourself and think about what you want. I was a little apprehensive about making such a strong statement about my career – a sentiment I think is shared by many graduate students. But, I decided that I wanted to try to stay on the academic path, so I needed to find a postdoctoral position that would support me and help prepare me to eventually become a group leader.
The next step in my process was to broadly identify the type of field I wanted to work in and the techniques, system and organism I wanted to learn. Several people advised me to change one or two of these choices in relation to my doctoral work, which was on the biology of yeast cells. While I really appreciate having experience in multiple areas and techniques, I don’t think this change is absolutely necessary. I have seen many post-docs develop successful careers without changing paths. Again, this requires personal reflection to really identify the areas, techniques, and systems that interest you. I also discussed my options with my thesis supervisor, Daniel Lew, and my lab colleagues. I read a lot of articles to get an idea of the different areas. In the end, I decided to continue working with yeast but to adopt a more biochemical approach.
I then compiled a list of possible labs by reading articles and browsing university and institute websites. At this point, my partner and I had decided that we would like to live in Europe, as it would be a great opportunity to move somewhere else and experience a different way of life. I prioritized labs in Europe, but included many in the US as well.
The hardest part was making a shortlist. In addition to considering the research direction and location of each lab, I also discussed with my thesis supervisor and my thesis committee the reputation of the institutions and labs I chose. I also received some advice at this point that I really encourage all potential postdocs to consider: go to a lab with the intention of learning their field and the techniques in which they specialize. Don’t try to learn a completely different technique that is tangentially related to the main work of the lab – I’ve seen this derail many postdocs.
I applied to eight labs via cold email: four labs in the US and four in Europe. The cover letter (body of the email) is really important – think carefully about what you want to say and personalize it. I had four initial half-hour Skype interviews, then I was invited to three in-person interviews, which took place in Geneva, Switzerland, London and Edinburgh, UK. I arranged to combine these last two locations in one trip, and the labs covered the costs.
The postdoctoral interview
I was intimidated by the prospect of going to interviews alone, especially as a young woman. I experienced a culture shock on my first trip, I was completely confused by the Geneva public transport system, even though I had inquired beforehand. Then my Airbnb host thought I was arriving in the morning instead of evening (I was using a 12 hour clock instead of a 24 hour clock) so I had to wait a long time outside. Everything worked out in the end. My Airbnb host and lab hosts helped me navigate the city and enjoy it.
Some of the other experiences I’ve had on my travels have been much more positive – I loved all the fresh food and restaurants. Also, the conversations about life as a postdoc were different. Someone really laughed when I asked about health care and insurance because it’s a completely different system in European countries compared to the United States. Despite all these differences, as soon as I entered the Geneva laboratory for the interview, I felt more at ease. Science is pretty universal, and I found I could easily fall into conversations about science with people there.
In all my interviews, I gave a seminar on my doctoral research. Usually people from my host lab attended, as well as people from other labs in the department. Then I met one-on-one with the lab manager and other lab members. Sometimes I would meet other faculty members or people who ran basic facilities. Often, I would have a meal or two with current students and postdocs and take a comprehensive tour of the facilities and campus.
I have found that giving a really good seminar presentation makes a big difference. In my experience, your interviewers don’t expect you to know everything about their research, but they want to make sure you know yours well – that you can answer questions about it, and that you’re engaged. . Also, make sure you read the most recent papers from their lab and that you are familiar enough with the basic ideas of their research focus, so you can have a good conversation about it.
Try to stay calm, even if it’s just showing on the outside. I always get nervous before an interview, but you have to find what works for you to get through those nerves.
One thing that helped me was finding a private space before the interview started (usually an empty bathroom or room) and opening my arms wide. It helped me open up my body language and pretend I wasn’t freaking out inside. Then, in general, I calmed down at the beginning of the interview and as my mind became interested in the content of the seminar or the conversation.
Make the right choice
In the end, I received two offers and opted for John Diffley’s laboratory at the Francis Crick Institute in London. During my interview, I had great conversations with John and the other postdocs, which was important to me. I wanted to find people I could talk about science with productively and comfortably and have a supportive rather than competitive environment. I had had bad experiences before joining my thesis lab, and I wanted to make sure that didn’t happen again.
I could imagine how I would grow as a scientist in John’s lab and eventually gain independence. When you’re on an academic career, that’s a big part of the experience – becoming independent, designing your own projects, and looking to the future in terms of setting up your own lab one day.
About the establishment
In addition to reading articles to identify potential postdoc labs, I relied on institution and lab websites for information. I think many institutions and labs could attract more postdocs by improving their websites – a good online presence allows people to find out more about a lab and decide if they could fit in.
I also think that institutions should offer longer employment contracts. Science is tough and it takes time to release data and prepare for your next career steps. I have heard of some institutions that use rolling one-year contracts, which can be stressful and offers no job security to a postdoc. I am pleased that the Francis Crick Institute is offering a four-year contract with the possibility of a two-year extension. It gave me time to post articles and prepare for my next career change. I am now in a great position and plan to open my own lab as a group leader next year.
The author declares no competing interests.