How to Pick a Postdoc Position

Jan. 4, 2017

One of the challenges for any PhD candidate is to decide if they want to pursue a post-doctoral position after graduation.  This challenge can become more daunting when decisions need to be made about where (and under who) this post-doc should be conducted as well as the post-doctoral research topic.  However, it's important to know that you are not alone in making these types of decisions.  

We reached out to three relatively new post-docs, regarding their post-doc decisions.  Despite different backgrounds, they collectively agreed that it was critical to first determine what was important to them, such as:

  • Gaining new skills and experiences
  • Studying scientific topics that they were passionate about
  • Broadening their professional network
  • Geographical locations
  • Existing commitments, such as family and spouse

These factors and their importance played out differently for each of the three interviewed post-docs.   Here's what they had to say about their experiences: 

An Unconventional Post-Doc Yields New Skill Sets

Jessica M. Morrison, PhD
Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the lab of Dr. Noha Youssef
Oklahoma State University
The way that I came about my post-doc is a bit unorthodox, but I wouldn't change a thing. While I was pursuing my undergraduate education, I had the opportunity to work in a lab run by a company in the chemical industry. As time went on, and my education progressed, I found that working in an industrial setting suited me much better than academia.  I loved the fast-paced, constantly-changing, customer-driven, and collaborative atmosphere of industry, and I decided that after graduate school, I would pursue a permanent career in the area of chemical/ pharmaceutical/ biotech research and development.  Landing an industrial job can be difficult, however, and can often depend on your network of contacts.

Having a spouse complicated matters further.  My husband and I were both working towards our PhD's at Oklahoma State University, and I was due to finish a year ahead of him.   When thinking about permanent careers, we decided that moving to a large city with many companies should ensure that we both find appropriate jobs.  However, the question remained about what I was going to do during the year after my graduation until that of my husband.

Not wanting to leave for a new city without him, I explored my options here at OSU. While I was looking, my position actually found me! Dr. Youssef approached me about joining her lab for the short time that I would still be here. She had funding for a project that needed my expertise, and I had availability!  I was able to teach her lab many things about proteins, and in turn, they were able to teach me many things about genomics and microbial ecology.  In addition, I was able to mentor undergraduate students through research that would enable them to obtain peer-reviewed publications. Thus, I chose this post-doc because it would allow me to have a year to explore new areas of microbiology, as well as gain new skills and experiences, all of which would be of value when I started looking for a permanent job outside of academia.

Although my post-doc started out a bit unconventionally, if I had to do it all over again, I would choose the same exact path. Joining Dr. Youssef's lab has provided me with many opportunities and experiences that I would not have had if I simply moved directly from school into my career. The new skill sets that I have acquired during my post-doc have made me a more attractive candidate to industrial firms.   Looking back, I've realized that getting a post-doc (or any job) can really come down to the connections that you have made during your PhD research.  Thus, my advice to anyone thinking about a post-doc would be to remember that your graduate-school friends, colleagues, advisors, and professors are all part of a network that can help you find a good post-doc position.  My second piece of advice would be to find a lab and project that are different enough from your PhD research to allow you to gain new experiences and new skill sets, all of which will give you an advantage when looking to move on to a career.

Early Outreach Pays Off

Dipti Nayak, PhD
Postdoctoral Researcher in the lab of Dr. William W. Metcalf
The Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois
The decision to do a post-doc was primarily made while I was still working towards my PhD.  During this time, I was surrounded by lab mates working on a diverse range of research threads. This pushed me to appreciate and learn topics unrelated to the specific projects I was working on, giving me a better sense of my own research in the context of the "big-picture". Additionally, the collaborative, friendly environment in the lab made me feel at home. I grew to thoroughly enjoy the process of inquiry-based science, from formulating experiments to writing papers, and thus naturally gravitated towards the decision to do a postdoc.

During my PhD, I attended a Gordon Research Conference called "Molecular Basis of Microbial One-Carbon Metabolism" (often just referred to as the C1-meeting). Despite being intimidated and overwhelmed, I was extremely encouraged by the fact that even the most well-renowned professors stopped by my poster and provided thoughtful feedback. Over the course of the PhD, I really enjoyed attending these C1-meetings and found the C1 community friendly and extremely supportive of junior scientists like myself. So, while looking for potential post-doc topics, I tried to ensure that I'd still be working on some aspect of C1-metabolism and stay connected to this community.

I was forced to start thinking about post-doctoral positions towards the middle of the fourth year of my PhD, about a year or so before I defended my dissertation. This was primarily because my husband was getting ready to graduate and go on the academic job market. While it really didn't feel so at that time, making a decision about post-docs that early was immensely helpful for multiple reasons. First, the last few months of a PhD, leading up to the defense, are often extremely stressful, so having a post-doc lined up in advance definitely eases some of that pressure. Second, the protracted nature of the funding cycle is something one doesn't usually take into account: it often takes a year from the date of submission to receive funds for a research grant that is successfully funded through government agencies, like the DoE, NSF, or NIH.  Looking back, I now think that contacting potential post-doc mentors a year or so before you are ready to graduate: a) gives you sufficient time to formulate a project with their help, and simultaneously apply for independent funding and/or b) find out if they might have funding available for you when you are ready to start.

In regards to my husband, I was fortunate in that the two-body problem wasn't much of a hurdle in finding a post-doctoral position. Once my husband received a job offer that he was seriously interested in taking up, the chair of his home department at the University of Illinois helped me get in touch with Dr. William W. Metcalf, whose work on methanogens I was particularly interested in. I was extremely fortunate to receive funding from two different sources: the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois, as well as from the Simons Foundation through the Life Sciences Research Foundation.  In my post-doctoral research, I knew that I would still be working on a different aspect of C1-metabolism, thus staying connected to this community, while at the same time further expanding and diversifying my skill-sets.  I strongly believe that learning new skills, and potentially even venturing into entirely different areas of research, during a post-doc are probably some of the most important things to take into consideration while deciding on a topic/mentor irrespective of whether one chooses to move further in industry or academia.

Adaptation and Connections Help Advance Careers 

Carolina Berdugo Clavijo, PhD
Postdoctoral Researcher in Dr. Lisa Gieg lab
Petroleum Microbiology Research Group, University of Calgary
After I finished my PhD, it was time to decide what the next step in my professional career was.  I have always been interested in the applicability of microbiology in industry, specifically for remediating contaminated environments and improving industrial processes.  Thus, I felt that the obvious step was to land a job in an environmental consulting company or in the petroleum industry. While applying for jobs, I conducted informational interviews with many individuals from the industry, asking them about their jobs and experience in their field. This exercise helped me to gain an insight into how industry works and narrow down the type of jobs I could apply for.  With the low price of oil, however, industrial job opportunities in Alberta decreased dramatically. After a few months of unsuccessful job searching, I realized I had to look in another direction to attain my career goal. I contacted my former supervisor, Dr. Lisa Gieg, who at the time was looking for a post-doc to lead a research project on polymer biodegradation sponsored by an oil and gas services company.  It seemed like a perfect fit for both of us!  A few weeks later, I started working as a post-doc. Although my initial approach was to find a job in industry, a poor job market led me back to academia. Despite being off of my initial job path, this has ended up being a great opportunity to build new professional skills, which I believe will open other doors in my future.

The two approaches that would have been helpful for deciding what kind of job I wanted after my PhD are research and networking. I wish I had explored different options available after graduation (i.e. industrial and academic post-docs, industry jobs, research institutes) and had consulted professors, post-docs, lab mates and other academics while still in grad school. I believe it is very important to build strong relationships with the people around you: talk to them and ask about their professional experience. Those contacts might be very helpful for deciding what you want to do after graduation and they could also help you find your next job.  Lastly, I believe that the international experience is a great skill to have - if anybody has the chance to study or work abroad they should do it. The two most valuable skills the international experience has taught me is the ability to adapt to different scenarios and to approach a problem in different ways.  In the future, I would like to find a job in industry or within a research institute where I can investigate and apply different biotechnologies to help remediate contaminated sites. Microbiology, molecular biology and bioinformatics tools can be very helpful in industry for understanding and solving current and future environmental challenges 

In summary:

Every young-career microbiologist is their own unique situation.  This is because of existing commitments (such as with a family), what is most needed from a post-school position (for example, new skill sets or professional contacts), and what is wanted in regards to maintaining a work-life balance (such as the geographic location of the position).

The experiences of each of these young-career microbiologists suggest that performing a post-doc has allowed them to learn new skills that will translate well in their future careers, and network with new personnel.  This is not to say that a post-doc position is the best choice for everyone.  However, a properly-chosen position, location, and mentor can lead to a life-changing opportunity to grow as both a scientist and as a person.

Do you have any career questions? Email us with your questions and we might feature them in our next article!