Negotiating the Transition: From Student to Postdoc

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The most common question that graduate students have when preparing to become a postdoc is, “How do I find the right postdoc position?” It is like living in a misty forest where nothing is clear. The summary below is a result of a panel discussion sponsored by the Early Careers Committee to help address that question. The panelists were postdoctoral fellows who shared their views and experiences on how to look for a good lab and be a successful postdoc.
(Notes prepared by Pooja Gupta of the Early Careers Committee)

  • When are you supposed to finish and leave your PhD? How do you negotiate the startup date?

Most graduate schools have graduation deadlines and dates for spring, summer and fall semesters. Everything is generally well defined in their  graduation packets. The startup date depends entirely upon when you complete your graduation. You can start any time within one year, depending on the new PI’s comfort level.

  • How long is the transition time once you become a postdoc to settle into a new lab?

It may take almost 6-8 months to get settled in the lab. Initially, the transition might seem easy, but the balance between different people and work can be hard to negotiate. It will also vary based on the new lab’s environment as well as any training that occurs. Don’t be surprised if initially it feels like being a PhD student all over again.

  • How to choose a lab?

People, environment, and interaction all play equal roles in the selection selection process. Talk with the students rather than the advisor about what it is like to be in the lab. Traveling to diff erent conferences to interact with people is good, so check to see if the PI will fund travel. Also check what projects are well-funded. Start looking at least one year in advance and take your time.

  • How straightforward can you be about asking questions about money? Can you take your projects with you?

Contact a  number of people who have already worked with the PI of interest to seek their guidance about their experiences in the lab and with the PI. You can talk about money issues once you decide to join the lab, but generally there is less room for  negotiation for the salary, although NIH lists a salary minimum. It depends entirely on your graduate PhD advisor whether you can take your projects with you.

  • Are people honest in telling details?

Yes, people are generally honest, and they provide detailed information. Talking  one-on-one with people working in the lab is important.

  • What is better, working in small or big labs?

Depends on the type and amount of interaction you want to have with the PI. Also, if you want to work on a well-defi ned project and do not want to put a great deal of time into them, then you need to choose a lab that does research that could be done on a smaller budget and is not very competitive, otherwise it will be hard for you to keep up with labs that have many graduate students and postdocs working in them.

  • Is it common to apply for fellowships for postdocs? How much is expected in terms of teaching and time goals?

More fellowships are available for the fi rst year of a postdoc than are available for subseqent postdoctral years, so apply to those while you can. Applying for fellowships entirely depends on the PI’s expectation and her/his grant availability. It is still good to apply in a well-funded lab. Teaching is not expected, but mentoring undergrads and sometimes graduate students often is. If you are interested in teaching you should try to find a lab where the advisor is okay with you taking time away from research to develop your teaching skills. If one is really interested in teaching then there is outreach school teaching, too. Time goal: One paper every 12-18 months is a good goal.

  • How many postdoc positions should we apply to?

Apply to all the ones that fit with your expectations and decide among them later. Identify labs that interest you at different institutions. Contact potential postdoctoral mentors and arrange an interview. Do not focus on a specific position and try to not be too selective in the first round of applications.

  • Research trajectories and expectations in graduate school vs. postdoc lab?

There is no outside pressure or time  pressure as there is in graduate school. Publication in 12-18 months in a postdoc is considered good in most labs.

  • How much of an issue is not having a publication when applying for postdoc positions?

Depends to whose lab you are applying. Your graduate advisor’s contact helps. When applying to new labs, send the recommendation letters immediately.

  • Postdoc vs. industrial job and salary?

Be certain whether you want to be in academics or in industry. One cannot compare the two. Salaries are always higher in industry, but the types of projects are also different.

  • Technicalities in applying for jobs and what do you talk about in the cover letter?

Personal interaction with the potential PIs during the meeting helps. Send cover letter and CV by email and in hard copy. In the cover letter tell the potential  postdoctoral mentor why you are interested in her/his work and what expertise you have developed as a grad student. Describe what you have done so far, your skills and interests in learning. It is important to mention your expertise and what you would bring to the lab. Read papers on the projects in the lab in which you are interested. Extracting information from their publications helps at the time of interview with the PI and the lab. Personalizing the cover letter also helps.

  • Applying to the not-tenured PI?

Make sure that the funding is available for next 2-3 years at least. Check the previous publications of the PI, it gives you an idea how good the PI is and what are his/her chances of getting tenured.

  • How to approach to an advertised position?

Look whether you fit the job description or not. Fifty percent of the time the jobs advertised are already taken so one has to keep that into consideration. If you fi t the job description in part, and you think that you can still apply, then a well-written cover letter mentioning how you can be benefi cial to the project with your skills may help.

  • Other questions that one must keep in mind at the time of interviewing are:

Would the PI help pay for my moving  expenses? What are the benefi ts and environment for postdocs in the department and the institution? How is the life in the city/town where the institution is located? Also, be sure to make good connections with people in the lab—these are the people you may be working with in the future, and they have fi rsthand knowledge about what it’s really like to work with this advisor. Pay close attention to the attitude people in the lab have toward the PI.

  • Remember to follow up with a thank you note or email after returning from the interview.