Choosing a Postdoc Lab

Current Dartmouth College Postdoc Association President Lorna Young is in her fourth year as a postdoc. She moved to the US after completing her Masters and PhD in host-pathogen interactions at Newcastle University, England and is now working on cell motility in The Higgs Lab at Dartmouth. Lorna was dedicated in her pursuit of the right lab for her work, and although she admits she was naïve about the search process, and recognizes some things she could have done differently, her choice turned out to be a great decision and a good fit for her needs. Here, she outlines some tips, hints, and things to think about if you're considering which lab to begin your career as a postdoc.

"How did you choose your postdoc lab?" This is one of the most frequent questions I get asked by final year graduate students. I knew I wanted to expand my knowledge in a slightly different research field and I wanted to move to a new country, and so I started my search from that perspective. I read a lot of papers (mainly ones that I became interested in during my PhD) and made a list of potential labs from papers I found most interesting. A choice I now appreciate: my current supervisor's writing skill, which attracted me to the lab in the first place, is now something I'm learning from him and brings up a key point to remember: you are still learning during your postdoc!

When you're starting to think about where you might enjoy working as a postdoc, two important questions to ask yourself are: 1. Why are you doing a postdoc? and 2. What do you want to get out of it?

Why are you doing a postdoc?
Do you have an ultimate career goal? Are you doing a postdoc to -hopefully- stay on the academic route, or are you doing it for a job in industry, teaching, or keeping your options open? If you don’t know what you want, that’s okay, but remember a postdoc is not easy, especially if you want to be productive with your time -- and being productive (publishing) is key.

If you are pretty sure you want to stay in academia, choosing the right postdoc is very important. Get advice from faculty members, or postdocs that you know. Advice from people who’ve done it is always useful. Personally, I may ask too many questions, but I think that is better than none!

If you think you are unlikely to want to stay in academia, be open with the PI and discuss this, they may or may not be okay with this. Remember that, for them, publications and the research are top priorities: this is their livelihood! However, not wanting to continue in academia doesn’t mean you are not suitable for the lab. It's important to be honest and open from the outset so both sides can make a fair decision.

Outside the lab, what resources will be available for you at the host university and in the local area? Is this a place where you will be happy? Look at the whole picture! It's also useful to find out what ex-alumni have gone on to do in the labs you’re interested in. Discuss your post-postdoc career openly with the PI and keep your options open!

A postdoc can be quite challenging, and I think it possibly requires more personal determination and commitment than a PhD (especially if your PhD is on the shorter side). So having a good reason to do a postdoc, keeping an end goal in sight, is always helpful when times get tough.

What do you want to get out of it?
This is a bigger question, which encompasses some points mentioned above, but you should ask yourself how much of a challenge you are ready for as a postdoc. Useful questions to think about include:

  • Do you want to change research fields?
  • Do you want to learn a certain technique?
  • Do you want to live in a new place/country?
  • Do you want a lab environment similar to your PhD, or different?
  • Do you want the PI to be hands on or off?

Overall, I would recommend joining a lab that is a little different to your current one. A postdoc is a training experience in many ways and you are expected to learn new things. This can include all of the points I list above. Make the most of this learning opportunity.

Of course, you probably won’t want to change fields completely, but broadening your knowledge is definitely not a bad thing.  Find out what techniques the lab specializes in; is this useful for you, and what can you add to this? Does the lab collaborate often, and is this important to you?

Depending on your situation, you may be able to move quite far from where your PhD institution is. I would say if you can, do. As we move our ideas and knowledge are shared more easily. But remember: a postdoc can be tough so be ready to be independent - my big girl pants have been required on a number of occasions!

What do you want from the lab environment itself? Think about where you’ve worked in the past, and imagine if you’d like that again. It varies greatly from lab to lab! This goes too for the PI mentor approach. Personally I prefer a PI who is available and regularly present. Other things to bear in mind: how regularly does the lab have meetings and journal club? Are you expected to present frequently? Are you expected to mentor other students? Are you able to teach?

Finding the right lab
This can be tricky as you don’t have the pleasure of rotating in the lab before you join, which I know some PhD students do. Use the time as a graduate student to get to know labs virtually and remotely: What does their webpage look like? Do they have a Twitter account? These points are not essential, but it can hint toward what sort of lab you are joining.

Go to conferences! They are great for so many reasons, but especially when you’re thinking about a postdoc; you can seek out the labs you’re interested in beforehand and stop off at their posters to discretely find out what the lab members are like (plus of course their research). Once you have a better idea as to where you might want to go, this is also a great opportunity to find out more about their work, and possibly how the PI behaves with their students. Take advantage of these opportunities! If you make a contact with someone at a conference, follow-up with a “nice to meet you” email as you never know when you might need to re-connect and don't forget the people in the lab are just as important as the PI and the work itself.

After writing this, I realize that there are many parts I could cover in more detail here, but I hope this gives you some ideas as to how to go about choosing a lab. I leave you with some final key points:

  1. Think about WHY you are doing it
  2. Think about what you ideally want out of the lab
  3. Think about what makes you happy (good science, a nice place to live, your family/friends, a new adventure, etc.)

Stay tuned for Part II:  Questions to ask your prospective lab.