April Science Shorts: How to Find a Postdoc Position

10:45:00 AM

Alison Gilchrist, 1st year graduate student in Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology

For the April Fools’ Day Science Shorts, the Biofrontiers Science Alliance mixed it up a bit (without taking the opportunity to play pranks on their unsuspecting audience). Instead of hosting a series of brief talks, BFSA invited three post docs from different CU Boulder departments to answer questions about the process of finding postdoctoral positions. Tess Eidem, Iris Levin and Joseph Grim all had informative and personal answers to questions posed by the audience. And not a single fake snake was released from a can!

The first question they addressed was how each postdoc found his or her current position. Tess, currently in Dr. Jim Goodrich’s lab, mentioned the NSF Grant Finder, with the astute observation that it’s easier to obtain a position in a lab with active grant funding. She also pointed out a useful feature—by finding the grant her PI had won and clicking “Find Similar Grants,” she could find professors working in a related field to her own research and browse through those results for interesting opportunities.

Joe, who is interested in biomaterials and a chemistry-focused approach to answering biological questions, talked about his interview process and the hard choice he had to make in choosing a postdoc lab—ultimately deciding on Dr. Kristi Anseth’s lab because the social atmosphere of the lab appealed to him more than his second choice. That’s right, Boulder’s renowned work-life balance wins again.   

Iris, currently in Dr. Rebecca Safran’s lab in the EBIO department, described her successful application for an NSF Postdoctoral Fellowship prior to accepting a postdoc position. This allowed her to join the lab of her choice without worrying as much about whether the lab had a secure line of funding for prospective postdoctoral fellows. She stressed an important point--during the application process, NSF Fellowship Programs like to see that your proposed postdoctoral research is going to be different from your graduate work. At the end of the day, funding agencies like the NSF seek to develop well-rounded scientists.

When asked at what point during your PhD you should start looking for a post doc position, all three had the same response: early! The consensus was you should definitely be looking during your last two years, but keep notes throughout your PhD about who you might like to work with next--and keep in touch with those people! As Joe said, “I thought I would know for sure by the end of five years who I would want to work with… but that was definitely not the case.” Although you may not have just one choice, it helps to have a sense of the field you want to enter and a list of people you already know you would like to work with. So, as we’ve been learning since grade school, don’t procrastinate!

Another point of consensus was the importance of talking to the prospective lab’s postdocs and graduate students, as well as researching the paths of past trainees. It’s crucial to get all the dirty details about how the lab runs and whether people enjoy coming to work, but it’s equally important to look at where past staff have ended up. During grant application reviews, reviewers often look at whether or not the PI’s postdocs have gone on to academic positions (versus industry jobs), and that can affect your own grant’s success. Unfair? Maybe. But it’s important to consider future career opportunities for post-doctoral positions as they tend to be stepping-stones to more permanent positions.

What about government post docs, you ask? Well, somebody in the audience asked too. Tess mentioned a friend who is currently working at the NIH and seems happy enough—although as anybody who’s ever visited the DMV knows, bureaucracy can’t be avoided when it comes to government-supervised activities. Imagine waiting 6 months after your nanodrop breaks to be able to use it again—not because it’s still broken, but because changing the software on the computer requires a tax document-worthy pile of paperwork.

All three post-docs had a parting shot:

Tess: “It is what you make it.”  In other words—nobody’s pushing you anymore! Push yourself and do the work to get something great.

Iris: “It is most important to have a PI in your corner.” Choose somebody who has your best interests at heart--you aren’t just cheap labor, this is your career! Find somebody who knows that and will fight for you.

Joe: “It can take a year to get from first draft to publication.” Plan around your output; make sure you have something to show for your work. 

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