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Dear Postdoc

What do you look for in a postdoctoral researcher?

A crucial aspect of setting up a lab is hiring the right people. I imagine this being the case with pretty much any start-up venture, yet having recently left the postdoc community myself, the task is more daunting than expected. First, personnel represent a large financial commitment. Seeing one's available funds disappear quickly on top of adding a salary commitment to the equation is unnerving. Moreover, a new person joining the lab will need an adjustment period as well as training. Therefore, a PI will have to allocate time for this in addition to an already hectic schedule. Finally, postdocs are highly motivated individuals with plans of their own for which they hope to receive the full support of their PI (rightfully so). As such, junior PIs who are still used to doing things themselves will have to cross a psychological barrier of handing over responsibility for certain projects to others. However, if successful, the rewards of having a motivated researcher in one’s lab are tremendous. Below are some features that a PI may be looking for in a postdoc.    

     •    Personality: Most of us like what we do and have fun doing it. To help create an enjoyable and stimulating work environment, a postdoc has to fit in the larger group and an easy-going personality or good adaptation skills will go a long way to accomplish this. Aside from the interview, a useful tool for the PI to help determine one’s personality is a well-written recommendation letter. Also, a postdoc should be able to work independently, take initiative, be inquisitive, and cannot be afraid to question ideas that (s)he or a colleague came up with. Since the best work comes from critical minds and extensive discussions, a postdoc is expected to rigorously evaluate projects and experimental results. 

     •    Background: Publication history is one way of getting a grip on someone’s background. However, a lack of publications does not mean that the postdoc candidate has not been working hard. Similarly, a stellar CV does not guarantee a stellar postdoc. Circumstances matter and they should be taken into account. As such, the trajectory of a candidate is just as important (if not more) as their publications. Moreover, a PI will be very interested to learn why a postdoc is interested in a particular lab. To this end, candidates should do their homework before going to an interview. 

     •    Skillset: Eagerness to learn new things reflects a high degree of motivation and should be rewarded by rigorous training in the new lab. The extent to which a postdoc candidate will get the opportunity to learn new approaches should be clearly delineated during the interview to avoid confusion at a later stage. Often, the skill of writing manuscripts and grants is overlooked and therefore, a PI should stimulate this training aspect. This last point is important because of the crucial nature of being able to present one’s work in an exciting fashion. Although writing is an ability that can be taught and learned, having a natural talent for story-telling or speaking in front of a group of people is immensely helpful.

     •    Future plans: Nowadays, finding a job in academia is challenging so discussing other professional paths early on in a scientific career is a must. There are plenty of interesting opportunities out there that do not involve setting up a university lab so a PI should motivate graduate students and postdocs to explore careers in industry, consulting, and administration, among others. PIs shine through the people that work for them so it is in the PIs interest to ensure the best career start possible for their graduates. 

Overall, a postdoc is a highly valued member of a research group and deserves all the support a PI can provide. Motivation, initiative, tenacity, and a critical mindset are key features for a successful career, whatever environment this may be in. Typically, an academic position results in hard work for little pay whereas positions outside of academia are more traditional in terms of working hours and the financial rewards may be superior. Yet, an academic job is usually very flexible and encourages continuous creativity and the exploration of new ideas and techniques. However, with the average duration of a biomedical postdoc now extending beyond seven years because of a dwindling number of available faculty positions and grant funds, alternative career planning is becoming more important and should not be regarded as a ‘failure’ to pursue the classical academic tenure-track pathway. To this end, graduate students and postdocs should keep an open mind while enjoying their work and as result, exciting opportunities will present themselves.

BIOGRAPHY:

Frank Bosmans, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Physiology

Dr. Bosmans received his BS and MS in Pharmaceutical sciences from K.U. Leuven in Belgium. After completing his Ph.D. work in Pharmaceutical sciences, he took a position at the NIH in the Molecular Physiology and Biophysics section as a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Dr. Kenton Swartz where he utilized peptide toxins from venomous animal to explore the structure and function of voltage-gated ion channels. In 2012 he accepted a position at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Physiology. Find out more about the Bosmans lab here.

When looking for a postdoctoral fellow for my laboratory, I would envision an individual who would be a leader in the lab. A postdoc is someone who can stimulate scientific discussions, actively engage in the bench-work, teach others experimental design and analysis, write papers and grants, and present the findings of their research. I think a postdoc helps establish the flow of the lab, both personally and scientifically. The postdoc is the person who probably answers the most questions in a day. Despite this, postdoctoral training is really a transition time – you are no longer a student, but not quite ready to be on your own. That means that you wear multiple hats. You must learn in your postdoc how to mentor more junior members of the lab, while still receiving mentorship from your PI throughout your postdoc. You may acquire some teaching experience, paper review experience, and grant writing, all in addition to developing a scientific project. Certainly, some labs are comprised of multiple postdocs, multiple graduate students, and maybe a lab manager. For my current climate, one or two postdocs would be a wonderful asset and complement to the research lab.

What are the most important things that I, as a PI, am looking for in a postdoc? There are certainly others, such as what experience you have in the field and when you finish(ed) your PhD (i.e., does your timing align with my timing?), but this should give you an idea of some thing I find to be most important.

1Are you going to fit in with the lab? The lab dynamic is very important for productivity and we try not to disrupt this. 

2Your recommendations. These weigh very heavily on my decision to bring you for an interview. Your references should know you well enough to write a complete letter for you (how are you in doing experiments, presenting your research, teaching others, what are your other interests)?

3Your publication record. This is critical, but I think it can’t be taken at face value. It is important for me to know how much you contributed as a student to the process of publishing a paper. A few examples:

   a.    Do you know what to include in the cover letter?
   b.    Were you part of the revision process?
   c.    Were you part of a collaborative team? 
   d.    Did you write the paper and have your PI edit it?

4Your funding history. In today’s climate, it has become increasingly difficult for everyone to get funding. Unfortunately for graduate students, that has translated to fewer and fewer graduate fellowships. However, I would still be interested in knowing if you’ve applied for any fellowships, if you’ve helped your PI with grant applications, what feedback you have received on your grant writing abilities, and if you’ve taken a grant writing course. My expectation would be that a postdoc should be writing fellowships within a year of joining the lab. These two items (publication history and grant writing) not only show me your productivity, but also show me about your skills as a writer.

5Your career goals. Clearly you should have some idea of what you want to do with your PhD when you are finished with your postdoc. However, only about 10% of PhDs in science go on to tenure-track academic positions. While careers outside of academia have been termed “alternative careers,” it’s really academia that is the alternate route. As your mentor, your postdoc advisor should help you seek out opportunities that best align with your career goals and future plans.

BIOGRAPHY:

Jenifer R. Prosperi, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

Dr. Prosperi received her BA from Miami University (Ohio) in Microbiology in 2000. In 2001, she entered graduate school in the inaugural class of the Integrated Biomedical Graduate Program (IBGP) at Ohio State University, where she completed her doctoral studies. She was awarded predoctoral fellowships through the Komen for the Cure and the Department of Defense Breast Cancer Research Program. Dr. Prosperi went on to pursue postdoctoral training at the University of Chicago in the Department of Surgery, where she was funded through the American Cancer Society. In the summer of 2012, she joined the faculty of Indiana University School of Medicine – South Bend in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. Dr. Prosperi's laboratory studies signaling pathways and the development of chemoresistance downstream of a tumor suppressor called adenomatous polyposis coli (APC) in breast cancer. Dr. Prosperi is currently looking for postdoctoral researchers interested in Cancer Biology to join her laboratory!

A talented and motivated post-doc is invaluable to a PI. Post-docs already have some experience in designing and performing experiments. He/she also has been exposed to scientific writing and figure design. Plus, post-docs are not pulled away from the laboratory by classes or exams. If the means are available, PIs are always looking for good post-docs (as I am right now…..). Dr. Brian has asked I touch upon various issues that arise when looking for a post-doc. 

1Personality: The words scientist and personality are traditionally thought never to exist in the same sentence without the words “lack of.” It is not a lack of personality, yet it is a different mentality. At minimum, I would like see that the post-doc candidate can co-exist with lab members and the PI with some level of respect. 

2Publication history: While publications are often viewed as “currency” for graduate students, a low number/impact of pubs is not a nail in the coffin. There are many circumstances that can affect a graduate student’s manuscript success. However, a solid publication record with at least 2 first author papers is an incredible plus for post-doc seekers. 

3Grant writing ability: This is not that high on my list. If you have written/received grants as a graduate student, it definitely helps, but I do not feel it is necessary. Some graduate students have yet to be exposed grant writing, but I feel if your goal is to stay in academia, then writing grants as a post-doc is essential.

4Recommendations: Traditionally, most recommendations are going to be positive. Unless the recommendation states glaring concerns or is written by a Nobel Prize winner telling me my career would be over if I deny the applicant, I don’t put too much weight on them.

5Where they came from: This is an interesting category. Obviously, candidates from well-known labs or institutions will have some advantage, but a candidate from a newer lab or smaller institution that has a solid publication record and interview will obviously be near the top of the list. 

6Skill set/experience: I would love candidates with experience in my field. As when joining any lab, there is a learning curve, but the steeper the better. There will always be a need for training (which is the goal for post-docs), but my hope would be the post-doc grasps things quickly and becomes more independent with time.

7Motivation: This is a no-brainer. You have to be motivated to succeed in a business with 90% failure. There is no typical day in science for graduate students and post-docs. You set experimental goals for the day/week and do what you can to achieve them. Whether it’s coming in early, coming in on weekends, or striking with the iron’s hot, if you can get the necessary experiments/writing/figures completed, that’s all that matters. However, a balanced post-doc is a happy post-doc. You need to find time for family, hobbies, and fun. That is why time management and focused motivation are critical for successful post-docs.

8Desire to stay in academia or transition out: This is not too important to me. If we can succeed in reaching the goals of the lab and of the post-doc, then the next step for the post-doc should not be a big deal. I think an open line of communication regarding his/her future should be established early so we both can network effectively. 

9What I hope to get out of it: It’s pretty simple. I hope to get impactful data leading to significant papers and funding. In addition, I hope to form a good working relationship with the post-doc.

10What I hope he/she gets out of it: This is also relatively simple. I hope that he/she is adequately trained and prepared to make the transition to his/her next step, whatever that may be. I also hope that I can continue to cultivate his/her love of science and answering hard questions. If post-docs from my lab go on to make an impact in the world then I’ve done my job.

11Importance of training/mentoring young scientists: As a post-doc, a majority of mentoring will be pushing independence. I hope to give him/her the tools, show him/her how to use them, and see what he/she can do. I’ll always be there to help, but my hope is that one day, he/she won’t need it anymore.

BIOGRAPHY:

Patrick L. Sheets, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Pharmacology and Toxicology

Dr. Sheets earned his B.S. (General Health Sciences) and M.S. (Toxicology) from Purdue University. In 2007, Sheets received his Ph.D. in Pharmacology from Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis where he was trained in the disciplines of electrophysiology, signal transduction pathways, and drug-channel interactions. He next moved to Chicago to do his post-doctoral work at Northwestern University where he became proficient in retrograde labeling in the brain, slice electrophysiology, and optogenetics for studying mouse cortical circuits involved in motor control. In 2012, Patrick joined Indiana University School of Medicine-South Bend as Assistant Professor of Pharmacology and Toxicology. He also holds an adjunct position in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Notre Dame. His current research involves a multifaceted approach to elucidate the circuit properties of neurons that influence anxiety and pain pathways in mice. He is fascinated with how strongly fear and pain impact decisions and behavior. Dr. Sheets is currently looking for a post-doctoral researcher interested in Neuroscience to join his laboratory! He was recently featured in The Postdoc Way Spotlight Series.

 

I believe that a successful lab has a mix of people who share complementary interests and take creative approaches to scientific questions using a combination of techniques. In my own experience, I’ve found that interacting with lab members with different research strengths and scientific perspectives has fueled my own projects and ideas. Therefore, as a PI, I am looking for a post-doctoral fellow to bring to my lab the diverse experiences and knowledge that s/he has gained from training in another lab. In practical terms, this means that a post-doctoral fellow helps my lab by bringing new ideas and techniques to start new projects or to take existing projects in new directions, and by serving as a mentor to other lab members.

Here’s what I’m considering when looking for a post-doc:

1. The candidate as a person and scientist: I value candidates who are interactive and scientifically curious. In the initial contact (typically by email), I keep an eye out for whether the candidate proposes any research project ideas, or mentions any particular research areas that s/he finds exciting and would like to pursue. It is also critical that the candidate has a first author publication and strong, positive recommendation letters.

2. Motivation: I consider what the candidate’s scientific and career goals are in completing a post-doctoral fellowship in my lab, and whether our goals are compatible. It’s important to me that a candidate recognize that a post-doctoral fellowship is not just a continuation of graduate school (e.g., working on a project developed primarily by a PI), but that it is a period of training and preparation for an independent career. I would encourage candidates to think about what career trajectory they want to follow and how their accomplishments during a post-doctoral fellowship will enable them to achieve their goals. Currently, I am mostly interested in recruiting post-docs whose primary training goals involve bench research, although I am open to candidates who combine this interest with other interests.

3. Motivation (again!): is the candidate motivated to accomplish his or her goals? How has the candidate demonstrated that s/he has the ability to succeed as a post-doctoral fellow and, looking ahead, as an independent scientist?

4. Recommendation letters: recommendation letters provide important insight into how a candidate would fit into my lab. The letter from the thesis advisor is the one I pay particular attention to, and I look for how the candidate has approached scientific problems, experimental difficulties, and if s/he has used creative or elegant means to get at an answer. It’s also important to learn how well the candidate works with other lab members, including the PI. A letter can only tell so much, so I also contact referees by phone.

5. Candidate’s background and training: I think most about the lab environment in which the candidate trained: did the candidate work independently or work mostly under the direction of a senior lab member, is the candidate able to evaluate different experimental approaches and learn new techniques? Is the candidate able to teach others the techniques that s/he has learned?

   • Skill set: candidates should have some skills that are relevant to addressing their scientific question, and be interested in learning new techniques in my lab to expand their skill set 
   • Publication history: at least one first author publication is a must
   • Grant writing: a willingness to write grant proposals; any success in writing grants is a plus!

6. Cost-benefit analysis: hiring a post-doctoral fellow means bringing into the lab someone who already has several years of scientific training. I expect all the members of my lab to be productive. This means making scientific discoveries and/or developing new techniques, reporting these findings to the scientific community in the form of papers, and obtaining grant support to fund the next step in the projects. Although a post-doctoral fellow may cost more in terms of salary, I expect that s/he will be more productive than a graduate student. I also expect a post-doc to take on a larger role in mentoring other lab members.

Our lab is a team, and while we’re all working to succeed as a group, we’re also working to further our own individual careers. This is why it’s important to me to select post-docs whose goals are synergist with those of my lab. Communication is a critical component of the mentor-mentee relationship. Every post-doctoral fellow may have different goals that s/he would like to accomplish while training in my lab. It’s important that we work together to define these goals, and devise a plan to achieve them. Ultimately, achieving these goals will benefit the post-doctoral fellow as well as the lab as a whole.

BIOGRAPHY:

Jill C. Wildonger, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Biochemistry

Dr. Wildonger received her BA from Swarthmore College, with a major in Biology. Her experiences working in labs as an undergraduate student led her to pursue a career in research. She completed a PhD at Columbia University in the lab of Dr. Richard Mann, and then went on to a post-doctoral fellowship in the lab of Dr. Yuh Nung Jan at the University of California, San Francisco. She now holds an Assistant Professor in the Biochemistry Department. Find out more about The Wildonger Lab here.