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.
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.