Although a postdoc appointment might only last for a few years, it can have a tremendous influence on a scientist's career. A good way to approach the process of choosing one is to think about your long-term career objectives, identify your research interests and find a laboratory where you can leverage your strengths.
Like many people, I started my postdoctoral work right after finishing my Ph.D. I enjoyed joining a new lab and starting fresh research projects. Here I offer a few tips that could help current students to prepare for this important transition.
There is no such thing as preparing for your postdoctoral position too far in advance. I have colleagues who started planning two years before they completed their degrees, and it completely paid off. It takes time to choose a new research direction, identify the main players in the field, go through the interview process, and move to a new place. Last-minute arrangements might not be as rewarding as a well-researched decision.
Seek external funding.
There are generally two ways to fund postdoctoral work: through the research grants of a professor for whom you work, or with your own funding from an external source.
I highly recommend researching the scientific funding agencies in the country where you plan on working and applying for existing external postdoctoral fellowships. Having your own funding not only looks good on your resume; it also provides you with some flexibility in choosing an institution and a research group. Additionally, the application process is a useful exercise that allows you to polish your grant-writing skills and think about specific projects that you would like to work on. It is helpful to ask professors and other postdocs about available sources of funding as some of the fellowships are not very widely publicized or may be offered only within certain organizations.
Consider your long-term career objectives.
Are you preparing for an academic career and need to publish intensively in a certain research domain? Or are you thinking of broadening your research skillset in preparation for transitioning into industry? Depending on the answers to these questions, some people prefer to work in the area where they completed their Ph.D. in order to build a stronger reputation and deepen their expertise. Others choose to work in a completely different field in order to diversify their skills and learn about emerging research trends. Which direction you choose depends on your long-term career goals.
Choose a research group with care.
Before selecting a specific research group, find out as much information as possible about their work. Everything is relevant: the group's research priorities, their size and dynamics, the principal investigator's management style and expectations, etc. It helps to discuss these issues with other students, postdocs or former lab members. Time invested in learning these details will pay off, as it will help you to find a lab where you will be the most comfortable and productive.
"Try to find a group, not a place," says Carlos Lopez-Mariscal, a research scientist at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. "That is, get a postdoc at XYZ group because of its merits and reputation, rather than getting one with ZYX group at Harvard just because it is at Harvard."
Approach a potential supervisor.
Some postdocs meet their supervisors at a conference or through collaboration during their Ph.D. Others are referred by a mutual colleague or someone who knows a professor personally. However, soliciting people directly via email can also be a great way to find someone to work with. Before contacting a potential supervisor, it is important to spend time putting together a comprehensive cover letter. Showcase how your experience would be useful for that particular lab and include ideas for future research. Familiarize yourself with the group's current efforts, and make sure that the cover letter is personalized--not just a copy of a letter that was sent to another researcher.
Overall, working as a postdoctoral researcher allows you to learn new skills, broaden expertise and establish new connections. Even if you have not made up your mind about your ultimate career goals, doing a postdoc can help you figure out your next steps. It can also provide you with an opportunity to relocate to a different country or start working in a new field. Although a postdoc takes some planning, it is a very rewarding experience that is worth all the hard work.
Yanina Shevchenko (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the NSERC Postdoctoral Fellow in the Whitesides Research Group, department of chemistry and chemical biology, Harvard University, U.S.A.