How do you choose a post-doc mentor? A guest post by SciTriGrrl

Dec 06 2013 Published by under Uncategorized

If you're hoping to end up on the tenure track, the work you do as a post-doc is arguably the most critical factor in whether you'll get there. Picking the right lab, then, is huge. But how do you know what the right one is? And is there just one? Weighing in on her experience is semi-regular guest post-er and all around amazing person NatC, aka SciTriGrrl.

How I chose a Post-doc lab [The most unhelpful post on choosing a postdoc that you’ll ever read]

This follows from a tweet from @TellDrTell quoting a speaker on the importance oc choosing a BSD for a post-doc. @dogwearingahat wrote about his experience and rationale for choosing a smaller lab.

At grad school, I started in the lab of a BSD.

It didn’t go well.

So I changed labs, and ended up with Professor X who was established, as yet untenured, had just gotten enough lab space to expand her lab, and worked on the topic that I super ridiculously interested in.

Reader, I was her first grad student.

I got a lot of advice when I started looking for a post-doc - on how different (or not) the research should be from my PhD, on what kind of lab I should join, what type of person I should work for, and where I should live.

My PhD advisor’s advice (because she is TEH BOMB) was simply this: go and do the research you’re interested in, somewhere you think you can do it well.

(For the record, my PhD advisor is now a BSD. And she is till awesome.)

Swedish Postdoc, not Swedish Chef

Swedish Postdoc, not Swedish Chef

My very good friend the Swedish postdoc told me that his criteria were (1) being able to have a good working relationship with someone; (2) doing good science, that you were interested in; and (3) being in the lab of someone that is around to be a mentor.

The mentorship thing was big for me - partly because of my first unhappy lab experience on this side of the world, but also because what I wanted to do was keep one foot in the kind of research I had been doing, while simultaneously moving the other foot into a square over *there*. And I knew enough to know that I had no idea what I was putting that foot into.

At that time, there were few labs doing exactly what I wanted to do. There were a couple of BSD labs, and a couple of others dotted around, and a fair number that started a couple of years after I began my post-doc, but 8 or 9 years ago, there weren’t many. But there was one person, Professor Z, whose work I knew, was already an established scientist, but still untenured, moved to the US

What sold me was that upon meeting Professor Z is that we were able to discuss science, ideas, have a drink and a meal. At my interview, she and I argued about my dissertation topic for so long that we were late to my talk. Any by argue I mean in the best possible kind of rigorous discussion. It was fun.  I joined her lab because of these things, plus (and this was critical) the timing and the funding worked out perfectly. When I joined her lab there were three of us.

In the lab of Professor X, I learned all I know about what is now a huge component of what I do, while simultaneously able to be productive. I worked on projects that ended up going on winding paths and ending up in entirely unexpected places - and I would not have been able to get there without her knowledge and mentorship, which for me was a balance between plenty of freedom, with the support to ask questions and discuss issues when they came up (and the occasional swift kick in the arse, applied with love). Later, with her encouragement, I was able to start, and get funding for, a crazy project, with several collaborators in entirely different fields.

One of the unsung advantages of doing some training in a smaller lab is that you learn how to set up or make things work with what you have. I was also able to learn from her experiences in dealing with the US system for the first time, and departmental politics, and the importance of getting everything in writing.

It worked out for both of us - I am a n00b TT faculty, she is now a full Professor.

More importantly for me, I had one of the best post-doc experiences of anyone I know. It wasn’t that I worked less hard or was less productive, it was that my mentor was around to be a mentor, and that she is an amazing and wonderful person - and I was so lucky to find someone I get along with so well.

My take on finding a post-doc that the thing that matters most is you - what do you need in a mentor and in a lab? What do you want to do? There are different advantages in different types of laboratories, and things will change dramatically over your post-doc - the lab you leave will be a very different place than the lab you joined (when I started in the lab there were 3 of us. When I left, there were 9) and your PI will be in a different career stage (unless you’re working with BSD).

As was pointed out in the twitter discussion, not everyone from any lab - BSD or not - has a fantastic postdoc, or chooses to try to stay in science. Telling people there’s a formula for a post-doc is complete bullshit. Similarly, some people have a great post-doc experience, and for others it sucks, and it more depends on personalities involved (and luck) than on the type of lab you choose.

So my 2 cents is this:

Want to succeed in science? Then you’ve got to want to stay in it. To do that, do research you are interested in, in a lab that you can grow, and in a place you’re going to enjoy. Listen to all the advice, then make up you’re own damn mind, for your own damn reasons.

So you don’t need a BSD, HHMI, Nobel-laureates lab to succeed. But if that’s the kind of lab you want to work in, go for it.

5 responses so far

  • @TellDrtell says:

    I'm so pleased by the discussions that tweet of mine from class yesterday have started. Thanks for telling your story!

  • Shannon says:

    Sorry for the novice question, but what is a "BSD"?

  • ScienceGinger says:

    I am 1yr into my 1st PD and am quite happy with both the research I am doing and my mentor.

    In all honesty though it was more serendipity than choice that got me here.

    I started applying to prospective PD positions about 9mos before I graduated.
    In the current funding climate perhaps I should have started earlier than that.

    I had 5 interviews total before graduation with the first one about 3 months after applications started going out. I had a good CV for my area with a PI well known in our specialty. The interviews went well but the first two positions ended up being canceled due to grants not getting renewed.

    As time marched on I ramped up my applications but as of graduation still hadn't found a position that had funding.
    I had several standing offers from PIs where I gave talks but the major drawback was that none of them had guaranteed funding for the new PD position. It seemed like the lack of renewals or new grants was something that was unexpected by most of these very well established PIs.

    So I spent a summer watching grant numbers, applying for other PDs, writing a grant and doing tech work for my PI. Exactly a year after I sent out my first application I saw 2 postings which I applied to the same day, had emails and phone conferences within a week.
    I went to interviews at both over the same weekend and had two funded offers before I returned home.

    It was an easy choice for me, though both were at similar sized UNIs doing similar research, my current PI really stood out as someone that I liked as a person not just as a researcher.

    I knew the numbers for the lab's productivity, liked the other PIs in the department, liked a major collaborator of the PI and liked the location of the UNI as well.

    If someone had asked me to write an ad for a PD that was my perfect fit, it could have been this one.

    I have a 1st author article out and two more in the works. Overall splendidly happy with how things worked out.

  • Thannks for one's marvelous posting! I genuinely enjoyed reading it,
    you may be a great author.I will be sure to bookmark your blog
    and will often come back at some point. I want tto encourage yourself to continu
    your great work, have a nice evening!

Leave a Reply