by Amy B. Harkins, Ph.D.
Saint Louis University School of Medicine
Department of Pharmacological and Physiological Science

From the time I first found my postdoc position, students have asked me how I went about identifying, communicating with, and selecting a postdoctoral advisor. Now that I am an assistant professor in a medical school and have had numerous conversations with graduate students about this process, I have decided to commit my verbal advice to paper. This article first appeared in "The Next Step E-Newsletter" distributed by the Early Careers Committee of the Biophysical Society. It is my hope that the advice will be helpful to those of you who are interested in pursuing an academic (or industrial) postdoctoral position, and complement the advice you have (hopefully) received from your advisor, mentors, and friends who have gone before you. These are entirely my own opinions and in no way represents the opinions of the Biophysical Society or any university.

Typically, my advice to students in the early phase of dissertation research is to begin reading a lot, both inside and outside of your current research field. If you are well beyond your second year, this would still be the first place to start, but you may need to collect this information more quickly than less advanced students. As you prepare for your preliminary or qualifying examinations, journal clubs, and colloquia, or read for your own research, pay attention to the scientific questions that interest you and keep a list of the people doing research in these areas. Alongside this list of people, begin formulating the "ideal" lab you would like to work in, establishing the criteria for what you "must have" and what you would "like to have" in a lab and a postdoc mentor. For example, what type of mentoring do you want from someone? Do you want more of a graduate student mentor who is there at every step or a mentor who is only a fall net when the going gets rough? Do you want a lab that is large and social and interactive, or a smaller more intimate setting? Do you want to have your own funding in order to join a lab, or be able to write your own grants as your project develops?

As you establish a working list of these needs and wants, somewhere in the middle of your dissertation research, begin talking to as many faculty, postdocs and senior students as possible about the names of people on your list. As you receive feedback from others, be sure to ask your questions in the context of both the research being conducted, and the manner in which you'd like to conduct your research in this lab, keeping in mind your "must have" and "like to have" lists. For example, if you are interested in a small laboratory with only 2 or 3 others in addition to the advisor, you may find that some PI's on your list employ more than 10 postdocs, plus graduate students and technical support staff. For those of you limited by a specific geographical location, these same questions apply, only on a smaller scale and with the obvious limitations of schools in that location.

Once you have narrowed your list of faculty to those who fulfill your criteria for both the research and the lab environment, and those who come recommended by one or more trusted sources, it is time to contact prospective postdoc advisors. I am often asked when is it the "best" time to contact faculty for a postdoc position. I would say it is almost never too early to make an initial contact, but aim for at least a year before defending your thesis. After all, it frequently takes a full year to contact the faculty, visit the labs that are interested in you, and make the final decision, especially if you have to consider a spouse, significant other, and/or children that have additional requirements for relocation. Moreover, remember you will also be using this time to finish your dissertation and produce publications from your thesis project.

Although there are many ways of contacting prospective postdoc advisors, email is particularly useful because it makes it easy for PIs to respond to your inquiries. However, this first email should be constructed as a formal letter, unless you already know the person well. Introduce yourself with a statement that includes the name of your thesis advisor, the university from which you will receive your degree, and an approximate date when you expect to complete your degree. Then briefly outline your research project(s) with an emphasis on the scientific questions you have asked, followed by a short statement of techniques and methods used to address these questions, and a summary of the results including publications, pending or otherwise. In the next paragraph of your letter, briefly outline your interest in their research and why you think you would be a good postdoctoral candidate for their laboratory. At this point, your reasons typically should be science-driven, not technique-driven as you are expected to be a researcher who thinks in terms of scientific questions and not a technician listing your abilities. End the letter by listing the attached supporting documents, include your complete contact information, stating that you are sending a hard copy in the mail and that you look forward to their response. In attachments, include a list of 3-4 faculty (including your thesis advisor) who have previously agreed to write letters of recommendation for you. Be sure to provide complete contact information for your references, including email address and telephone numbers. If you have publications, include PDF files of them as attachments too.

My advice, though this may not always be possible or practical, is to prepare all of these letters and send them out at the same time via email and hard copies in the mail. Because most PI's will respond to you within a short period of time, often within 24 hours of receiving your email, you will want to be able to schedule all of your visits to laboratories close in time to one another. By reducing the time between the first and last visits, you will be able to better evaluate the lab and mentor, and this will help to clarify your decision in choosing the postdoc mentor. Some PI's you contact may not have a position in their laboratory and will write only to thank you for your interest. Others will not respond at all. However, because you have spent the time and effort to identify a good match in advance, you should also expect to be invited to visit the laboratory of some prospective advisors. Many of these invitations will come from faculty who contacted your references in advance to contacting you. You can expect the expenses for a visit to a prospective laboratory to be paid by the inviting PI, and not from your own pocket, but be sure to confirm this in advance. As you schedule your visits, remember that in most cases you will be asked to give a short presentation on your thesis project and to be familiar with the background of the lab you are visiting (both the general field and their research in particular). Be sure to give yourself enough time between visits to develop this familiarity, along with the time that your own research will require, but not so much time that you forget your impressions of the laboratories you visited early on. This is a very exciting time in a graduate student's career, and being properly prepared will help keep it a positive experience.

In the next article for "The Next Step E-Newsletter", I will discuss topics such as what to expect during visits to different laboratories, and what to discuss with a PI and their lab members during a lab visit in order to help you make a decision as you continue your scientific career.

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