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

This is the second article in a three part series designed to aid graduate students in their transition from graduate school to a postdoctoral position. The first installment appeared in March/April issue of The Next Step, the e-newsletter distributed by the Early Careers Committee of the Biophysical Society. In that article, I offered graduate students advice on targeting and contacting prospective postdoctoral mentors and laboratories. The article ended with the expectation that your written inquiries to potential principal investigators (PIs) were met with positive responses, and you have been invited to visit at least one laboratory and interview with a prospective mentor. The next step is to prepare for your visit. In this article, I discuss what to expect during the visit and what questions to ask in order to gather the information you will need to evaluate both the laboratory and PI: Are they likely to be a good match for you? As with each article in this series, what follows are entirely my own opinions and in no way represent the opinions of the Biophysical Society or any university.

In Part 1 of this series, I recommended that you read the literature widely, and prepare a list of potential postdoctoral mentors whose work interests you. I also recommended that you develop some ideas about your preferred lab setting. For example, does your family life require that you work "normal" business hours, or are you a night owl and rarely in lab before noon? Do you want a faculty mentor who grants you complete research design independence, or someone who actively directs your research, or something in between - where you initially have more help, but quickly develop independence in directing the project once you become experienced with the scientific questions and techniques? Now that you have been invited to visit a lab, you will put this background information to work. I will discuss what I consider to be the top priorities for your visit to a laboratory, both in the context of what to discuss (and not discuss!) with the faculty and the lab members, and how to follow up after the interview.

First, to prepare for your visit, it is of utmost importance to be extremely well read in the broad scientific field of the lab you will visit. Some of this preparation will be completed during your initial investigation of potential postdoctoral labs, and of course, if all the labs you will visit are in the same field, the reading load will be lighter than if you will visit labs in different fields. Second, it is absolutely critical to read all of the recent publications from the lab you will visit. How far back to read, chronologically, is up to you, but it is important to develop an appreciation of the general flow and progress of science in the lab, including the scientific history of the faculty while he/she was a graduate student and postdoc. These publications and background information can be obtained from departmental websites, lab and faculty web pages, and publication database searches (PubMed, etc.). Arming yourself with this information will assure the faculty (and lab) that you are serious about their science, and that you have done your homework. While reviewing the lab�s publications, make a list of all authors. When you visit the lab, you will meet the current members of the lab and can make mental notes of who is still in the lab (technicians, students and postdocs) and who has left the lab (previous students and postdocs). This information is useful because you will want to contact those individuals who have left the lab to ask them questions about their transition from their postdoc position to their current position. Although the previous postdocs may be listed on the lab�s own web page, but it may not be up-to-date. The third (but no less important) step is to prepare an extremely polished seminar presentation based on your graduate research project. This presentation should focus on the scientific story you are telling, rather than relaying a chronological acquisition of data. This seminar is your chance to show how you think about a scientific question. It provides the potential mentor with a way to evaluate how you think through the design and execution of your research, how you reach conclusions (those from negative data as well as positive results), and your presentation style. The presentation should contain easily understood slides with no errors. If the lab you will visit is in a different field from your graduate lab, be sure to include an expanded background section, including any connections you see between your graduate research and the work in the lab you will visit. Lastly, you should prepare a fairly well thought out set of topics and research directions for potential projects in the lab you are visiting. Although these future directions may be touched on during your seminar presentation, they can be discussed in more detail informally with the prospective PI. You will want to explain how you see yourself fitting into specific projects, those that are currently ongoing in the lab and those that are related, but not currently being done in the lab. You should know what techniques and skills you will bring to the lab, your areas of expertise, and how this expertise will advance the lab. A PI will want to know how you see yourself fitting into the lab�s overall scientific scheme.

During the interview, you should expect to talk with the PI privately. You should also expect to meet with the lab members individually, without the PI present. It will be particularly useful to hear the impressions of postdocs currently in the lab, as this may reflect your future situation. In addition, it is very helpful to have social time away from the laboratory without the mentor, but with the lab members. During these conversations, pay close attention not only to what is said, but also to what is not said. For example, if members of the lab tell you that the PI expects to see you in the laboratory all of the time you are at work, you may want to ask questions regarding time spent in the library, attending seminars and departmental events, and learning new techniques in other laboratories. If you typically read articles, write papers and grants while away from your lab bench, does the atmosphere of this laboratory allow you to continue working in this manner or not, and if not, will these new expectations allow you to make the best use of your time? Reading between the lines is one of the best tools for raising the �red-flag� on potential future conflicts, or for reassuring yourself that the stories are consistent. Make sure that what is being said matches what is happening around you in the lab during your visit. After physically being a part of the lab for even just a day or so, you should gain some sense of the interactions between the lab members, their relationship(s) with the PI, and the tone and mood of the lab as a whole. Compare these impressions with your earlier thoughts on what you do and do not want in a postdoctoral lab/mentor.

During your private conversations with the faculty, I highly recommend that you do not do two things. First, do not dwell on personal topics. Instead, keep the conversation focused on professional and scientific topics. For example, you would not want to give the impression you are interested in a lab solely because it is located in New York City and you love New York City. Second, do not ask what hours you are expected to work. This question, even when asked as an honest attempt to compare expectations and working styles, can give the (false) impression that you are not hard working. You can determine typical working hours during your individual chats with the postdocs in the lab. Whatever answer you receive from the postdocs, react as though it is perfectly acceptable to you; then privately determine whether this suits your own personal life.

As for the very important questions you should ask a potential postdoctoral mentor, my advice is to think as a postdoc. That is, put yourself in the position of interviewing the faculty as if you were about to leave a postdoc position: What will you need from your advisor in order to continue on to the next step of your career? For example, most mentors will want to know where you see yourself in the next 5-10 years: Are you interested in pursuing an independent academic position, and if so, what do you see yourself doing in their lab to accomplish the prerequisites for an independent position? Regardless of your ultimate career goal, you will want to ask questions to determine whether the potential mentor will be able and willing to provide you what you will need to achieve this goal. For example, to become an independent investigator in academia, there are a few key elements to postdoc training that can be very helpful preparation for the next career move. You will want to know whether the faculty allows (expects?) a postdoc to write their own fellowships and grants. You should ask whether you are allowed to develop your own project and research proposal to take with you to an independent position. You should know how the current research projects were developed in the lab. For example, are you expected to develop all of your own research plans from the moment you set foot in the lab, or are you expected to work entirely on the ongoing lab research projects? Will the faculty provide some part of an ongoing project for you to learn techniques and skills necessary in their lab, and then allow you to move onto your own research directions? If you are interested in moving into an industrial position, does the PI have an ongoing collaboration with a lab in industry? Participating in an ongoing industrial collaboration could be your chance to learn more about how science works (including how projects are developed and directed) in industry. Lastly, and equally importantly, ask where the PIs past postdocs are currently working. Do not hesitate to ask for contact information for 3-4 past postdocs as references - some PIs will provide you with this information automatically. By asking these questions, you will impress upon the faculty that you have thought seriously about your future and your research interests, and that you have direction and motivation to accomplish your goals.

During your individual visits with each lab member, you will be able to determine a great deal about the lab and the mentor. By asking the same questions that you asked the mentor, you will determine whether most of the postdocs agree with the mentor as to how the mentor trains his postdocs. For instance, if the mentor has told you that he allows complete research freedom for his/her postdocs, but each postdoc relates a story describing the mentor's micromanagement style, this should raise a red flag on the perceptions of how the lab actually runs. In addition to asking the same questions to each of the postdocs, students, and technicians, you should also consider asking a much more general question, such as "What is it like to work for your advisor?" Asking some open-ended questions will allow the lab member to be more candid with their answers, especially if the conversations occur away from the lab (and the omnipresence of the mentor). Try to have some of these meetings in a �neutral� setting, like a campus coffee shop, or over lunch. If no opportunities are provided, suggest this yourself! "You know, after the long flight last night, I could really use a cup of coffee. Is there a caf� nearby?"

When you return home from visiting a lab, you should do two things immediately. First, regardless of how the interview went, write a sincere �thank you� note to the PI, thanking them for their time during your visit and the opportunity to meet with each person in their laboratory. The second thing to do is to contact each of the references (past postdocs) provided by the PI and speak with each one on the telephone. You should ask the same questions of each of them, but in addition, ask how the transition occurred from their postdoc position to their current position. For instance, was the faculty willing to part with a project the postdoc developed, did unfinished publications get completed in a timely manner, and did the faculty write excellent letters of recommendation? By asking similar questions to multiple people, and listening to consistency in the answers, you will develop a sense for how the lab and postdoc/mentor relationship actually works. From these answers, you will be able to determine whether their mentoring style and lab will closely match what you are hoping to obtain from a postdoc experience.

In the third and last article of this three part series of "Transition from predoc to postdoc", I will give advice for discussing the details of accepting one postdoc position over others, and some tips to help make the transition process from your current predoc position to your future postdoc position a smooth one.

Previous page: Part 1. How to target and contact prospective postdoctoral mentors, and what to expect in return.
Next page: Part 3. Navigating multiple offers and making the transition from graduate student to postdoc.