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

This is the third of three articles 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 second installment appeared in the July/August issue of The Next Step and covered topics about what to expect during laboratory visits and relevant questions for evaluating both the laboratory and primary investigator (PI). 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 the earlier two parts, 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, both with regard to your own personal life and work style, and what type of faculty mentor and level of research independence you desire. Then, I gave examples of what type of questions should be posed to both the faculty mentor and to the laboratory members during the laboratory visits, especially to the current and past postdocs. This article now assumes that you have visited multiple laboratories and (hopefully!) been offered positions in more than one of those laboratories. Now, you have a decision to make. This decision may be one that will change the course of your future in ways that are not currently foreseeable, such as what direction your research may take and whether you continue in academic research. In this last article of the three part series, I will discuss guidelines for coming to a decision about multiple postdoc offers, and I will offer some advice from past experience (my own and others) that may help ease your transition from a predoc to a postdoc.

After visiting multiple labs, you will have gained some sense of each of these laboratories, including their research interests and the interactions between the lab members. You have probably also gained some sense of how you would fit into the work, expectations, and the atmosphere of the lab. Visiting many places and people, reading more deeply (and widely) in the literature, and answering questions posed to you about what you are interested in and why, will also help crystallize your own research interests and future plans; I know that this was true for me. In making this decision, the most useful piece of advice that I can recommend to you is to think like a senior postdoc now: What is it that you will need to take from your postdoc experience as you prepare for your next career step? Which of the positions before you will best prepare you for that next step? Will one of the offers provide more lateral movement, or will one result in a much more limited outcome? How will each of these final outcomes fit into your overall scheme for advancing readily along your career path? Other factors that might play a role in your decision process might include whether the PI is interested and supportive of your independence in writing fellowships, whether the PI will allow you to develop a research plan to take with you as a foundation for your next career step, whether the lab has all of the resources in place for your proposed project, whether the position allows additional training and educational opportunities, and how frequently and in which journals does the laboratory publish.

While you are going through this decision process, you might encounter some additional, unforeseen aspects to the postdoc interview process. First, during visits to laboratories, you may have been offered the position on the spot. Unfortunately, it does put you on the spot, especially if you still have future laboratory visits to make. Other times, PI's will offer a position almost immediately after the visit, while another PI will take more time (for example, if they are interviewing more than one individual for the position). If an offer occurs during a visit, it is fine to be excited and pleased, but then politely say, "Thank you very much, I appreciate you being candid with me, but I don't believe it would be fair to commit to anyone until I complete these other lab visits." If the PI questions which other labs you will visit, go ahead and name them; this provides a good opportunity to show that you are considering other top individuals in the field, which can be complimentary to the PI you are presently visiting. Second, when you write a thank you email (immediately upon your return from each and every interview), an additional way to preempt the pressure from making a hasty decision is to say that you have not yet heard from all of the laboratories and out of fairness to all concerned, you would like to consider the opportunities once you know all of your options.

Once you have decided upon a laboratory, call the faculty mentor and inform him/her that you are interested in joining the laboratory, and that you would like to have an offer on paper that can be accepted and returned with both of your signatures. This offer should outline the salary that is guaranteed for a certain period of time, and any contingent expectations that the PI may have for the position such as postdoctoral funding obtained by you, length of stay, and anything else that is pertinent to your position. After you have formally accepted the offer in writing, you now must address the delicate and very important task of rejecting the remaining offers. Rejections must be done with care to let the PI know that you are rejecting the position and not him/her personally. The last thing you would want to do is to offend these individuals who will likely be reviewers for your future papers and grants. I recommend that you call each individual PI and speak with them on the telephone to be certain to convey meaning as well as emotion, precisely the things that an email or letter might lack. For example, you might want to say that you are honored that the PI had considered you for the position in a laboratory with such a history of academic excellence, but that in the end, you felt that Dr. X's laboratory was a better fit given their focus on such-and-such scientific research. Specific scientific reasons that you chose someone else's laboratory makes it easy for you to explain your decision and removes any personal issues from the decision process.

Now that you know where you will be as a postdoc, you have a great deal of work ahead of you to finish your dissertation, complete final experiments, and submit any unpublished data for publication. This is no small feat. My own Ph.D. advisor insisted on this, and I am eternally grateful it was forced upon me. After all, the new laboratory is the new and exciting adventure that you will immediately begin to anticipate. But the work that you have spent years on in your Ph.D. lab will mean nothing if it isn't written up and submitted for review, and this will only become more difficult from a distance. All future postdoc advisors understand that there will be a lag period between accepting a position in their lab and actually starting in the lab. It will be in everyone's best interest if you submit all unpublished data from your dissertation laboratory before that transition occurs.

I believe that my most useful advice during this transition period is to take a month off between working in your dissertation lab and working in your postdoc lab. A month may seem like an inordinately long period of time, but in the big scheme of things, it is barely a bump in time. You are likely to need time to recharge now that you have just finished what is probably the single largest project of your life, your dissertation, let alone submit the unpublished work. You now must move, typically to a new city, state, region of the country or even across an ocean. This will require time and energy, not only for the move, but also to get settled and to handle the personal issues that face us all such as unpacking and helping your spouse/family settle, finding a bank for accounts, obtaining a driver's license, and in general acclimating to a new city. In addition to the personal aspects of the transition, you are likely to need some time to rest and recharge the energy level that will be required and expected in your new position. As a well-rested individual, you will make a much better first impression in the new lab. Changing labs presents a unique challenge: Although you were a senior person in your old lab, comfortable with the techniques, procedures and projects, you now face a new situation, and that can be a rather humbling experience. As the new person, everyone is more experienced and knowledgeable about the lab than you, even the undergraduate work-study students. At first it will seem that everyone knows more than you about everything, from the scientific projects to ordering reagents, making a long distance phone call, and learning where the salt solutions are stored. Being well rested and settled in your personal life will help to ease the feelings of helplessness that can accompany humbling experiences in the new laboratory.

So, what is the best strategy to overcome the transition? Everyone is different in handling these sorts of situations, but my advice is to first accept that it will be a tough transition. Next, be humble and ask questions, but at the same time be confident in your skills and knowledge. When someone is answering your questions, be sure to pay attention to the answers so that you will not have to ask again. You want to make a good first impression, so work diligently by planning many experiments, getting in early and leaving late, and watching others doing experiments so you can learn techniques and protocols. By offering to help others in the lab, you will quickly learn how the experiments are done, possibly learn a new technique, make new friends, and create a good impression. In addition, you may find yourself involved in a current lab project and even an author on a paper. Regardless, you will greatly ease the transition into the new laboratory while getting your own project going.

Until you are familiar with how the new PI will interact with you, let the PI set the tone and the pace. You will have a great deal to accomplish in the lab with learning new techniques, planning experiments and reading as much background material as you can. During the first few months, one primary goal is to apply for postdoctoral fellowships (as discussed in Part II of this series). By writing a fellowship you will become knowledgeable about the latest literature on your new research topic, communicate with the PI about the short- and long-term goals of the project, and organize your ideas into a reasonable plan, complete with a detailed time line and an understanding of the big picture relevance of the work. Even if the fellowship is not funded, the application process is a good learning experience for both the work proposed and the grant-writing process in general. If you are funded, great! This will be a bonus when you are ready to make the next step into your career as a scientist.

It is my hope that these articles have been (or will be!) useful in your transition from the early stages of graduate training to the next step of your academic career. Good luck!

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