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6 Tips for Choosing Your Postdoc Lab

As you enter the final year of your PhD you’re probably starting to consider your postdoc options. Choosing your next lab will be one of your most important professional decisions. A good postdoc can kick-start your career, but it can be difficult to know how to evaluate the different labs. Before you make your pick, take the following advice into account.

Chose a Topic That Excites You

You know that saying “do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life”? Well, it applies to postdocs too. In order to do your best work, you need to choose a topic that really excited you and will sustain your interest for several years. You can’t do your best work if you’re not engaged. Discuss the project in detail with the PI and with others to get a full picture of the research area.

A good rule of thumb is that your postdoc research should not be on the exact same topic as your PhD. You should always try to learn new skills and techniques which will make you a more appealing candidate on the job market.

Mentorship Matters

The PI will be crucial to the success of your postdoc. A postdoc is, after all, still a training position. It is important that you choose a PI who is supportive and invested in your career. They will directly impact your professional development by determining where and how often you publish, who you connect with, and where you work next. Choose a PI who has a history of being an effective mentor and whose personality fits your goals and work style.

Consider Funding

You should consider the funding status of both the lab and the postdoc position. You want to be sure that the lab has sufficient funds to operate for the duration of your postdoc and that your salary is secure. You should also try and evaluate how likely this postdoc project is to get external funding and grants. One of the main ways for postdocs to start developing their independence as a researcher is by securing their own funding. Is there a lot of funding available for research in this area? How competitive is the research topic? These factors could impact your ability to win grants.        

Lab Dynamics

An often overlooked factor in the decision-making process is your future colleagues and the working style of the lab. Working in a lab where everyone gets along will certainly make your job more enjoyable and could even inspire fruitful collaborations. Most PIs will invite top postdoc candidates to visit their lab during the final stages of the interview. Take some time to observe how the other members of the lab interact with each other and with the PI. Do they work individually or as a team? How hands-on is the PI? Think about your personal working style before you choose a lab.

In a similar vein, you should also give some thought to lab size. Big and small labs both have their advantages and the right size for you will depend on your personality and working style. Larger labs have greater resources, but can mean that you get less face time with the PI. Smaller labs may offer more publishing opportunities, but in lower impact journals.

Look to the Future

A postdoc is an important stepping-stone in your career so the outcomes of your project should match your goals. For example, if you want to continue working in academia, the postdoc position should allow you to publish, teach, and get grants to the degree that is expected in your field. If you want to make the move to industry, your project might instead focus on patenting, mastering a specific technique, and gaining project management experience.

Too Long. Too Short. Just Right.

The final thing to consider is the length of the postdoc. While you might think twice about a long position, you also won’t be able to accomplish much yet alone publish during a year-long position. Two to three years is the length of a typical postdoc and it’s not uncommon to do more than one.

You can find hundreds of available postdoc jobs on Academic Positions.

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