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The Postdoc’s Guide to Choosing the Right Lab

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The Postdoc's Guide to Choosing the Right Lab


Alison McClure studies DNA replication at the Francis Crick Institute in London.credit: Allison McClure

After completing my PhD at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina in 2014, I stayed for an additional year to finish a paper and look for a postdoc position. The first step in my process was deciding what I wanted to do with my career so I could find a lab that would help me achieve it. This question can be difficult to answer because you really need to know yourself and reflect on what you want. I was a little apprehensive about making such a strong statement about my career – a feeling that I believe is shared by many graduate students. But, I decided that I wanted to try to stay on an academic track, so I needed to find a postdoc position that would support and help prepare me to eventually become a group leader.

The next step in my process was roughly identifying what type of field I wanted to work in and what techniques, systems and organisms I wanted to learn. Several people advised me to switch one or two of these options from my PhD work, which was in yeast cell biology. Although I really value experience in many fields and techniques, I don’t think this change is necessary at all. I have seen many postdocs develop successful careers without changing paths. Again, this requires self-reflection to really identify what areas, technologies, and systems you care about. I also talked my options with my PhD advisor, Daniel Lew, and my lab mates. I read a lot of papers to know about different fields. In the end, I decided to work with yeast, but decided to take a more biochemistry approach.

I then made a list of potential labs after I read papers and perused university and institute department websites. By this point, my partner and I had decided that we would love to live in Europe, as it would be a great opportunity to go somewhere else and live in a different way. I preferred laboratories in Europe, but I also included several in the United States.

The hardest part was shortlisting. In addition to considering the research focus and location of each laboratory, I also spoke with my PhD advisor and my thesis committee about the reputation of my chosen institutions and laboratories. I’ve also got some advice at this stage that I really encourage all potential postdocs to consider: go to a lab with the intention of learning their field and the techniques they specialize in. Don’t try to learn an entirely different technology that is tangibly related to the main task of the lab – I’ve seen this derail many postdocs.

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I applied by cold e-mail to eight laboratories: four laboratories in the United States and four in Europe. The cover letter (e-mail body) is really important – think carefully about what you want to say and make it personal. I had four initial half-hour Skype interviews, and then I was invited for three in-person interviews, which took place in Geneva, Switzerland, London and Edinburgh, UK. I arranged to combine those last two locations in one visit, and the labs covered the costs.

postdoc interview

I was horrified at the prospect of traveling alone for interviews, especially as a young woman. I experienced a cultural shock on my first visit, utterly stunned despite having already researched Geneva’s public-transport system. Then, my Airbnb host thought I was arriving in the morning instead of in the evening (I was using the 12-hour clock instead of the 24-hour clock), so I had to wait outside longer. It all worked out in the end. Both my Airbnb host and my lab host helped me navigate the city and enjoy it.

Some of my other experiences on my trips were much more positive – I loved all the fresh food and restaurants. Also, the conversation about life as a postdoc was different. Someone actually laughed when I asked about health care and insurance because it’s a completely different system in European countries than in the United States. Despite all these differences, the moment I stepped into the Geneva lab to interview, I felt more comfortable. Science is fairly universal, and I found that I could easily engage in conversations about science with the people out there.

In all my interviews, I gave a seminar about my PhD research. It was usually attended by people from my host lab, as well as people from other labs in the department. Then, I met face-to-face with the lab leader and other lab members. Sometimes I met other faculty members or people running the main facilities. Often, I would go out for a meal with current students and postdocs and take a full tour of the facilities and campus.

I found that giving a really good seminar presentation makes a big difference. In my experience, your interviewers won’t expect you to know everything about their research, but they want to make sure that you are well-versed in yourself – that you can answer questions about it and that you can are connected. Also, make sure you’ve read the latest papers from their lab and that you’re familiar enough with the core ideas of their research focus, so that you can have a good conversation about it.

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Try to remain calm, even if it is what it looks like from the outside. I am always nervous before interview, but you have to find out what works for you to get over those nerves.

One thing that helped me was to find a private space (usually a bathroom or an empty room) and spread my arms wide before the interview started. It helped me open up my body language and pretend I wasn’t going to turn inside out. Then, usually, I would calm down as the interview began and as my mind connected with the content of the seminar or conversation.

make the right choice

In the end, I received two proposals and decided on John Defley’s lab at the Francis Crick Institute in London. During my interview, I had good conversations with both John and other postdocs, which was important to me. I wanted to find people with whom I could talk about science in a productive and comfortable way and create a supportive rather than competitive environment. I had some bad experiences before joining my PhD lab, and I wanted to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

I could imagine how I would grow into a scientist in John’s lab and eventually have more freedom. When you’re on an academic career track, it’s a great deal of experience – becoming independent, designing your own projects and looking to the future to see how you’re going to set up your lab someday.

about the organization

In addition to reading papers to identify potential postdoc labs, I relied on institute and lab websites for information. I think many institutions and labs can attract more postdoc applicants by improving their websites – a good online presence makes it easier for people to find out more about a lab and decide if they’re a good fit out there. Can fit well.

I also think that institutions should offer long-term employment contracts. Science is hard, and it takes time for data to be published and ready for your next career steps. I’ve heard of some institutions that are using one-year rolling contracts, which can be stressful and provide postdocs with no job security. I am pleased that the Francis Crick Institute is offering a four-year contract with a possible extension of two years. This has given me time to publish the paper and prepare for my next career step. I am in a good position now and plan to open my lab as a group leader next year.

competing interests

The author declares no competing interests.

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