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Selecting and Succeeding in a Postdoc Position

The following two excerpts from the National Academies* offer to-the-point advice for aspiring postdocs:

Preparing for a Postdoctoral Position

The factors that determine a "good" postdoctoral experience are as various as the personalities involved. But certain key steps deserve careful planning.

Choosing a field. Foremost is the selection of the research area. A postdoctoral research project should be more than an extension of thesis research; it should lead to new skills and a broader outlook. The postdoc should understand in advance what portion of the work is likely to be transportable to his or her next position.

Finding a postdoctoral position. Most postdocs in our focus groups4 found their positions through personal contacts--advisers, friends, and contacts from professional meetings. Many simply approached potential advisers directly with their qualifications and objectives. Few postdocs are hired after a simple response to ads in journals and on web sites, but such sources provide valuable tips about which institutions are hiring in which fields.

Choosing an adviser. Both experienced postdocs and advisers suggest a thorough investigation before signing on. Some postdocs place paramount importance on the prestige of the principal investigator; others emphasize mentoring ability. A researcher of renown has great power to help--or hinder--a career; a newer assistant professor may offer more attention, responsibilities, and a substantial role in building up a lab. In either case, it is desirable to: 1) arrange a personal meeting and 2) talk with current and former postdocs who have worked with that investigator or organization.
4 Several hundred postdocs, faculty, advisers, administrators, and federal agency staff generously offered their opinions, critiques, and personal experiences at 39 focus groups held around the country.

Questions to Ask in Choosing an Adviser

The best time for a postdoc to evaluate a potential postdoctoral position is before signing on. It is difficult to adjust the major conditions of an appointment once it is underway. Experienced postdocs and advisers suggest the following questions be asked of (and about) a prospective adviser:

  1. What are the adviser's expectations of the postdoc?
  2. Will the adviser or the postdoc determine the research program?
  3. How many postdocs has this adviser had? Where did they go afterward?
  4. What do current and past lab members think about their experience?
  5. Will the adviser have time for mentoring? Or should I seek out other mentors?
  6. How many others (grad students, staff, postdocs) now work for this adviser?
  7. How many papers are being published? Where?
  8. What is the adviser's policy on travel to meetings? Authorship? Ownership of ideas?
  9. Will I have practice in grant writing? Teaching/mentoring? Oral presentations? Review of manuscripts?
  10. Can I expect to take part of the project away after the postdoc?
  11. How long is financial support guaranteed? On what does renewal depend?
  12. Can I count on help in finding a position?
  13. Will the adviser have adequate research funds to support the proposed research?

*Reprinted with the permission of the National Academies Press, Washington, D.C. from Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers: A Guide for Postdoctoral Scholars, Advisers, Institutions, Funding Organizations, and Disciplinary Societies, 2000, Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (COSEPUP), The National Academy of Sciences.

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