Contributed by Brian (May 30, 2013) | Determining the lab you will conduct your postdoctoral research is no small task. Moreover, choosing an advisor will be critical for your ultimate success as an independent researcher. Therefore, your options should be carefully considered and weighed within the context of the bigger picture. This is where many freshly minted PhDs will make a serious mistake. Let me start off by saying, there are many career paths that you can follow, however, if you choose to pursue an academic postdoctoral position you will be faced with three potential scenarios. In my opinion, each scenario requires a different type of postdoc / advisor dynamic. To maximize your success and happiness, you should develop a set of criteria to analyze the potential dynamic and make a list of positives and negatives. A good way to put this into perspective is to evaluate each opportunity as if you are about to invest money or buy stock in a new company or startup. As such, you should pay close attention to investor history (what kind of people join the lab), board members (what is the ‘family tree / lineage’ and who else believes in or collaborates with the lab), past success (where do people go when they leave the lab), overall lab value (publication rate and type, funding, intellectual property) and the motivation, knowledge, and honesty of the PI (how well do they know the day-to-day operations of their ‘company’). In the end it boils down to a calculation of risk versus reward. Below are some general case examples.
Scenario #1: Leap into a completely new field. High risk.
Example: Your PhD training was in behavioral neuroscience and you decide to join a lab that examines plant membrane proteins where the ultimate goal is obtaining crystal structures. In this lab, there will be a steep learning curve. This jump can be a hard sell to a PI. Thus, you should make sure the PI has a successful track record of training individuals with different backgrounds. The PI should understand that you are joining the lab with essentially no experience, but that you will be extremely motivated to learn. There should be a clear understanding of risk versus reward. If the ultimate goal (reward) is to publish in a high-tiered journal, you should understand the time investment at the start of the project. The time investment includes obtaining the proper skills, performing the actual experiments, analyzing the data, writing the manuscript, submitting the manuscript, and revising the manuscript. In some cases this can be an investment of 2-3 years for one publication.
General recommendations: In this case, projects are usually outlined ahead of time. I firmly believe that this type of transition requires one to have two projects running in parallel – one high risk/high reward and one more straightforward ‘results guaranteed’ project. High risk projects generally take several years from start to finish. This can be the full stay of your postdoctoral appointment. It would be advisable to determine what is more important for your career in the long run – one high-tiered publication or three solid publications that contribute to your specific field of interest. You must weigh impact factor against publication rate and understand just because you and your PI believe you are doing ‘high impact’ work, journals and their respective editors may not have the same opinion. Understand what an investment of your time equates to at the end of the day. One potential highlight of this scenario may become apparent during the training section of your NRSA and/or K99 application. Since you are moving into new territory, this is can be viewed favorably by study sections.
Scenario #2: Transition to a lab where your current skills can be utilized to address problems in a related field. Medium risk.
Example: You are a biochemist that investigates protein-protein interactions using a combination of basic biochemical and fluorescence approaches. You are now interested in joining a laboratory that primarily uses electrophysiological techniques to study molecular pharmacology of voltage-gated ion channels. Although this is a leap from one technical expertise to another, the transition is more manageable. During your initial conversations with the PI, you may be able to emphasize the fact that you will be able to bring a new set of tools and techniques to the lab. As part of the trade, you will get to learn a new technique to complement your current skill set. A great benefit of this scenario is that you may become an extremely valuable asset to the laboratory. Thus, your services may be required often and you will be rapidly rewarded with authorship on several papers in a short period of time. You will also get the experience of training members of the lab and vice versa. More importantly, based on your unique expertise you may have the option to develop novel technologies or assays. Make sure your PI is encouraging to explore these options because they can be important inside and outside of academia.
General recommendations: During the initial conversations with the PI, try to spend some time brainstorming ideas to determine if there are ways that you can integrate your past technical expertise into your new project. This will help you develop a niche and push the laboratory in a new direction. By doing this, you can quickly become an ‘expert’ and may have the opportunity to submit novel technologies for patent, develop new methodologies, and publish articles that shed new light on controversial issues in the field. All of these opportunities may quickly lead to you writing review articles and giving your expert opinion on these areas at national meetings. Many of these qualities and accomplishments will look outstanding on your fellowship applications and CV. Increasing the likelihood of developing a niche outside of the laboratory you are training in will significantly increase your market value. It is advisable to have a conversation with your PI early on about taking this technology out of the lab as you move on.
Scenario #3: Stay in the same field and continue your research in a new lab using a similar approach and building on your current skill set. Low risk.
Example: You use a combination of biochemical and genetic approaches to study cardiovascular disease in mice. Your graduate lab is relatively small (5 people) and you decide to join a much larger lab with 25 people. The new lab has 10 postdocs, a very large space, and a PI that is a leader in their respective field with a good track record of postdoc placement in academia and industry. This sounds ideal, right? There are a few topics to consider in this case. First, will your training be that much different than your previous lab? If the answer is no, this may not be viewed favorably during fellowship applications. Second, with a lab this large and 10 additional postdocs, the likelihood you will receive significant attention is low. Make sure to ask the PI what the lab environment is like. Is the PI around often? Do they assume projects move based on the sole motivation of the postdoc? How are ideas and projects divided up in the lab? Is there an uncomfortable amount of competition and secrecy in the laboratory when sharing ideas and data? Third, how much of your input is factored into the projects? Sometimes with laboratories this large, projects and ideas are plenty because the PI is well funded and essentially runs a factory managed by overstressed clones. The reputation of the laboratory is top notch, but the work environment may not be for everyone. These issues should be discussed early on with the PI and lab employees.
General recommendations: Determine how receptive the PI is to postdocs developing new projects and pushing new directions versus churning out 10 publications every month. Closely examine what types of journals each person is publishing in and what type of funding they have. If you are looking to join a lab where you do not want to move too far away from what you know and are more concerned with attaching the name of this PI to your CV, make sure you understand that you may be directly competing with your boss if you decide to stay in academia. In this scenario, I believe it is critically important to have a firm grasp on the average duration of a postdoc’s lab tenure, the success to burnout ratio, and how competitive they are moving forward.