Contributed by Michelle (May 30, 2013) | When I am asked this question I am always reminded of the experience of a friend from grad school, who was flown in for an interview for a postdoc position with a relatively new professor. I knew the prospective advisor because he had been a scientist in a colleague’s lab before moving on to begin his own research program, and had previously approached me to see if I’d be interested in postdoc-ing with him. Anyhow, the first thing my friend noticed was a pervasive atmosphere of tension and fear in the laboratory. Alarm bells went off in her head when she saw that lab members were required to fill out a log accounting for what they were doing throughout the day. Interaction between the advisor and lab members involved sarcasm and condescension on the one hand and thinly veiled anger and defensiveness on the other. As if that were not enough to scare my friend away, a current postdoc in the lab got into the elevator with her and said, “DON’T COME HERE.” Needless to say, my friend declined the position. Unfortunately, red flags usually don’t jump out and slap you in the face like this.
It’s important to do some serious research ahead of time in order to decide who you want to entrust with your destiny for the next few years. Is your ultimate career goal to be a PI with your own research program? If so, you will likely be looking for an advisor with an excellent publication record, whose alumni move on to establish their own labs. On the other hand, if your goal is to work in industry, an ideal advisor would have a good industry placement record—for example, someone with a lot of industry contacts, who heads up a biotech degree program, or who has their own startup. It is very important to weigh your goals against the personality traits and career stage of your potential advisor . Once you identify your target(s), it’s a great idea to contact former and current postdocs and grad students in the lab to ask them about their experience. What was the professor’s mentorship like? Did the postdoc/student come up with his or her own project or merely carry out research that was designed in advance? Did he or she get to present research at professional meetings?
Speaking of professional meetings...while it’s a great idea to use them for networking and seeking out a postdoc, it’s a bad idea to ambush potential advisors without contacting them first (unless you happen to be carrying on a conversation with them). I was once presenting a poster to a professor from the NIH when a graduate student who had been hanging on the periphery interrupted and started asking the professor whether he was hiring postdocs. This was incredibly annoying (as evidenced by the eye rolling and head shaking that the professor was covertly directing my way). I see it time after time. The better approach is to identify professors whose work you are interested in and drop them an e-mail a couple of weeks before the meeting to inquire whether they’d be willing to spare a couple of minutes to speak with you about a potential postdoc position.
So let’s say you score that coveted in-person interview. Of course, you’ve read piles of publications that have come out of the lab. You have specific questions about some of the lab’s projects. You need to find out whether your potential advisor has the funds to support you, for how long, and whether you will be applying for your own grant money. Is your advisor familiar with the Individual Development Plan ? Use this as a way to discuss your career goals and how best to get there. This will almost literally give your prospective advisor a roadmap for mentoring you. Make time to hang out in the lab. See how the science happens, and talk to lab members one-on-one. You will no doubt be presenting your research at a lab meeting. Use that as an opportunity to watch how the lab interacts. Is there a lively exchange of questions and ideas, or do the lab members sit in huddled silence?
Reflect on your visit, and make a list of advantages and disadvantages of joining the lab—honestly—before making your decision. Is there a little voice inside your head telling you it’s the wrong move? Listen to it. Science Careers has a plethora of valuable articles on choosing advisors (the article referenced below breaks down the advantages and disadvantages of professors at each stage in their career development).
1. Andraos, J. Choosing a Graduate or Postdoc Advisor. Science Careers. August 16, 2002.
2. Fuhrmann, C., J.A. Hobin, B. Lindstaedt, and P.S. Clifford. Individual Development Plan. Science Careers. myidp.sciencecareers.org.