Finding a Postdoc in the Sciences: Nailing the Interview

Kelly Seaton continues her series on finding a postdoc in the sciences. Previously: One Postdoc’s Journey, Where Should I Begin?, Identifying the Right Position

Cornell students and postdocs at CERN

Though these Cornell postdocs at CERN are dressed a bit casually for most interviews, they did remember the most important item of clothing: their hard hats.

What questions do you have about the postdoc interview process? Do you have any interview experiences or advice to share?

Photo credit: solarnu via Flickr

Once you have submitted your applications and landed an interview, here are a few things to keep in mind:

1. Be prepared! This may seem like an obvious point, (and not even worth mentioning!) but there is more to preparation than meets the eye.

  • Who will be part of the interview process? Are you meeting just the primary PI, or multiple faculty members? You should read up and be familiar with the research of every person you’ll be interviewing with. My postdoc interview process included many people — 8 faculty members, the Division Chair, the COO of the Institute, multiple collaborators, and Human Resources. Ask for an itinerary if they don’t provide one, and know something about each person and their primary research, if applicable. By doing this, you’ll have a starting point to get them talking, and the 20 minutes or so will go much more quickly.
  • Giving a seminar on your thesis research is a given for most postdoc positions — so take some time and effort to tailor it to your audience. Ask yourself if they are directly in your field of research (Pharmacologist talking to Pharmacologists), somewhat related (Geneticist talking to Cell Biologists), or in a totally different specialty (Physicist talking to Neurologists doing Electrophysiology).
  • Have a seminar prepared even if there isn’t one scheduled. On my second interview for my current position, I knew I was meeting people at a collaborating company, but there was no seminar scheduled. I prepared a talk ahead of time, tailored to the audience (Pharmacologist talking to Engineers and one or two Biochemists). This saved me from panicking at the last minute and made me look good when they asked me an hour ahead of time if I could talk about my research.
  • Read papers ahead of time. Again, this should be obvious, but is often overlooked. Know as much about the lab as possible — read publications by the lab and Google the PI and lab members to be as prepared as possible when you interview. If you notice that the PI has collaborators from other institutions on their papers, ask about those collaborations. It’s amazing how much a little extra effort can pay off.

2. Relax. You are interviewing them to see if they are a good fit for you, as much as they are interviewing you for the position. If you are relaxed, enthusiastic, and engaged in the interview process, it will be more enjoyable for you and you will stand out in the field of candidates.

3. Engage with everyone you can. I have known multiple cases where postdoc candidates were offered other positions in the same department, based on their seminar and interactions with other professors afterward. This is especially critical if funding in the interviewing lab is not certain. If nothing else, it gains you exposure to others in the department and the beginning of departmental interactions if you should accept the position.

4. Ask questions. What is the lab atmosphere like? Do people collaborate both within and outside of the lab? What opportunities are there for publications, and what are the PI’s expectations for the number and frequency of publications? Does the PI encourage and fund postdocs to attend national conferences? Do they have funding available for your research, or are you expected to provide your own funding either before or within a year of joining? Are postdocs allowed to pursue outside opportunities such as teaching? Do not be afraid to ask questions about what matters to you and your career goals — you want to make sure it is a supportive environment conducive to achieving your future career goals.

5. Follow up. It may seem old-fashioned, but send a thank-you to every person you interviewed with. An e-mail will suffice, but be sure to thank them for their time and include something specific that you talked about — e.g. “I really enjoyed hearing more about your research into the role of Heat Shock Proteins in myocyte death during cardiovascular disease, etc.” When you write to the primary PI, reiterate your interest in the position, how your interests fit with the lab in general, and that you look forward to hearing from them again soon. Now that I’m on the other side and interviewing technicians, it shows me that the candidate is engaged, and appreciates the fact that I took time out of my busy day to talk to them.

Another good way to follow up is to ask to for the contact information of former postdocs from the lab. They will be able to answer more questions about the lab environment, the PI’s mentoring style, and how it prepared (or didn’t prepare) them for their career after the postdoc.

What questions do you have about the postdoc interview process? Do you have any interview experiences or advice to share?

Kelly concludes her series with advice for starting your new position.

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kle.seaton@gmail.com'

Kelly Seaton

Kelly Seaton lives in Durham, North Carolina (go Duke!), where she is an HIV vaccine researcher. She is a graduate of Messiah College and Penn State University-Hershey. Her cross-cultural experience includes studying abroad in Barcelona, Spain, as well as traveling to Haiti and South Africa. She loves the movies Emma and The Shawshank Redemption. Outside of work, she loves hanging with friends, playing volleyball, and any and all outdoors. Her post Finding a Postdoc in the Sciences: Nailing the Interview is the most visited ESN blog post.

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3 Comments

  • Katelin108@gmail.com'
    Katelin commented on November 8, 2011 Reply

    Should I be upfront if I am hoping to start a family as a postdoc? Does asking about it act as a strike against me? I know they legally are not allowed to ask about it or take it into consideration, but I also know it happens. And I also, don’t want the new PI to feel blind-sided if I do start a family not long after joining.

  • kle.seaton@gmail.com'
    Kelly commented on November 8, 2011 Reply

    Katelin –

    Great question. I would not bring it up directly in the first interview with the PI. While they are not allowed to ask about it/discriminate based on that, it might factor in if it came down to you and another candidate.

    There are plenty of other ways to find out – if you have lunch with other lab members, you can ask more of the personal/lifestyle issues – it’s usually more of an informal setting, and so you could get a feel for how many people have young kids, etc…

    Once you are offered the position, then I think it’s ok to bring up issues like that – to help you decide which position to take.
    As an aside – I realize that timing of a family is a completely personal decision. My suggestion though is to try to have a solid year of postdoc work in before the baby would be born. Not saying wait a yr to start trying, but a year of good work before the baby is born. That way you can adjust to the potential stress of a new position and both you and the PI would have a body of work that was accomplished.

    • Katelin108@gmail.com'
      Katelin commented on November 8, 2011 Reply

      Thanks!
      Yes, waiting a year is also a good idea of insurance purposes. A lot of times certain insurance benefits and maternity leave don’t kick in until you’ve been working there a while.

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