Finding a Postdoc in the Sciences: Where Should I Begin?

This is the second in Kelly Seaton’s series on Finding a Postdoc in the Sciences. Previously: One Postdoc’s Journey. ~ Mike

Jeremiah 29:11 – For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.

bike map

Where should I begin?

In my last post, I mentioned that a postdoc position is highly recommended, even a necessary next step after the completion of graduate school. For some grad students, continuing in a postdoc position feels like an exciting opportunity to continue research and advance your visibility and career. Or maybe you’re in the position where the thought of staying in academia or bench research makes you want to take up underwater basket weaving or run away and join the circus! The good news is that a postdoc is generally more flexible than graduate school. You are more in control of your location, your research, and the length of time you spend as a postdoc. Positions can range from short 1-2 year stints to 4-5 years or more, depending on the type of position you choose. It is also easier to switch subject areas or labs if necessary, to explore alternative careers, and to establish yourself as an independent scientist.

Photo credit: Mike Britton via Flickr

That being said, beginning a postdoc search can be challenging, particularly if you are not limited in your search by geographic, family, or dual career concerns. The possibilities are endless! I used to be jealous of my med student friends — at least they knew on a certain date that they would have a residency position, and it would be decided for them. Short of throwing darts at a map of the US (or a more biblical approach of casting lots), there are a few key items you can consider and focus on when looking for postdoc positions.

Where should I begin?

A good place to start is with the first “P”passion. In my opinion, it is (almost) never too early to start thinking about your scientific passions and how they fit into your plans post-grad school. Once you have passed your prelims or qualifying exams, you are in a good position to think about your skill sets, what types of science excite you, and the types of questions you like to answer. Are you a hands-on, practical person, or do you enjoy thinking about abstract questions? Do you like basic research simply for the joy of discovering something new, or are you a big picture person? Is there a particular disease or health-related cause you are excited about? It is often easy to think that you are limited by your field of study or the research you did in graduate school. In actuality, Ph.D. programs primarily teach you how to think like Ph.D.-level scientists and to be able to rationally design and carry out experiments. Sure, the specific techniques you have learned may help you obtain a certain position, but don’t be afraid to think outside the box to apply your skills and passions in new ways. Science is becoming more and more collaborative — so your skills may be useful to people in scientific areas you wouldn’t have expected.

Graduate school is also a good time to explore other potential areas of passion outside of your direct research. Try to obtain many diverse experiences in graduate school — such as teaching, interning in your school’s tech transfer office, or taking courses outside of your specialty if possible. Some departments or schools allow you to take internship opportunities or co-op positions — take advantage of opportunities that interest you. Targeted “extra-curriculars” can help you to network or even to decide that you would rather not pursue a certain career after all. During graduate school, I thought that I wanted to end up teaching full time at a small liberal arts college. It was only when I taught a full-length senior level biochemistry course that I discovered that I would rather not be a full time teaching professor! I still enjoy teaching, but in more of a hands-on style — lab courses and one-on-one mentoring. My grad school experiences allowed me to figure this out when I was only committed to a short-term rather than a long-term experience.

What if I don’t know what I want to do?

This can be a challenging question. I will have a post later in the series with resources for finding postdoc positions and how to decide what type of research you want to do. For now though, I would suggest taking advantage of career resources at your university and talk to as many people as possible. Talk to people who know you and who are ahead of you in their careers – they may have novel insights from their experiences. Also take advantage of career sessions at national conferences and invited speakers who give talks at your department. Most scientists are very happy to talk about their work in more detail and to offer “day-in-the-life of” advice.

Beginning the search

As I mentioned previously, there are many factors that can go into a postdoc search, particularly if you are not limited by geographic concerns. The best advice that I ever received was “identify the best university or lab to do the research you are interested in, and pursue a postdoc there”. When I heard this as a graduate student, I was intimidated by the thought of applying to the best places in the field! I wasn’t coming from a well known department at an Ivy League school, my advisor’s field of research was only marginally related to what I wanted to do, and I only had a few publications and abstracts. The good news, though, was that it helped me to narrow down my search. In hindsight, it has been the best thing that could have ever happened to me. My current postdoc position is a great fit for my future career goals, and I have opportunities to do cutting edge research with top notch collaborators. The work is extremely interesting and stimulating, and it has re-invigorated my passion for bench research.

What should I look for in postdoc position or a postdoc lab?

I will go into more detail on this in the next post on interviewing for a postdoc position. However, there are some general characteristics to look for as you begin your search. One of the things I have learned since starting my postdoc position is to look for jobs or research positions in areas with a strong academic presence. This is true even if you do not plan to stay in academics and want to pursue an alternative science career. Often, industry positions or small biotech firms will locate near major research universities — it is easier to attract talent and to collaborate with academic labs. Additionally, researchers who begin a project at the university may decide to spin-off and start their own company based upon the technology that formed the basis for their thesis project or postdoctoral research. There are also more opportunities for professional networking through regional societies or working groups.

Ending notes — People and Purpose

Importantly, remember that this is not only a professional opportunity, but an opportunity for ministry as well. Search for places that not only do good science, but that have opportunities for Christian fellowship and witness. Try to connect with a good fellowship group on campus or in the region for support and encouragement. This does not necessarily have to be a postdoc group — you can encourage graduate students in their journey, perhaps by serving as a mentor in a Graduate Christian Fellowship. Take the time to look for strategic outreach opportunities, and to pursue your calling as a follower of Christ. Do you enjoy apologetics? Look for opportunities on campus to reach out to student groups. Are you passionate about shaping public policy, social justice or refugees? Look for cities or regions that have opportunities to make a difference outside of the academy. [Editor’s note: ESN can help you find connections with other Christians and other Christian organizations. Just ask us.]

What questions do you have about starting your search for a postdoc? Have there been other ideas or resources that you’ve found helpful? 

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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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    Micheal Hickerson commented on October 25, 2011 Reply

    Thanks, Kelly, for this great post. I’m a big believer in your advice about talking with other people about our sense of calling. Especially in a competitive environment like academia (and one where the bar for “success” can be set very, very high), I think it can sometimes be difficult to recognize our natural strengths and gifts on our own. I once heard Darrell Johnson (professor of preaching at Regent College) speak on calling, and he observed that one of the common elements in Biblical stories of calling was a profound sense of inadequacy: Moses and his lack of confidence in speaking; Jeremiah’s concerns about his youth; Isaiah’s “woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips;” and many others.

      Katelin commented on October 25, 2011 Reply

      Ha! If a “sense of inadequacy” is an indicator of calling, then I am called to many many things!

    Kelly commented on October 26, 2011 Reply

    Thanks Mike and Katelin for your comments.

    Mike – I definitely agree with you about the competitive environment and the very high bar for success. I struggled with that often in grad school, especially since it seems like the primary role of a committee (and rightly so!) is to critique your work and to stretch and challenge you in ways to promote growth. But this is frustrating as a graduate student when successes are often short lived (i.e. your first publication is a big deal to you, but the committee wants the 2nd and 3rd published yesterday!)

    Katelin – I also agree with you to some extent. The trick though, is to distinguish the false sense of inadequacy you might feel when you are called to something difficult, vs. a realization that certain areas just aren’t your strong point!

    I guess at some point I realized that if the criteria for success is being the top of your field, then there are a lot of perfectly good and happy scientists who didn’t get the memo! Another thing I have had to learn (and am still learning!) is to trust God and His calling in my life, even through my sense of inadequacy. He has provided much more than I could have asked or imagined, despite my qualifications or lack thereof.

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