If you're hoping to end up on the tenure track, the work you do as a post-doc is arguably the most critical factor in whether you'll get there. Picking the right lab, then, is huge. But how do you know what the right one is? And is there just one? Weighing in on her experience is semi-regular guest post-er and all around amazing person NatC, aka SciTriGrrl.
How I chose a Post-doc lab [The most unhelpful post on choosing a postdoc that you’ll ever read]
This follows from a tweet from @TellDrTell quoting a speaker on the importance oc choosing a BSD for a post-doc. @dogwearingahat wrote about his experience and rationale for choosing a smaller lab.
At grad school, I started in the lab of a BSD.
It didn’t go well.
So I changed labs, and ended up with Professor X who was established, as yet untenured, had just gotten enough lab space to expand her lab, and worked on the topic that I super ridiculously interested in.
Reader, I was her first grad student.
I got a lot of advice when I started looking for a post-doc - on how different (or not) the research should be from my PhD, on what kind of lab I should join, what type of person I should work for, and where I should live.
My PhD advisor’s advice (because she is TEH BOMB) was simply this: go and do the research you’re interested in, somewhere you think you can do it well.
(For the record, my PhD advisor is now a BSD. And she is till awesome.)
Swedish Postdoc, not Swedish Chef
My very good friend the Swedish postdoc told me that his criteria were (1) being able to have a good working relationship with someone; (2) doing good science, that you were interested in; and (3) being in the lab of someone that is around to be a mentor.
The mentorship thing was big for me - partly because of my first unhappy lab experience on this side of the world, but also because what I wanted to do was keep one foot in the kind of research I had been doing, while simultaneously moving the other foot into a square over *there*. And I knew enough to know that I had no idea what I was putting that foot into.
At that time, there were few labs doing exactly what I wanted to do. There were a couple of BSD labs, and a couple of others dotted around, and a fair number that started a couple of years after I began my post-doc, but 8 or 9 years ago, there weren’t many. But there was one person, Professor Z, whose work I knew, was already an established scientist, but still untenured, moved to the US
What sold me was that upon meeting Professor Z is that we were able to discuss science, ideas, have a drink and a meal. At my interview, she and I argued about my dissertation topic for so long that we were late to my talk. Any by argue I mean in the best possible kind of rigorous discussion. It was fun. I joined her lab because of these things, plus (and this was critical) the timing and the funding worked out perfectly. When I joined her lab there were three of us.
In the lab of Professor X, I learned all I know about what is now a huge component of what I do, while simultaneously able to be productive. I worked on projects that ended up going on winding paths and ending up in entirely unexpected places - and I would not have been able to get there without her knowledge and mentorship, which for me was a balance between plenty of freedom, with the support to ask questions and discuss issues when they came up (and the occasional swift kick in the arse, applied with love). Later, with her encouragement, I was able to start, and get funding for, a crazy project, with several collaborators in entirely different fields.
One of the unsung advantages of doing some training in a smaller lab is that you learn how to set up or make things work with what you have. I was also able to learn from her experiences in dealing with the US system for the first time, and departmental politics, and the importance of getting everything in writing.
It worked out for both of us - I am a n00b TT faculty, she is now a full Professor.
More importantly for me, I had one of the best post-doc experiences of anyone I know. It wasn’t that I worked less hard or was less productive, it was that my mentor was around to be a mentor, and that she is an amazing and wonderful person - and I was so lucky to find someone I get along with so well.
My take on finding a post-doc that the thing that matters most is you - what do you need in a mentor and in a lab? What do you want to do? There are different advantages in different types of laboratories, and things will change dramatically over your post-doc - the lab you leave will be a very different place than the lab you joined (when I started in the lab there were 3 of us. When I left, there were 9) and your PI will be in a different career stage (unless you’re working with BSD).
As was pointed out in the twitter discussion, not everyone from any lab - BSD or not - has a fantastic postdoc, or chooses to try to stay in science. Telling people there’s a formula for a post-doc is complete bullshit. Similarly, some people have a great post-doc experience, and for others it sucks, and it more depends on personalities involved (and luck) than on the type of lab you choose.
So my 2 cents is this:
Want to succeed in science? Then you’ve got to want to stay in it. To do that, do research you are interested in, in a lab that you can grow, and in a place you’re going to enjoy. Listen to all the advice, then make up you’re own damn mind, for your own damn reasons.
So you don’t need a BSD, HHMI, Nobel-laureates lab to succeed. But if that’s the kind of lab you want to work in, go for it.