All About Interviews (Postdoc Edition)

Interviews - hey’re such an exciting and slightly nerve wracking process. I’m wrapping up my PhD this fall so I just finished a full round of interviews for what is called a postdoctoral fellowship. For anyone who is not familiar with a postdoctoral fellowship (or postdoc as they’re commonly called), they’re a position designed to allow a newly-minted PhD on the academic track (i.e. to become a professor at a research institution and do their own independent research) to gain more skills in an area they want to work in and also to publish more papers. Scientific articles are typically viewed as the currency for academic positions, which essentially means the more papers you have published in scientific journals, the more competitive you become as a faculty candidate at a university.

I want to remain in the academic setting and lead my own research group, so a postdoc is the natural next step for me. A postdoc is especially important because my interests lay a little further outside of the research I’ve been working on over the course of my PhD. Because of this, I need training in new techniques, working with a different model system, and switching from a focus on cardiovascular physiology back into neuroscience, where my passion really is. Even though it’s still a training environment at the university, a postdoc position is different than being a PhD student because you’re also bringing a set of skills and a new perspective to the new lab you’re joining and will ideally be a little more independent in a shorter amount of time compared to if you were starting as a PhD student all over again.

So what do you need to know about getting a postdoc position? In this post I hope to cover all the bases, ranging from reaching out to potential postdoc labs, what to expect during your interview, to eventually making a decision. Let’s dive right on in!

  1. Finding potential labs and making the first contact.

    • Where would you want to be and what type of work are you interested in? This is the first thing I asked myself and I focused on universities known for their neuroscience research. One way to laser focus your search is to check out NIH Reporter (something my husband did when he was looking for postdoc labs), which lists active NIH grants (people who have funding are more likely to have the capacity to accept trainees). I have to say I didn’t get that many names using NIH Reporter, I just looked through neuroscience faculty for keywords that jogged my interest. Are there people you’ve met at conferences whose work you’re interested in? Reach out to them too.

    • Make the initial contact. I contacted most people by email, but some labs now have applications you can complete on their lab website. Keep it brief and hit the important information right out of the gate. When I started my emails, I stated who I was, what stage I was at (ie. fourth year PhD student), a short comment about what I’m working on and whose lab I’m in, what draws my interest to their work, and then 3 references with their email addresses. I also attached my Curriculum Vitae (CV) to the email so they have all the information they need. Labs who respond to your email will likely suggest setting up a time to Skype to get to know you a little bit. I got lucky that I had contacted labs close to the time of the annual Society for Neuroscience Meeting so I met many people there to have our initial chat. Make sure to familiarize yourself with their work, have some questions prepared, and be yourself. Don’t take it personally if you don’t hear back or if a lab isn’t accepting postdocs - usually this comes down to funding or that the lab is at capacity at that moment in time. I sent emails in waves of 5 with 2-3 weeks in between.

  2. Preparing for your interview.

    • So you’ve landed an interview visit. How do you prepare? During the interview, most likely you will be asked to give a seminar during the visit. Don’t be afraid to ask about the duration of the talk or who the audience will be, this way you can mold your talk to fit the audience’s background. I prepared slides that were heavy on background and I hit the highlights of my data (aka the big overall messages).

    • Read papers from the lab. Some may even send you papers from their lab after the first contact so you can get familiar with the recent work of the lab. Focus on recent papers because labs are dynamic and the direction of the lab’s research may change over time.

  3. At the interview.

    • Normally during the interview, you’ll have a pretty set schedule. At all the interviews I had, I started the day chatting briefly with the PI (principal investigator). I gave my seminar during lab meeting and then afterwards had one-on-one meetings with members of the lab and other members of the department. There are usually also lunch/dinner with the lab where you can chat in a more relaxed environment.

    • Questions to ask: I like to ask the members of the lab about the mentor’s training style. Are they hands on or a little more distant? What are conference opportunities? Teaching opportunities? Grant writing opportunities? Also, don’t be afraid to ask the PI these questions too - they’ll give you a good idea of the grant writing process and how many conferences members of the lab attend on average. Some will tell you openly how long they can guarantee funding, but you’re also allowed to ask in case it doesn’t get mentioned. Ask about what you think the future directions of the lab will be so you can get an idea of the current research climate and where things will be progressing in the future.

  4. Making the decision.

    • This was absolutely the hardest part for me. I was lucky enough to interview with several very good scientists and I was afraid at the beginning that the decision would be impossible. But I can say without hesitation that after all the interview visits were said and done, I had a feeling I knew where I wanted to go.

    • Things to consider: How did you feel with the members of the lab? There were groups that I felt comfortable almost instantly and could see myself fitting in with. There were other groups that it felt a little less comfortable, even though they were really nice people. But lab environment has a huge impact on my decision, so I gravitated towards groups where it felt easier to talk to everyone and felt free to be myself. What do you think about the research? This was the deciding factor for me, honestly. I was choosing between labs that felt almost identical in terms of mentorship and lab environment, but there was one lab that stood out and I could feel myself getting really excited about and saw a lot more potential opportunities to do things I felt passionate about.

    • Trust your instinct. When I started my interviews, I had an idea of the lab I thought I wanted to go to, but then when I was talking about research with the PI I couldn’t muster up any excitement for the work (even though I desperately wanted to). In my graduate school experience, I know what it’s like to want to want to love something, but it’s just not there. Thankfully, during my PhD I grew to love the topic I was working on, but I don’t want to repeat that experience during my postdoc. When I got back from all my travels and had a few weeks to mull everything over, I went to talk to my PI about my decision and run all my thoughts past him. One piece of advice was, ”Go with your gut,” and I can say without a doubt that it’s the right thing to do.

Bonus piece of advice: Don’t send out emails regarding offers on April Fool’s Day like I did. (Thankfully nothing traumatic happened, but maybe keep an eye on the date before you send out responses - hahaha).

Go forth and follow your dreams, friends.

Bree Watkins