Selecting a Postdoc


Selecting a postdoc: The first task is to deliberate carefully before inviting a postdoc to join a program. What is this person's potential for making important contributions to research, both as a scholar and as a member of the lab or research team? How well might his or her particular skills fit strategically within the organization? Although these questions can seldom be answered with certainty, the adviser who seeks references and a face-to-face meeting has a better chance of making a match that benefits both the program and the postdoc. This aspect cannot be over-emphasized when bringing foreign postdocs on board where face-to-face interview may not be possible. It is your responsibility to use all communication methods available including SKYPE to talk to the candidate and his/her references and verify the degree, position, expertise and experience on CV.

Selecting a research problem: The adviser can help frame a good problem in several ways. Most important, the postdoc must care deeply about it—and this enthusiasm must be shared by the adviser. Second, the problem must be important for the field as well as for the postdoc's career. Third, approaching a good problem can stimulate the postdoc to understand how to convert initial questions into a working hypothesis and to understand the magnitude of resources (time, equipment, expertise, and money) needed to accomplish the work. Early discussions should include the extent to which the postdoc can expect to take ownership of a project and plan on continuing the research after the postdoctoral appointment.

Research guidance: In return for the postdoc's contributions, the attentive adviser will guide the postdoc toward becoming a better researcher. Most postdocs need such guidance especially in the early months to avoid wasting time. They don't, however, need micromanaging; the adviser's goal is to allow the postdoc to grow toward independence and a relationship that becomes a collaborative one. As postdocs gain independence, they need to learn, under the mentor 's guidance, to manage their time and often the time of technicians. They benefit from reading deeply and broadening their intellectual portfolio. They must learn to answer important questions: What distinguishes an important research problem from a routine one? What strategies are most likely to succeed? How much time will be needed to answer a question? People who lack the time or inclination to provide an educational experience should not accept the responsibility of mentoring postdocs.

Advancing the career: In addition to guiding the postdoc in research skills, the adviser can help the postdoc identify and acquire necessary career skills, such as those of communication, publication, grant writing, and management. Those who aim for professorships, independent research, or research management must be assisted and challenged in appropriate, educational ways. Some postdocs may prefer to continue their research careers in valuable supporting roles, such as that of a research scientist working as a member of a team on their own or the research grants of PIs.

Balancing the needs of the program and the needs of the postdoc: Laboratories and research groups need continuity and a “critical mass” of expertise (including postdocs) to complete major projects, and postdocs need the freedom to find their own challenges. A postdoc is in the lab not only to make valuable scientific contributions but also to expand his or her accomplishments. A mentor has the responsibility to help the postdoc see a project (or aspect of the project) to completion in a reasonable time (usually not more than five years). Future employers will want to see evidence of perseverance and an ability to attain successful closure on research problems.