Thursday, April 9, 2015

Interviewing for a postdoc? Questions you should ask.

Following the "Questions you should ask" for the faculty job search, I was asked for a similar post for the postdoctoral search.

This is another really important decision that you'll have to make to further your career and it should be appropriately researched...we're scientists after all and we should research the lab we plan to join as well as we perform a thorough literature search before embarking on a new project. Aditi Nedkarni already wrote a great post on LinkedIn Pulse with a list of excellent questions you should go through.

Most of the questions that she suggest such as "How does the PI deal with conflict?" "Does the PI assist with experiments? Picking a project?' are much easier to ask to current fellows in the lab, because the PI may have a different prospective or think they do a good job when in reality the lab has a different view. There will always be pros and cons with a postdoctoral mentor and you have to figure out whether the cons are too much for you. Some people thrive in environments which can make other people miserable. I always found that as a postdoc, I was very honest with prospective lab members so that they could make an informed choice. If a PI does not allow you to speak with the current lab members alone, it's a red flag. Even for Skype interviews, I always organize a second interview where I leave the lab alone with the candidate for half an hour, so that they can talk without me present.

I think that the most important predictor of success is "How many people from the lab went on to obtain a faculty position?". If you are in the same field, you should pretty much know because your PhD mentor should know the person and tell you about their progeny. Some labs have the list of former trainees and their current position on their website, but it doesn't hurt to ask the PI in person. Especially now that the job market is so bad. This is a difficult question if you are interested in working with a new PI who hasn't produced any progeny yet, but you should ask them about their strategy for helping people with their careers. The way experienced and new PIs answer these questions should tell you lots about what kind of mentor they are going to be.

Before interviewing you should prepare to answer questions about you and your research (see this article for advice), but also think long and hard about what kind of project and environment you want. Then you tailor your questions to figure out whether the lab is a good fit. It can also be useful to have your PI put you in touch with colleagues that did their postdoc in the labs you're interested in. I just had a long conversation with a friend's student and it turned out my postdoctoral advisor may not be the best scientific fit, but I could recommend several other faculty at the same institution.

At the end of your PhD, your ideas on your future may still be nebulous and that is perfectly okay. I would strongly recommend that you interview in as many labs as you'd like and that you explore different possibilities. Do not feel like you are wasting people's time/money. As faculty, we are aware in the investment we make in finding the right people in our lab, and we are aware that good candidates are few and far between and that many people will have multiple options. As long as you are gracious and open with your decision process, people will not get upset and even if you decide for a different lab, you will have forged scientific relationships for the future. Just in case you'll need a second postdoc for any reason, or a faculty position one day...


  1. Anonymous (soon-to-be) PostdocApril 10, 2015 at 5:44 PM

    You are awesome -- thanks so much! If I encounter stuff in my interviews that hasn't already been covered by you or the folks you linked to, I promise to come back and share.

  2. Tks very much for your post.

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