Tuesday, August 30, 2011

In pursuit of a Ph.D.: How to choose a post-doctoral lab

Part III of a three-part series in which graduate students at Washington University discuss their thinking behind choices they make at various steps in obtaining a Ph.D. in science.

Start early

Meredith Estep, a post-doctoral research associate in the Department of Pediatrics, Newborn Medicine Division, has been through the experience of choosing a post-doctoral lab and can give insight into the process and her thoughts at the time.  For her, it paid off to start paying attention and looking out for post-doc labs early.  Years before graduating, Meredith attended a conference and was very impressed by a talk that was given; not only was the research in the talk interesting, but the professor speaking seemed to her like a personable, genuinely nice person.  When it came time to look for a job, Meredith remembered the professor who had left such a strong impression on her, sent an email about potential post-doc openings, but was told "No."  Yet she persisted and followed up during the next few months, and she was finally offered an interview and a position! 
Think outside the box
Erica Koval, of the Neurosciences Program, is considering pursuing a post-doctoral position in industry rather than the traditional post-doc in an academic environment.  "I want to be able to focus on goal-driven translational work while being part of a larger research team," she explains.  And, Erica believes that spending time in both academia (from her Ph.D. work) and industry would give her enough insight to make the ultimate decision on which avenue to pursue for her future career – a reasonable and logical choice that anyone who isn't 100% sure about his or her career might want to consider!
Post-doctoral research field is influenced by graduate work
Although she precedes her statement with an admission that she wants to keep her options open, Clara Moon (Immunology Program) states that she would love to stay in the field of her graduate work (mucosal immunology) for her post-doc.  Corinne Decker, also in the Immunology Program, agrees that she would like to stay in her field.  Not necessarily the specific subject of osteoimmunology, but definitely an immunology lab, preferably work with direct clinical relevance.  It is interesting to see that the choice of thesis lab potentially has long-term effects.
Funding makes a difference
When asked what the most important factors were for her when deciding on her post-doc lab, Meredith responded that "a position that was already funded" was crucial.  Corinne agrees and says that secure funding would most definitely influence her choice of post-doctoral lab.  Other factors that matter include productivity and a mentor who has time to advise his/her post-docs.

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