Interviewing for a Postdoc Position


One of my dear readers recently wrote to me with the following question:
I know you were able to land a pretty great post-doc position, so I thought I'd ask you for some advice on how to prepare for my upcoming post-doc interview. I'm really really nervous, and I know I'll have to impress not just the PI but the post-docs and grad students in order to get an offer. Do you have any tips for me that might ease my nerves a bit?
I was happy to offer my advice to this Candid Reader, and I thought it would sure be useful to slap that advice up on the good ol' blog. Yeehaw.

Now, before I get started, it's worth noting that not only did I land my own postdoc position at one point in time, but I'm also one of my supervisor's go-to interviewers when potential postdoc candidates come through. I interview 1-2 candidates per month, which can drive me pretty nuts- but it's definitely given me an opportunity to develop a good sense of what to do and not to do on interviews.

Do's:

1. Read a few publications from the lab, particularly any high-impact publications from the last 3-5 years. It's not necessary to understand everything, and you could get away with just having a sense of what the abstract says. This will enable you to be able to talk with some familiarity about their work. It also makes you look like you're interested enough in the group to be excited/knowledgeable about their research.

2. Have a good reason why you want to work in the lab. "I couldn't find another job" or "It's the best lab, of course" are not very good reasons. Surprisingly, I usually get shitty responses to this (easy) question. Simply express genuine excitement in what the lab is doing, and have an idea of what you will give/what you can get from the lab environment.

3. Have an idea of what you'd like to do in the lab, even if it's not well-thought-out. This may or may not matter- for example, sometimes you're applying for a very specific position where the project is already laid out. But if there's some flexibility, you look better if you can talk about some of your ideas in the context of the new lab. Simple extensions of your Ph.D. work are not as exciting as something a bit different. Don't get too crazy, though, or you'll look like a bonehead.

4. Communicate, if given the opportunity, that you are eager to both share with the lab your current expertise and get involved in what the lab is currently doing. The best postdocs give and take.

5. Have at least one question for every person you meet. Don't ask the first person on your schedule all of your questions and then act totally bored and satisfied in front of everyone else. Every person you meet is judging you independently, and you look downright uninterested in the lab if you have no questions.

6. Dress in something comfortable but professional. Do not make my mistake and wear uncomfortable heels to your postdoc interview that you cannot walk in. Suits look great, but if you don't have one- nice slacks, a collared shirt, and nice jewelry will convey that you are serious about the position.

7. Follow up with thank-you emails to every person on your schedule - post doc, student, or otherwise. Current trainees in the lab sometimes have a big say in the hiring decisions, and you want to thank them for their time and make them feel like you enjoyed meeting them and would be a good colleague.

8. This is redundant, but simply be *enthusiastic*. There is nothing you can do once you are at your interview about your resume or any of that pre-determined stuff. You've already overcome that filter, so you will walk into your interview being THE CANDIDATE and you will be hired unless you do something wrong. Just be the colleague that everyone wants to have- be interested in all of the work going on, ask questions, offer sincere compliments about good things you see/are told about, and demonstrate a real interest to learn and grow in the lab.


DON'Ts:

1. Criticize the work being done in the lab, or talk about how you are going to make it so much better. Everyone will hate you and will say things like "Sayonara, fuckwad" after you leave for the day.

2. Cram too much into your interview seminar. No one gives a shit about every experiment you've ever done- boil your presentation down to one or two key ideas and convey, convey, convey those ideas so that your audience walks away thinking "Wow, she did X, and she did it really well." Smart people will always assume that you have done much more work than you are actually presenting.

3. Curse or talk about sensitive topics like religion or politics. I realize that this seems self-explanatory- but you should see some of the candidates we get through our door. Offending people, even if you're trying to convey a sense of humor, gets you nowhere.


Writing these things, I can't help but think what common sense it all is. But there's a good reason why we only hire maybe half of those we interview. So be smart. Read my blog. Interview. Do it.

Please feel free to tack on additional suggestions in the comments. There are undoubtedly issues that I've missed.