Postdoc Possibilities and Preferences


Now that I am a postdoc at Brilliant U. (for better or worse), I have been thinking more about different types of postdoctoral opportunities and the process of selecting an appropriate position. Although I am confident that I will be able to succeed in my current setting, I think a little more forethought would have been appropriate during my job search. Let’s break down the possibilities:

Give Versus Take

Advisor Takes, Postdoc Gives: In this scenario, the advisor is looking for a postdoc who is already a demonstrated expert in subtopic Q. By bringing this postdoc into the lab, the advisor will be able to capitalize on the previous knowledge of this postdoc and glean some “easy” training on subtopic Q for other students in the lab. I imagine this is a common situation in the labs of assistant or associate professors who are interested in branching into a new area of research with which they themselves are not particularly familiar. This is great for the advisor, but perhaps not so great for the postdoc (unless s/he hadn’t gotten enough of his or her grad work and wanted to do more).
Advisor Gives, Postdoc Takes: In this case, the postdoc has a general interest in the work going on in the advisor’s lab, but little to no previous experience with it. Typically, the postdoc has previously demonstrated some excellence with subtopic N, and the advisor trusts that the postdoc will have some fresh insights into subtopic P. The postdoc requires a significant amount of ‘start-up’ time in the new lab, as it is difficult to digest an entire new body of literature overnight and suddenly spew forth unique and/or head-spinning ideas. Such a circumstance can arise in a variety of labs, but usually occurs under the tutelage of an advisor who is simply interested in good science and doesn’t have a burning need to delve into any particular sub-discipline. If the postdoc is smart and creative, this is probably a win/win situation.
Degree of Mentoring Received

Too Much Attention: The advisor is either overly excitable, overbearing, or obnoxious. This kind of relationship should be completely unnecessary at the postdoctoral level, since one of the major goals of a postdoc position should be research independence.
Happy Medium: This advisor has a vested interest in the postdoc and enough time to be available for mentoring, when needed. Most likely, this advisor manages a medium-sized research group (say, 10-15 researchers). The postdoc has enough freedom to plan his or her own experiments, but can approach the advisor when additional advice or input is desirable.
Advisor? What Advisor?: This advisor is so busy and/or manages so many people, the postdoc has little to no opportunity for regular interaction. In this scenario, the postdoc is left to fend for him- or herself. This situation may result in a highly independent and capable postdoc, or it may result in a postdoc that wallows in indecision and regularly cries him- or herself to sleep. Get out of the boat. Sink or swim.

So, I guess you have to ask yourself, which set of circumstances is best for you, for your work style, and for your growth as a researcher?

Working in the lab of Extremely Famous Professor, I am in situation 2C. Right now, it is scary to be thrown into a completely new area of research with virtually no guidance from any kind of advisor-figure. I think it’s totally bizarre that I have developed a couple of random ideas about subtopic K, which I know little about, and now I just go for it! I have talked to a couple of colleagues about my plans, and they have given me their feedback and seem to think my ideas have merit. Now, I get to begin spending massive sums of money on a project that may very well fail! Extremely Famous Professor will step in just in time to tell me that I am a pathetic fool of a researcher and to throw me out on my ass. Terrific.

Ideally, I would have chosen a lab where I could have been a 2B postdoc. My problem was finding such a lab in an area that interested me. And, I have to admit, having Brilliant University on my resume certainly had its appeal. Subsequently, I was thrown overboard. Let the swimming lessons begin.

So, how about you? What kind of situation are you in? What are the pros and cons?