You finally see the light at the end of the graduate school tunnel. The frustrations and triumphs of your dissertation experiments have only whetted your appetite for more research training. Or, perhaps, you’ve sprinted toward the broad and diverse “alternate” career horizon, but haven’t landed a paying job in this current pessimistic economy.
So, now you are looking for postdoctoral training, which could be an exciting and rewarding opportunity, whether in academia, government, or industry. Your potential future research career may be contingent on the successes of this postdoc experience. A smart decision now can go a long way to helping you later on.
Here are some suggested questions to ask potential mentors and members of their lab or research groups before you commit. Consider their answers carefully for your situation.
1. What research projects are available? What research skills are needed? How do I fit into this research group? Does the mentor have a realistic vision for the research projects in his or her group?
2. Are there parts of your potential research project(s) that you can use for developing your own independent research career? Is the mentor open to discussing this?
3. Does each individual in the research group have his or her own project(s)? Is there significant overlap and competition among group members? Is the working environment collegial or competitive?
4. Are there travel funds for attending training courses or scientific conferences? Are talks and presentations at national meetings encouraged or discouraged?
5. Who writes the manuscripts? Are paper authorships clearly decided prior to work being done?
6. What is the managing style of the mentor? Is he/she a micro-manager or never in the lab or office?
7. Is there training and support for writing grants and fellowship applications?
8. Does the lab or research group have sufficient funds for equipment, supplies, and research support (secretaries, technicians, etc.)? What is the funding situation currently and in the near future? Is there a good chance that there will not be sufficient research funds?
9. How often does the mentor meet with postdocs? How often are lab or research group meetings? What usually occurs during these meetings?
10. How willing is the mentor to introduce trainees to collaborators and other important people in the field? Is the lab or research group in close competition with another group?
11. What are the stipend and health/retirement benefits? Is there dental/vision insurance? Is childcare subsidized?
12. What were the accomplishments and job offers for recent postdocs in this group? Where are they now? Was the mentor supportive of their decisions?
13. What are the expected working hours? Is telework permitted?
14. What are the biggest challenges for the lab or research group? Have there been recent personality clashes or personnel conflicts? Language barriers?
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Government.
Wenny Lin, PhD, MPH, is a fellow in the Cancer Prevention Fellowship Program at the National Cancer Institute. Prior to joining the Nutritional Epidemiology Branch in the Division of Cancer Epidemiology & Genetics, Wenny earned her MPH from the Harvard School of Public Health in 2009 and her PhD in Cell & Molecular Biology from the University of Pennsylvania in 2008.