Over the past 10 years, I have talked with numerous graduate students that are in the process of selecting a laboratory to conduct their research. One thing that has stood out during those conversations is the lack of homework that students do when selecting a laboratory. With the average time to a Ph.D. lengthening and the average age of the first RO1 grant on the rise, the selection of a laboratory is one of the most important decisions to be made during predoctoral and postdoctoral training.
When I look back on how I selected the laboratories that I conducted my research, I separate it into three distinct stages: Pre-Application, Interview, Post Interview. The techniques that I used at each stage are applicable to laboratory selection at both the predoctoral and postdoctoral levels (just substitute Interview for Rotation for predocs). However, because selecting a predoc or postdoc lab has minor differences, I will focus solely on selecting a postdoctoral laboratory. Feel free to comment with questions more specific to selecting a predoctoral laboratory.
The first point that I want to stress when picking a lab is to start EARLY! I spent 4 months researching labs prior to applying, and then another 6 months in the Interview and Post Interview stages. Plan on spending a year on your search. As soon as your thesis committee gives permission to write your thesis, I would start to send out applications. Thus, this pre-application stage should be started at about the time it feels like an end is in sight to your Ph.D.
The second point that is important is to be organized. A successful organization strategy is the key to sustaining such a long search. I kept a spreadsheet detailing the labs I was interested in, their contact information, area of study, and where I was at in the application process with them. Since you will likely be juggling different labs at different stages of the application process on top of bench work and thesis writing, the development of a system will really help in relieving some of the stress that accompanies a lab search.
The very first step when embarking on a laboratory search is to take time for introspection. It is important to understand what you are trying to accomplish in your postdoctoral training. Is there a specific area of research or technique that you want to become proficient in? Does a certain region of the country or world seem the ideal place to live or conduct research? What laboratory environment do you want to be in? The postdoctoral laboratory is an opportunity to learn from your predoctoral training and find a situation that has the elements you liked and doesn’t have the ones that you didn’t. Only through introspection can you find those answers as they are unique for each person.
Once you have decided the type(s) of labs you are interested in, the next step is to figure out what those are. There are a number of strategies that can be used to identify potential labs, and I think a combination of all of them is the best approach. One strategy involves scanning the high impact journals for articles of interest. This approach is definitely valid, but I would also add searching the specialized journals for your area of interest. Another method is to attend scientific meetings. When you attend a meeting, it provides ample opportunity to learn about the newest research in a particular field as well as being a forum for networking with those that did the research.
If you have identified institutions where you want to work, you can scan the relevant departments to identify labs of interest. I used this strategy to identify two labs at one institution where I eventually was able to interview. The last technique is to network. I talked with my advisor and thesis committee members about my interests. I was able to bounce my ideas off of them and get the inside scoop on the labs I was interested in as well as identify other potential labs.
I am sure you may be wondering how many laboratories you should apply to. I sent in about 15 applications and interviewed at 5 laboratories. However, I had an even longer list of labs that I was considering and these were prioritized based on my criteria. With the funding situation as it is, I would suggest that the more labs you identify at this stage the better because you never know what may happen. One lab I applied to had a two year waitlist. Many of the labs I identified did not have funding or were waiting on grant scores that were months out. These are all factors to consider during the re-application process and, unfortunately, this information may not become apparent until the Interview.
I discovered the laboratory where I am conducting my postdoctoral training from a scientific meeting. My advisor gave a talk at the first national meeting I attended. His presentation was dynamic and on a topic that I was interested in. I continued to follow his research throughout my Ph.D. When it was time to apply for postdoc labs, I saw great potential in his laboratory and sent in my application. Ultimately, I selected his lab over all the others and, in the next two parts of this series, I will describe how I came to that decision.