Coming to the US for a postdoc? — If I had known, part II
Like many other European researchers, I moved to the US for my postdoc. While some stay in the US, and others return to Europe after their postdocs, I’m almost certain that anyone who has followed this path will have encountered a few shocks along the way. Choosing the right fit for your postdoctoral training is just as important as choosing the right lab for your PhD. Based on my experiences, here is a list of the things that I think are worth checking in advance to avoid thinking “I wish I had known” too often.
1. Career development opportunities. Being a postdoc provides you with an extended training period after receiving your PhD. It is the pathway toward becoming an independent researcher, and therefore it is important to undertake your training in a place where career development is enhanced and supported. Find out how the lab or the institution that you are interviewing with can help you boost your career and expertise. Often times, workshops and courses are offered on-site throughout the year in order to help postdocs to improve certain skills, and you should definitely be taking advantage of those. Make sure you are landing in a place where this is supported and encouraged.
2. Benefits. It can be a huge slap in the face when you arrive in the US and find that health care is not universal. You will certainly learn to appreciate the health care system in your home country that you’ve been complaining about for years. You should look into the policies at the institute or university you are applying to (retirement plans, health insurance, vacation policy, etc.) I did not ask about any of these things when I accepted my job offer, and that was naïve. You don’t need to ask your potential supervisor during your interview — Human Resources can help you with this after a formal job offer has been made. I know now that when I am next looking for a job, this is something that I want to discuss.
3. Funding. This may seem obvious but funding opportunities are not always secure. When I was looking for postdoctoral positions I approached labs whose research focus was common to mine, and that were developing techniques and projects that I could learn from. However, some labs did not have the funding available to hire a new postdoc at that time. If a lab has secured the funding to hire a postdoc, it may only be for a limited period of time — this is something you can discuss with your potential supervisor. Once this period of time is up, you will be expected to write grant proposals, and apply for different fellowships. It’s worth considering that you might not get a fellowship, and then you’ll have to ask where that leaves you? Carefully consider all options and outcomes — you need to assess if the big move is worth it.
4. New lab or established lab? This is down to personal preference and having worked in both types of labs, and also something in between (call it a nearly-established lab?), they all have their pros and cons. A new lab may struggle to publish their work, which can in turn affect funding opportunities. However, younger labs are smaller in size, and supervisors are more likely to discuss any questions you might have — this may better suit a graduate than a postdoc. In a larger, well-established lab you might forget what your supervisor looks like, as your sole mean of communication with them is e-mail. Whilst funding might be more secure, nothing can be taken for granted. It may also help future job searches if your name is attached to a renowned lab in the field. Assess your personal needs and career interests before making your decision.
5. Lab policy — how much you can take with you at the end. Last year, the late Professor Ben Barres explained why this is so important in a comment in Nature. Although this may be an awkward topic to broach, it is crucial to have this conversation with your supervisor to find out about their policy regarding how much of your work you can take with you when you leave. As you transition from postdoc to independent researcher, there will be an inevitable overlap with your supervisor. Naturally your research interests will be very close to theirs. In order to gain independence as a researcher you obviously need to develop and elaborate your very own ideas, but the seed of those ideas are rooted in your postdoc research.
If you are interviewing with an established lab, a simple search online may tell you how well former postdocs are doing, how they branched out from the main interest of the lab, and how much of their research they were allowed to take with them. That would give you some hints on what to expect, and how to bring up this point.
6. Assess your personal situation. Moving alone is one thing, but if you are moving with family or children you will need to think about their need too. From day care, education, extra-curricular activities, to your significant other’s job prospects — all of these things need to be carefully considered and accounted for to avoid unpleasant surprises, as they can take a toll on your financial situation.
7. Do your research. Every university or institute has their own policies, hiring processes, and ways of conducting research. Nowadays it is relatively easy to find out about the places that you are interested in by doing an online search. Choose a place that you feel you could fit in well, and that will provide you with the type of training you are looking for. If you can talk to other postdocs in the lab, seize the opportunity, and ask them about their personal experience. It is also important to research the town you are moving to; it is very different living in California on a postdoc salary than in Indiana. After years of moving between different countries, I’ve learned that the quality of life in the city or town you will be moving to is just as important as the quality of the institution where you will be researching.
Even if I had considered all of these things before I began my search for a postdoc position, I would have ended up in the same place I am now. However, in hindsight I realize that some of the labs that I interviewed with would not have been able to satisfy all of the points above. Assess your own needs and expectations, and choose wisely. In this case, it is better to be safe than sorry.
Elena Blanco-Suárez is a post-doctoral researcher in the molecular neurobiology lab of Nicola Allen at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, CA. She studies astrocytes, a special cell type in the brain, and their role in the maturation of neuronal connections. Follow her in Twitter (@westboundsigned) and Instagram (@neurocosas) for science outreach, and her science blogging at NeuWrite — San Diego and Medium.