There is an awful lot to finding a job.
Creating the right networks and connections; getting the attention of potential employers; and presenting yourself in the best possible light with your CV and in the interview so you can land the job… these are just the basics.
But how do you know you are making all this effort for the right postdoc job for you, rather than just an ‘ok’ postdoc position; or – worse – one that may actually harm your career prospects?
How do you select the best possible postdoc position to focus your efforts on?
When picking a target supervisor and research group, the advice you commonly get is:
- there should be lots of money to support research
- pick a group that produces a lot of papers
- the supervisor should be famous / a star in the field
This is good advice in principle but it assumes that the money, prolific paper production and the fame of the supervisor will benefit you too, as his or her postdoc.
If this is the case – congratulations, you’ve found the perfect postdoc position! However, research groups that may look perfect on the surface can actually turn out to be harmful for your career prospects. This could be because they are too crowded with not enough support for you, either with respect to money or guidance and mentoring, or because they turn out to be completely unsuited to your style of working.
To complicate matters, what may be a perfect group for one person might be harmful to the next. So, how do you find out whether a potential supervisor and research group really are perfect for you?
First, ask yourself several honest questions about your requirements and preferences for your work environment.
1. Your level of independence:
As a first-time postdoc or someone changing fields you need a higher level of support (mentoring, technical support, etc.) than someone who has done a couple of postdocs and just needs a few pointers to know where to go next. It’s vital that you are honest with yourself here (I know I wasn’t when I went through this step initially).
You may love independence, but do you know how to manage a new project, collaborators, students, budgets and all the administrative requirements that come with institute-based research or field work? How much experience do you actually have in running a project all the way from gaining funding to submitting papers that get accepted?
The less experience you have, the more you benefit from a supportive environment to help you grow. Having a high level of independence when you actually need guidance and support means you waste a lot of time figuring things out by yourself – without producing the outcomes you need to make progress in the career you want.
2. Your working style:
Collaborative or competitive? Some people absolutely love working in a competitive environment, while others perceive intense competition among colleagues and superiors as hostile and counter-productive to their performance. If you are one of the latter, an environment where people constantly try to outperform each other might put you off research for the rest of your life!
This has nothing to do with not being able to ‘stand the heat’. The chances are your working style is simply more collaborative and that you thrive in environments where people work together and support each other, for the benefit of everyone. (This excellent article on ‘toxic groups’ sums up some of the warning signs of excessively competitive groups that can damage careers.)
3. How much financial support do you actually need for your work?
If your research requires only a computer and desk space it doesn’t matter if the group you join has a lot or little money, especially if you are joining a university or institute that supports postdocs for conference travel and other career development activities.
If you need expensive equipment or consumables, or require support for field work, you need to establish in advance the actual level of financial support you are likely to receive as a postdoc in this particular group. This is especially important if your own work does not fit exactly with the core work of the group you wish to join. A ‘rich’ group that uses all its resources for other projects will not actually represent a great benefit to your work.
Once you have identified your own core needs you can ask clear questions to establish whether a position you are considering actually meets your requirements.
Questions to ask current or past postdocs and graduate students of your target research group
- Are the majority of the group’s postdocs and graduate students happy and productive?
- Is this a collaborative or competitive environment?
- Signs of hyper-competitive groups are where several people are assigned to reach the same goal, the group is very large with many postdocs and graduate students, and socializing is rare. Talk to someone in, or close to, your target group to find out whether the pressure to perform might be excessive.
- Collaborative groups tend to have group members who get on well, discuss their research openly and help each other with trouble-shooting.
- Does the supervisor still spend time on research and conduct regular group meetings? If not, is there a senior postdoc or researcher who fulfills the supervisor’s role if the head of the group is absent frequently? (‘star’ researchers often have a lot of commitments beyond their research groups).
- Where did former postdocs go from the group and how have their careers progressed?
- What support is available from the parent university or institution for postdocs? For example, the group you are thinking of joining may be small and missing some of the resources you’d ideally like, but it might be located at an institution which provides excellent support you can access such as:
- financial support (for travel, research, start-up costs)
- career development support (training courses)
- specific postdoc support (such as a postdoc office or society).
Questions to ask your prospective supervisor or research group head
- How does my project fit within the main research direction of the group?
- Who else is working on the same or similar projects? (good for support; bad if it becomes a competitive turf war).
- What is the financial support for the project I will be working on? (e.g. is this a fully funded grant, collaborative venture, etc.).
In summary, when considering different options for your next position, go through the steps here to help you make a decision that is best for you and your future career.
This post is the first section of a free guide on the key steps to finding and keeping research positions that best suit your skills and preferences. You can access the full text by introducing yourself via the form below and downloading the guide.