Begging for a Postdoc, Part 3

March 30, 2006

Four days. Three cities. Four campuses. That's not the touring schedule of a hot new band; it was my interview schedule.

My hunt for a postdoctoral research position in the biological sciences had really hit high gear. After a couple months of e-mail messages involving scheduling and reference letters, it was finally time to actually try to land a position.

All four of my interviews were in the same region of the United States, so I scheduled them sequentially, thinking that I could just hop from one interview to the next. My itinerary worked like this: I flew to the first city Monday, spent the night, and had my first interview on Tuesday. Then I caught a train to the next city, spent the night there, and had my second interview on Wednesday. One more train ride that night took me to the third city, where I had two separate interviews on Thursday and Friday, before catching a redeye flight back across the country.

Armed with that "simple" plan, I made it to my first interview Tuesday morning without difficulty. Here is how a typical interview went:

  • 9 a.m.: Meet with professor. Discuss my interest in the lab and potential research projects.

  • 10 a.m.: Meet with members of lab. Discuss my interest in the lab and potential research projects.

  • 11 a.m.: Present my graduate research to the lab.

  • Noon: If not still presenting my research, have lunch with either the professor or lab members. Discuss my interest in the lab and potential research projects.

  • 1 p.m.: Meet with more members of lab. Discuss my interest in the lab and potential research projects.

  • 2 p.m.: Meet with professor again. Discuss my ... well, you know.

Each interview would end at 3:30 or 4 p.m., and I would be off to the next stop, where, at my hotel, I would read articles that came out of the lab, devise my questions, and prepare a repeat performance. If that schedule seems repetitive, that's because it was. I found myself asking people the same questions over and over. After the first few chats, I wanted to just hand out my FAQ list for lab members:

  • What do you work on?

  • Do you like working with professor X?

  • Do you like living in this city?

  • Are there any good microbreweries here?

The silver lining in all that was that I was able to spend every waking minute of my day (when I wasn't reporting back to my wife) talking, reading, and thinking about biology. That may not seem like something all that different from a normal day, but usually in a lab, a majority of my time is spent performing experiments and thinking critically about my research -- not talking and trying to sell my merits as a researcher to others.

Talking to the professors in charge of the labs was, not surprisingly, far more stressful than meeting with their postdocs and students. I found myself telling the professors everything from my ideas for research projects (which I anticipated), to my career goals (also anticipated), to my working relationship with my current adviser (not as anticipated).

The time I had spent learning the specifics of the professors' research areas paid off as I felt as if I was able to have constructive discussions with each of them. Several times, my research proposals were met with a response like "No one knows the exact answer yet, but I think that would be worth looking into."

Once, I even had a professor tell me that he had a researcher already working on the exact question I proposed, and the initial data supported my hypothesis. Although that meant I wouldn't be able to research that question if I were to join his lab, it was a validation of my ability to think critically and propose interesting and relevant research directions. I think it impressed the professor as well.

Probably the biggest challenge of the interviews was getting a feel for each lab in just one day. Besides asking questions, I tried to watch for a few things: How were the interactions between the adviser and his or her lab members? How did the lab members interact with each other? Or, if the lab was pretty large, did the lab members actually know each other?

It was interesting to see how different labs handled my interview. One gave me a detailed itinerary ahead of time. Another lab -- well, let's just say it was a different situation:

Professor (to a lab member): This is David Peters. He's a prospective postdoc. Why don't you talk to him for a while?

Lab member: Err ... OK. What's your name again?

At a third lab, I interviewed with a senior professor who was in charge of several other younger professors. I met with several of those professors instead of with the actual researchers who worked directly under the senior professor. It seemed as if he was pressuring me to consider working with one of the faculty members whose research I actually had limited interest in. Needless to say, that situation dampened my desire to work there.

Prior to my trip, my adviser had suggested that I schedule a day off in the middle of my interviews. By the end of the first day, I was thinking maybe I should have followed his advice. By the end of the second day, I knew I should have. And by the third day? Let's just say there was a moment when I wondered if I could convincingly fake a cold over the phone and get out of the final interview.

In the end, I survived all four interviews and had as sound a sleep as one can have while flying coach on a major airline. With the interviews behind me, it is now time to wait for offers and start weighing my options. Assuming I have options.

David Peters is the pseudonym of a Ph.D. candidate in biology at a research university in the West. He is chronicling his search this academic year for a postdoctoral position.