Begging for a Postdoc, Part 4

June 01, 2006

Four criteria have guided my search for a postdoctoral position in the biological sciences. I want to be in a laboratory:

  • Where the research will absolutely fascinate me.

  • Located in a fairly large city where my wife's business will thrive.

  • Situated, for once, in a place where my wife ("Sydney") and I both want to live.

  • And housed at an institute or a university with an excellent reputation for quality research.

That last one was probably the most stringent, but it was also the one I was most flexible about. I interviewed at four laboratories, and all four met all of my criteria. If none of those interviews led to a postdoc, I was willing to look at less-prestigious laboratories but I was unwilling to change my preferences on location. Hey, I'm only a postdoc, and my wife and I need her income.

Two of the four labs quickly rose to the top of my list, and Sydney's list, too. The one that I preferred, fortunately, was in a city that Sydney also favored. Two days after I returned home, that lab offered me a job, and my heart began to race. I had an offer for a position I actually wanted, and it was good enough to knock the other prospect completely off the table as far as I was concerned. I was, to put it mildly, ecstatic.

Naturally, there was a catch. My potential new boss needed a fairly quick reply from me. If I didn't accept the position, the offer would go to another candidate, and he needed as much time as possible to prepare a move. My natural inclination was to accept the position and be done with it. My current adviser, however, was a little more pragmatic:

Adviser: So, you're being pressured to make a quick decision?

Me: Yeah, can I go? Can I? Can I? I'll finish my Ph.D. there and everything. I promise!

Adviser: I think you should ask for more time. This is a big decision, and if you're wanted that badly, you should be able to have a little more time to think it over.

The scenario reminded me of an episode of The Simpsons where Homer is looking at buying a military-surplus deep fryer. The seller says that it can flash-fry a buffalo in 45 seconds, and Homer whines "45 seconds? But I want it now!" Both Homer and I needed some patience -- a little more time was a good thing to make sure we made the right decisions.

My prospective employer granted me that time, but while I was still thinking things through, a professor at the second laboratory I liked also offered me a position.

Now I really had a decision to make. Both labs met all four of my criteria, and I could see myself equally happy and successful at either.

My decision would have been easy if there had been one little thing that stood out and made either laboratory an obvious choice. But they were about as different as any two labs in somewhat similar fields of biology can be.

Offer No. 1 was at a very prestigious research institute in a large city, where Sydney and I would both be excited to live. The research being done there was exactly what I was interested in pursuing, too. However, it was a new lab, on the small side, and the adviser had yet to earn tenure.

Offer No. 2 came from a lab located at one of the most prestigious research universities in the country -- one that many people would think I was a fool for not going to if I indeed turned it down. My potential boss there was a well-established professor whose lab consistently turned out research papers that were published in the top biological journals.

Unlike the other lab, this one was quite large and already full of postdocs. I knew that could be a positive or a negative. I could have a lot of support and collaboration or I could find myself in a very cutthroat environment, struggling to survive. However, the research being done in the lab, while fascinating, wasn't exactly in the direction I wanted to pursue. And the city where the university was located came in second in this two-horse race.

The bottom line: Lab 1 was very exciting but unproven and would put a bit more pressure on me to perform. Sort of a big-fish, small-pond scenario. Lab 2 was somewhat less exciting, but the resources would be guaranteed, and the pedigree I would establish there would open any door down the road. I would not necessarily be as important to the success of that lab; if I failed to produce, it wouldn't be as detrimental to Lab 2 as it would be to Lab 1.

I did the usual agonizing for several days, but ultimately realized that even with all of Lab 2's pluses, my original inclination toward Lab 1 remained strong. Sydney thought it was no contest; for her needs and desires, Lab 1 easily beat Lab 2. I decided to go back to talk to my adviser.

Me: Lab 1 is awesome, but Lab 2 rocks, too. What do you think?

Adviser: Well, the research at Lab 1 is more of what you see yourself doing in the long term, right?

Me: Yeah, it is.

Adviser: Then my recommendation would be to go with Lab 1.

And that was that. A straight answer, and a confirmation of what I had been thinking. I took another day or two to talk with my wife before e-mailing the adviser of Lab 1 to accept the job. I eagerly awaited a reply.

And waited a little more.

Several days later I called, and left a message.

And waited a little more.

Finally, I received an e-mail from an assistant telling me that the adviser was out of town, and would reply as soon as possible. When the reply came, I breathed a massive sigh of relief. My search for a postdoc was over -- no more cold contacts, interviews, or reference letters. I had a position I was excited about, in a place where my wife and I both wanted to live.

Now I just have to finish that Ph.D. thing.

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