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How important is a postdoc at a prestigious research institution?

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How important is a postdoc at a prestigious research institution?

Postby Sarah J. B. » Sun Apr 12, 2015 3:24 pm

I am currently looking for a post doc position. I currently have 2 opportunities to chose from. One is at a top research institution in a field that interests me, but is not well established, and in a lab that has not looked in great depth at the project I would be working on. It would be for a 2-3 year appointment term.

The second is at a smaller institution in a brand new lab with new investigators (this would be their first independent laboratory, however they would be continuing previously established research). This would be a post doc for up to 5 years. My fiance currently lives in this location and is not very open to moving at the present time due to his career opportunities in the area.

Neither position is in a field that I have any in depth experience in, but I have skills that interest them. I find the project in lab #1 more interesting, but I can get myself interested in almost any project.

My question(s) are as follows:

1. How much would having a high ranking institution play a role in my future career? (I am undecided if I would like to remain in academia or move to industry. But I am leaning towards teaching at a smaller liberal arts college) Is this something that hiring committees take a lot of stock into? Or is it more along the lines of how much I publish while at the post doc?

2. How much of a risk, if any, is it to work in a brand new laboratory? What kinds of questions should I be asking?

3. And now for the more subjective question: How do you balance relationships with a career in science? I have always been a very family oriented person, and had originally planned to move to the location of lab #2 to be with my fiance. Lab #1 contacted me and has been trying to recruit me out of the blue, and so my life plans have been thrown off by considering this option. I would appreciate any input! Thank you.
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Re: How important is a postdoc at a prestigious research institution?

Postby WG » Mon Apr 13, 2015 2:03 pm

With regards to the last part of your post, ask yourself what would be the impact of being long-distance on my relationship? How often would you see each other, and if you have to travel back and forth, what would the cost be from a financial and time perspective? I think having a good social support network is good in any job, especially when it gets stressful. In location #1, would you have friends or family there?

The other comment I have is with the length of the postdoc appointments. 5 years sounds incredibly long, even if they have funding I think it's better to be in a real job. Based on advice I have read in this forum, this is not a good idea if you want to go into industry. Publications are always good, but if you are considering a liberal arts college, you should also think about your teaching credentials. If you have any deficiencies address them before you have to go on the tenure track job market.

I'm also curious as to how much prestige factors into hiring decisions, will be waiting to see the other responses.
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Re: How important is a postdoc at a prestigious research institution?

Postby Craig B. » Mon Apr 13, 2015 3:52 pm

Having an institution with top-flight name recognition on your CV can't hurt you, but is less important than who you are working for and what you accomplish while you're there.

Personally, I think joining the newly established vs the more well established is the more challenging issue. If your first opportunity has a good reputation in the field and a strong track record of producing post docs that go on to faculty (or other desirable) positions, I think it would be a strong choice.

New PIs are a bit of a gamble. They're going to be strongly motivated to establish their independent program, so there may be less willing or able to help you build yours. They also likely have a smaller professional network, which can hurt when it comes to your job search down the road.

On the other hand, if the new lab is doing truly innovative work in a newer or in demand field, being one of the first postdocs through the lab could help you enter a hot market. Additional, if you've ever considered the staff-scientist role, this could be an ideal situation to get your foot in the door for that career track.

I'm going to echo WG's comments about liberal arts college--if you're seriously interested, be sure that your teaching credentials are in good shape. If you need additional experience, be upfront to your potential PI(s) before you take the job to see if they can accommodate you.
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Re: How important is a postdoc at a prestigious research institution?

Postby Dave Walker » Mon Apr 13, 2015 5:28 pm

I can add a little from experience.

SarahJB wrote:1. How much would having a high ranking institution play a role in my future career? (I am undecided if I would like to remain in academia or move to industry. But I am leaning towards teaching at a smaller liberal arts college) Is this something that hiring committees take a lot of stock into? Or is it more along the lines of how much I publish while at the post doc?


First of all -- and I apologize if this sounds trite -- you really should know what you want to do with your life before plunging into a postdoc. 5 years is long, but not uncommon in our day. This is a conversation you shouldn't push off, lest you become a career postdoc...your postdoc should square you up to your next job, not give you more time to think about it. (Personal experience there.)

Institution is important, but secondary to the kind of training you want to receive. Some institutions are better-equipped for certain kinds of research. If you are confident you can crank out a top tier publication, it won't matter which college you're from. But if you don't....it might make the difference.

SarahJB wrote:2. How much of a risk, if any, is it to work in a brand new laboratory? What kinds of questions should I be asking?


New labs are a gamble, most of all because the leadership hasn't been trained/tested. Some people like the energy of a new lab fighting for importance; I think it's an excellent chance to negotiate. I've found new PIs remember most what it's like to be a postdoc, and you have a better chance to commit them to your career development which can help you down the road. Otherwise it's mostly drawbacks -- a race for funding and recognition, and usually they have less manpower than they would like. Depends on the field of course.

SarahJB wrote:3. And now for the more subjective question: How do you balance relationships with a career in science? I have always been a very family oriented person, and had originally planned to move to the location of lab #2 to be with my fiance. Lab #1 contacted me and has been trying to recruit me out of the blue, and so my life plans have been thrown off by considering this option. I would appreciate any input! Thank you.


Lots of experience with this one. I believe every relationship is built on something different, but it's built on something. You will have to decide what you need to do to keep it going, but the low pay and "bottom of the totem pole" status of a postdoc makes long distance very hard. Being unable to afford tickets to see one another, in my situation, was the worst. It felt unfair, and made me question why we subjected ourselves to life science research in the first place.

I think this circles back to my first point: if you know what you want to do, and what your career will be like in 2-5 years, you can plan your steps and minimize the pain of a postdoc. To balance relationships and science, in my opinion, you need a plan.
"The single factor that differentiates Nobel laureates from other scientists is training with another Nobel laureate." -- Sol Snyder
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